New Times,
New Thinking.

Spinning the story of war

Whether keeping up appearances or managing expectations, Moscow and Kyiv are both trying to shape the narrative in Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

Vladimir Putin did not invent the idea of a great parade in Moscow to mark victory against the Nazis. Although during Soviet times the important date was the November anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, occasional military parades marked the big anniversaries of the end of the Second World War. Annual parades on 9 May started under Boris Yeltsin in 1995 but it was Putin who gave these parades their importance, an opportunity to demonstrate his country’s growing military might, including its most advanced and deadliest hardware, and to promote his nationalist and militaristic cult of the Great Patriotic War. 

Symbolism of this sort can backfire. It was used to invoke a time of terrible sacrifices and historic triumphs. This should be important when Russia is at war again, except that now the sacrifice is combined with declining power and an absence of triumph. The problem was evident last year, when, as I then wrote, the parade was anti-climactic and Putin’s speech downbeat. It was a victory parade without victories.

This was even more true with this year’s event. Russia’s stocks of weapons and reserves of manpower have been depleted and what is spare has been sent to the front. An additional complicating factor was the occasional but awkward appearance of Ukrainian drones over Russia. Outside of Moscow “six Russian regions, occupied Crimea, and 21 cities” cancelled their parades because of “security concerns”.

To say the Moscow parade was scaled down would be an understatement. Twelve-thousand marching troops were on show as against 15,000 last year, many cadets and paramilitaries, with elite units notably absent. There was no flypast. In 2021 there were 197 sundry vehicles in the parade; last year they still managed 131. This year 51. This included only one tank. A single T-34-85, left over from 1945, was on display, compared with the modern T-90Ms and T-14s last year. Presumably there were some more tracked vehicles available but the authorities may have been sensitive to accusations that anything combat capable should have been at the front. Also missing this year was the Immortal Regiment march, held in memory of those killed in the Second World War, in which millions of civilians across the country carry photographs of relatives who fought. Here the concern was that people might take the opportunity to march with pictures of loved ones killed in the current war.

This was symbolism turned sour, an occasion used by Putin in the past to remind Russians of former glories and demonstrate its current strength now conveying weakness and disappointment.

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No new victories

However frustrated Putin felt last year about the way the war was unfolding he has even less reason to be positive now. Russia is further away from defeating Ukraine. Instead, its forces are bracing themselves for an enemy offensive.

Last year, following the withdrawal from Kyiv, Putin might have been consoled by the prospect of a determined push to complete the takeover of the Donbas in the east. This push achieved limited gains only to be followed by a retreat from Kharkiv Oblast and the evacuation of Kherson city in the south. After these setbacks there was a renewed Russian offensive, starting early this year, but that is almost over, with little to show for all the effort and the heavy casualties.

Last year, in the build-up to the 9 May parade, there were reports that Putin had demanded some timely victories. As it drew closer it was clear that there would be little new to celebrate, other than possibly the capture of the port city of Mariupol, for which Russian forces had been battling since late February. Even this prize was denied Putin as the Ukrainian defenders hung on for a little longer. This time Bakhmut was the anticipated prize. But here too Ukrainian forces have hung on, despite Russian forces obliterating most of the city.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner mercenary group, even threatened to withdraw his badly-mauled men from the fight, after standing in front of rows of corpses and accusing Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the commander-in-chief (whom he described as “scumbags”), of deliberately denying him ammunition to finish the job. Unsurprisingly Prigozhin reported on 7 May that, just in time, he had been promised the ammunition. Yet just after the victory parade was over, another video appeared in which he lamented that he had yet to receive the promised ammunition, revealed that his Wagner group had stayed in the battle because of a threat of treason charges, and reported that Russian army units had fled as Ukrainian forces were “tearing up the flanks” in Bakhmut. This successful counterattack has now been confirmed by Ukrainian sources.

Last year, when it became apparent that Russia was suffering from manpower shortages, one question was whether Putin might use the opportunity of his Victory Day speech to order full mobilisation. But Putin could not then accept the necessity of such a drastic step. Eventually late last September he decided he had no choice and mobilisation was ordered. Now, having lost so many of the mobilised troops in recent operations, and with his forces stretched across the long front line of some 1,500km, there are discussions of at least one more round of mobilisation and possibly more. According to the New York Times, Shoigu, in a private conversation, vowed “to carry out more mobilisations if necessary”. He spoke of Russia being able to conscript “as many as 25 million fighting-age men”. This not only involves a generous interpretation of “fighting age” but even if it was at all realistic, and these men could be properly supplied and trained, it would add yet more strain on the Russian economy and affect popular support for the war.

Blaming the West

Last year in his speech Putin provided his standard rationale. His timely action had prevented Ukraine, backed by Nato countries, from launching attacks against Crimea and the two enclaves in the Donbas. This year in a short speech he returned to the familiar themes of “Western globalist elites” sowing Russophobia and aggressive nationalism, presenting the Ukrainian people as “hostages to a state coup” and Western ambitions. According to this narrative Russia is the victim, now facing an existential threat. He promised that having “repulsed international terrorism, we will protect the inhabitants of Donbas, we will ensure our security”. All this sits uneasily with the initial Russian aggression and the attempted annexation of four oblasts plus Crimea.

The emphasis on the threat from the West helps to explain the setbacks and makes Russia’s fight more heroic, albeit more hopeless. It cannot be clear to the average Russian how the country can win such a war, even with 25 million men to spare. The promised protection for the Donbas also sits uneasily with the loss of thousands of men from this area drafted to fight for Russia and how much of it has been battered and depopulated because of the crudeness of Russian tactics. This does not mean that rebellion and mutiny are in the air. Few in Moscow can imagine a system without Putin. The technocrats keep it going even as the nationalist hardliners demand more forceful action.

Ukrainian cities regularly face barrages of drones and missiles from Russia, intensified in recent days. Although most are shot down, even a few getting though adds to the number of civilians killed and maimed. The main success of a strike on 7 May was to destroy a food warehouse in Odesa used by the Red Cross for humanitarian purposes. While this is business as usual for Russia, however, the attacks are no longer all one way. Ukraine has long been frustrated by the reluctance of its Western supporters to provide its forces with long-range artillery and modern aircraft on the grounds that they do not want to be associated with any direct attacks on Russia. This means, for example, that Ukrainian forces have been able to do little to stop the regular bombardment of Kherson by Russian forces on the other side of Dnieper River, or to hit fuel and ammunition depots, and command posts, now kept 120km away, out of range. But they are starting to show that they can hit targets within Russia, and also in Crimea, such as air bases, oil depots and railway lines, most recently with long-range drones, as part of their efforts to disrupt Russian operations.

Some of these have had a material impact. Others have a more psychological effect, demonstrating that Russian forces cannot fully defend the homeland, and adding to anxieties in Russia about the direction of the war. The most curious episode was the recent drone attack on the Kremlin. At first this looked very suspicious, leading to early allegations it was a false flag. But this did not really make sense. There was the curiosity of the two men pictured climbing up the dome and the clarity of the images, but that was later explained by one drone triggering activity before a second came along.

There were two big problems with the false flag argument. First, Russia had no need to manufacture excuses to attack Ukraine. Russia was unlikely to escalate to nuclear level on the grounds of a bit of drone shrapnel bouncing off a Kremlin dome. Second, it was embarrassing. Ukraine was not supposed to be able to reach this far. There are still mysteries about whether this was really a long-range drone launched from Ukrainian territory, which would be a stretch, or was somehow organised from within Russian territory, which would represent an even more monumental lapse of Russian security.  

Last year Putin spoke as a new offensive to take the Donbas was getting under way. Now the big issue is the timing, direction, and shape of the much-advertised Ukrainian offensive. Both commands are looking at the weather forecasts to see when the ground will have hardened, assessing the state of Russian fortifications and the options for Ukrainian manoeuvres.

Expectation management

Kyiv is currently engaged in some complicated expectation management. Officials suggest that they are waiting for the ground to harden, training of the new brigades to be completed, and Western equipment to be delivered (although Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, has claimed that almost all the combat vehicles promised have now reached Ukraine, including over 1,550 armoured vehicles, 230 tanks and “vast amounts” of ammunition). Seeking to dampen down speculation, the Ukrainian defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, recently gave interviews warning about overestimating what the “counteroffensive campaign” could achieve, and cautioning that it might not be as “huge” as expected. There are concerns about the sufficiency of ammunition stocks and air defences. However flawed their military effort has been in many areas, in others the Russians have upped their game, for example in electronic warfare techniques and improving their bombs.

Reznikov’s deputy, Volodymyr Havrylov, spoke optimistically, predicting that the counteroffensive could lead to the complete “collapse” of the Russian military or even its economy, because of the “panic” that would follow as Russian people realise that they had been fed “a false picture of what is actually happening on the ground”. Reznikov himself has spoken more modestly of a hope that the offensive will liberate villages and cities and cut Russia’s logistic chains. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, argues that liberating any territory would be “a success”, adding: “I can’t tell you which towns or cities, which borders are a significant success for us and which are average… only because I don’t want to prepare Russia for how, in which directions, and where and when we will be.”

As with all such operations the issue is not just what can be achieved with the first blow but whether it can be sustained. Petr Pavel, the Czech president, with the added authority that comes with being a former chairman of Nato’s military committee, sounded cautious after meeting Zelensky and his ministers. He noted the gaps in Ukrainian capabilities and the loss of any element of surprise, and reported that he had urged Ukrainian ministers not to be “pushed into a faster pace before they are fully prepared”. Ukraine, he judged, could not afford failure, “because it’s extremely demanding in terms of putting together personnel equipment, ammunition logistics, fuel financing. It will simply be one chance this year, so it has to be successful.”

The Ukrainian hope appears to be that each piece of territory gained will help to create a virtuous cycle as Nato countries see that their support for Ukraine yields results, and so provide yet more support, especially aircraft and longer-range artillery, which in turn will make it easier to achieve more gains. Mike Kofman and Rob Lee assess the prospects for the current offensive in this piece, making a compelling case that the West needs to think beyond it, even if progress is made, so that Ukraine can cope with a longer war. The worst outcome for Kyiv would be a vicious cycle whereby setbacks lead to consequential Western disillusionment and calls for it to come to terms with a permanent loss of territory.

What next?

While this may be Ukraine’s best chance to seize the initiative, Russia’s may have passed, at least for a while. Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, observed last week that Russia will need many more troops and weapons before it can manage another major offensive operation of its own. The conventional wisdom remains that Russia can keep going whatever success Ukraine may have. Putin hopes to do this not so much because of the great victories to come but because of his fear of the reckoning that will come with the end of the war, as he will have to explain why so much was sacrificed for so little. He also boxed himself in when he moved to annex such a large chunk of Ukrainian territory and then demanded that Kyiv recognise this as a pre-condition for any peace negotiations. Meanwhile the battlefield losses mount and (unlike last year) Russia’s economic position deteriorates. Putin has no end game other than possibly a conviction that if he can keep his country committed to this futile war then Western countries may tire of supporting Ukraine.

Last year I wondered (erroneously) whether Putin’s focus on the Donbas and away from his early ambition to subjugate all of Ukraine might be an opening to revive the peace talks between the two countries. This year he claimed to look forward to “a peaceful, free and stable future”, but no proposals are on the table. The new factor in the equation is China, which has positioned itself to play a mediating role as the only country with any leverage over Russia, an advantage that the Biden administration acknowledges. There is now a developing view that later this year, once the impact of Ukraine’s offensive can be assessed, there will be a major push for a ceasefire.

It is hard to see how there can be any basis for a full peace settlement for some time or confidence that any truce will be more than temporary as both sides prepare for the next round of fighting. At the same time we should not take for granted what risks becoming a consensus expectation of a political stalemate almost irrespective of what happens on the ground. I would not assume that Putin can continue to brush off more significant setbacks, especially if the Russian position in Crimea starts to be threatened. To be sure, if the Ukrainian offensive fizzles without a breakthrough then the war might continue, even at a lower level of intensity, into next year. This is why the coming weeks and months are viewed in Kyiv with apprehension as well as hope. Either way, Putin will still have achieved nothing by starting this war. If it is still under way this time next year, the next Victory Parade will be an even more forlorn spectacle.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack Comment is Freed.

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