By Leonid Bershidsky
Victory Day, May 9, commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, remains the most important official holiday in Putin’s Russia and a cornerstone of his ideology. This year, Moscow will celebrate it again with a huge military parade in Red Square and a speech by Putin to the troops, which will take place as normal despite last week’s Kremlin drone incident (Ukraine denies involvement).
However, Russia has rarely been as far from victory as it was today. Putin’s biggest problem is that hardly anyone except the oppressed Russian population fears him anymore.
One year and two months after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army is on the defensive. After setbacks last fall that saw Russia lose swaths of territory it held in the Kharkiv region in the north and the Kherson region in the south to Ukraine, it spent the winter digging in along its front line of 1,000 kilometers, with an aggressive action that will be limited to a failed campaign of missile attacks to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and frontal attacks against Ukrainian fortifications in the eastern Donbas region. There, the only city the invaders were able to capture was the small town of Solentar. Although hard-pressed, Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, Marinka, Avdiyivka, and Vukhledar are still holding out, to varying degrees.
Now Russian war supporters fearfully await a Ukrainian counterattack. Rumors are circulating on the Telegram app about a plan to launch multiple drones bought by Ukrainians in China into Russian trenches. Ukrainian troops are massing at multiple points along the front, in a threat that suggests they will try to cross the Dnieper to recapture Russia’s main conquest, the land bridge to Crimea. Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, a veteran of Russia’s 2014 campaign against Ukraine and now a critic of the Kremlin, was the first to predict that Russia would lose the war.
“Even for a ‘dignified, not fatal defeat’ (in which the enemies abandon their plans for the complete disintegration of Russia) we will have to fight long and hard,” Strelkov said on his Telegram channel, which is followed by almost 800,000 subscribers. .
It’s not just “angry patriots” like Strelkov who feel things are not right. The leaked recordings, purportedly of private conversations involving prominent Russian businessmen, reveal anger, if not at the invasion itself, then at the Kremlin’s bungling of it and the long-term damage done to Russia’s international ties. the Russian business community.
Ordinary Russians tell pollsters that they support the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. After all, dissent can be costly, as thousands of court rulings against those who disagree with the war show. But when asked more specific questions, most are reluctant to donate even small sums of money to the military and expect a new wave of conscription soon, a sign of the pessimistic mood about the progress of the war. The efforts of the propaganda machine and the repression apparatus have failed to convince most Russians that they have a real interest in the invasion. The idea of Russia’s existential war against the West may be appealing on some level, but not on a personal one.
Officials in Russian regions, especially those close to Ukraine, are also becoming increasingly concerned as drone strikes, artillery strikes, etc. they become more frequent. Last week two trains were derailed by bombs in the Bryansk region, and towns and villages are now almost routinely shelled. In some areas, security concerns led to the cancellation of the Victory Day parades.
Even the most active participants in the invasion, the commanders of Russia’s regular, paramilitary and irregular forces, are barely united in the face of formidable Ukrainian resistance. Last week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner’s mercenary army, appeared in a video with the corpses of his men in the background, threatening to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut unless the army’s ammunition supply was increased. The top commanders who, Prigozhin said, were deliberately depriving Wagner of artillery fire “would eat the guts of our fighters in hell,” he roared.
Even the most active players in the invasion, the commanders of the Russian forces, are not particularly united in the face of staunch Ukrainian resistance. Last week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner’s mercenary army, appeared in a video with the corpses of his men in the background, threatening to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut unless the Russian army’s ammunition supply increased.
Although Prigozhin backed down on his threats – but not his rhetoric – after apparently receiving some promises from the military command, his harsh attacks on the generals do not inspire confidence in a Russian victory.
In world politics, Russia has failed to build support for an anti-Western coalition of emerging countries in Asia and Africa to offset the West’s determined support for Ukraine. Earlier this month, India and China, Russia’s alleged strategic partners, voted in favor of a United Nations resolution that, among other things, described Russia as an aggressor and raised concerns about further expansionist moves by Russia. this. Although China later denied supporting that wording, the vote, which followed Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, will not be interpreted in the Kremlin as a friendly gesture, especially since there is no military aid from China. and Major Chinese companies are reluctant to supply Russia with electronics that they can no longer buy in the West due to sanctions.
Another potential ally, South Africa, has warned the Kremlin that it will have to abide by an International Criminal Court order to arrest Putin if the Russian president attends a summit there in August. South Africa has proposed that Putin participate digitally.
Even the former pro-Russian leaders of the post-Soviet countries are acting more independently. The leaders of Armenia and Kazakhstan seem to have forgotten that they recently needed Russian military support in threatening situations and are openly looking elsewhere for allies. They reportedly accepted Putin’s invitations to Moscow’s May 9 celebrations. Some post-Soviet leaders will be the only foreign dignitaries present, but they don’t seem to show any real solidarity with the Russian dictator.
Due to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia now borders on countries that are hostile to it (such as Finland, which just joined NATO) or countries that are downgrading their support for Putin’s war.
Even the apparent resilience of the Russian economy (GDP is expected to resume growth in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to Bloomberg estimates) points to a lack of outright defeat rather than victory: export revenues have shrunk and traditional markets have been lost.
Putin doesn’t have much to celebrate on Victory Day. In just one year of a criminal, poorly planned and poorly managed military campaign, he alone crushed Russia in every respect. Worst of all for a dictator who relies on threats and violence to maintain Russian state prestige at home and abroad, his ability to draw red lines has been constantly damaged. The attacks on Russian infrastructure and public figures – most recently, the pro-war writer Zakhar Prilepin, who narrowly survived a car explosion last week – have not provoked any kind of retaliation. Russia has also lost its ability to control the former vassals of the Soviet Union, and its role vis-a-vis the major countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa is increasingly that of a supplicant rather than a world power.
A clear disconnect has emerged between the humiliations Russia can suffer on and off the battlefield and its ability to respond. A nuclear attack would be blown out of proportion to the insults he has received, and without that latest trump card, Putin can do little more than issue empty threats. Rather than a range of escalation options, he seems capable of only literally the nuclear threat, which could doom his regime, and perhaps Russia itself, by inviting a corresponding response. Resorting to this last desperate act would not bring victory in either scenario.
So what could Putin say to Russia and the world on Victory Day, in fact, a day against the backdrop of defeat? The answer is that his words no longer matter. Winning even a short-lived home victory requires action, and the Ukrainian counter-offensive will soon show what Putin’s Russia is still capable of in this area.