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Putin's Victory Day Speech: The Significance Of What Was Not Said

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Victory Day in central Moscow on May 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Victory Day in central Moscow on May 9.

In the end, what was notable about Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech during Victory Day ceremonies was what he did not say.

He did not declare a general mobilization for all-out war against Ukraine.

He did not declare victory in a war that is now in its 75th day.

He made no threat about Russia's nuclear arsenal, something he and other officials have done repeatedly in recent weeks.

He mentioned Nazis but not "de-Nazification," one of the Kremlin's declared goals for the war.

He did not even make a general call to rally around the flag, to gird the Russian population for great sacrifice in, or because of, the war.

For close watchers of Putin's presidency, his May 9 speech had been shaping up to be one of the most consequential of his 22 years as Russia's preeminent leader -- a harbinger of more war, or possibly peace, to come.

If major declarations were forthcoming, Victory Day -- a sacrosanct holiday for millions in Russia and a time when Putin is at the center of global attention -- would seem to be the likeliest venue.

Like in many of his past Victory Day speeches, Putin honored the millions of Soviet citizens who died fighting Nazi Germany. As in some, though not all, of his past speeches, he used the moment to bash the United States.

With the Kremlin now waging the largest land war in Europe since World War II, many observers sought clues as to how Putin would frame the war in Ukraine, which is by all accounts -- except for his own and a few others -- is not going well for Russia.

In the end, the 12-minute speech offered little or no clarity. It also offered no transformative policy shift on the biggest foreign policy crisis of Putin's leadership.

"My first reaction is that he is in for a long haul, but expects to muddle through in the same way as after the annexation of Crimea, yet with a territorial buffer in southern Ukraine," said Vladislav Zubok, a Russian Cold War expert and professor at the London School of Economics. He was referring to Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014 and its seizure of control of parts of southern Ukraine since the invasion on February 24.

"Another option is possible: with the iron curtain around Russia built by Western powers' sanctions, Putin has secured his own regime, and will be satisfied with it for years and years," Zubok said in an e-mail. "After all he is already [almost] 70. This option, however, presupposes a completely cold and cynical leader, whose rhetoric of sacrifice and victory is just one big 'bla-bla.'"

The annual parade pomp included the usual appearance of hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and other military personnel marching past the reviewing stand on the Kremlin's eastern walls, along with the belching roars of tanks, armored vehicles, and truck-borne intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Russian BMD-4M infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-MDM armored personnel carriers drive on Red Square during the Victory Day parade.
Russian BMD-4M infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-MDM armored personnel carriers drive on Red Square during the Victory Day parade.

Unusually, there was no "air parade" of bombers, fighter jets, and helicopters shooting across the skies above central Moscow, for many a highlight of the annual event. Its absence wasn't necessarily indicative of some major event, though its cancelation was announced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov mere minutes before the ceremonies began. He blamed the weather.

Putin's speech contained important elements of the mythologizing of World War II, whose memory has been stretched -- or distorted, as some Russian observers argue: "the cult of Victory," as caustic commentator and Kremlin critic Yulia Latynina described it.

"This cult of war has nothing to do with the real history of World War II," she wrote. "It is a cult of the new Russian totalitarianism, the ideology of which is very simple."

As many as 27 million Soviet citizens died in the four years of battling Nazi Germany, a loss that has been seared into generations since.

Putin paid homage to that loss. "Victory Day is near and dear to each of us. There is no family in Russia that was not scorched by the Great Patriotic War. Its memory never fades," he said in his speech.

By contrast, the scope of Russia's losses in the Ukraine war have been shrouded from the Russian public. March 27 was the last time the Defense Ministry released any official death toll, and that tally -- 1,351 -- is just a fraction of what Ukrainian and Western officials say is the true toll, estimated at more than 15,000.

On the battlefield in Ukraine, Russian forces were thwarted in the early days of the invasion, failing to seize Kyiv or other major cities, before recalibrating, and shifting troops to an offensive in the eastern Donbas region.

That offensive is still ongoing and shows little sign of major achievements for Russia's military.

Even the port city of Mariupol, which Russian commanders made a priority due to its strategic location and other reasons, and expected to capture weeks ago, remains contested, despite Putin's own declaration on April 21 of victory there.

In the address, he did not mention Mariupol -- or any other territory that Russia has occupied -- by name.

"My interpretation is that it was a flat affair, because almost anything he could have done would be difficult," said Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia. "There is no triumph, for example, in Mariupol. I actually don't think he knows what to do."

"It's a feeling that something is wrong, and they've not any idea about how to fix it. That's the takeaway I have," he told RFE/RL.

A growing number of Western military experts say the high death toll among Russian troops, as well as high rates of equipment loss, is a major impediment to any claim of a decisive victory -- a fundamental problem that likely can only be solved with more troops.

That means either calling up reservists, or sending relatively young, inexperienced conscripts into the fight -- or, more extreme, announcing a general, mass mobilization of society.

Some observers speculated Putin might do this, couching it in the historic symbolism of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is frequently called in Russia.

That didn't happen, possibly because it would involve declaring war, something the Kremlin has refused to call the invasion to date, instead describing it with the euphemistic term "special military operation."

"Putin used to excel at posturing and manipulation and bluffing -- and appears lost in managing a real war, entirely of his own making," said Pavel Baev, a political scientist and research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. "Even calling the war by its real name, which could have been logical in the context of connecting it with the [Great Patriotic War], is a step too far for him.

"Announcing even a partial mobilization would mean accepting a heavier responsibility than the execution of the 'special operation' implies, and the hollow speech signifies a major failure of leadership, which is particularly apparent in comparison with Zelenskiy's outstanding performance," Baev said, referring to Ukraine's social-media-savvy president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In addition to mourning the Soviet heroism and losses from 77 years ago, Putin brandished other recurring tropes:

He lashed out at the West, at NATO, and in particular at the United States, accusing it of "humiliating not only the whole world, but also its satellites, which have to pretend that they do not notice anything and meekly swallow it all."

And just as Soviet forces helped defeat Nazism in Europe, he asserted, Russian forces were forced to act against Ukraine in a "preemptive rebuff to aggression" by what he described as Western-backed neo-Nazis and "Banderites." That's а slur used by Russian officials against Ukrainians, referring to 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

"Everything indicated that a clash with neo-Nazis, with Banderites, on whom the United States and their junior partners relied, would be inevitable," he said.

Kyiv, Western governments, and critics of the Kremlin contend that Putin's attempts to justify the invasion as a preemptive strike are entirely unfounded. Officials have argued repeatedly that neither Ukraine nor NATO planned to attack Russia, and that his efforts to liken Ukrainians or their leaders to Nazis are groundless and absurd.

In a speech given shortly after Putin spoke, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said that it was Putin and his generals who are "and mirroring the fascism and tyranny of 77 years ago, repeating the errors of the last century's totalitarian regime."

While he spoke of neo-Nazis, Putin made no sweeping pronouncements about the "de-Nazification" of Ukraine -- something he had declared was of paramount importance as he announced the beginning of the invasion on February 24.

Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political scientist, says he did not expect Putin to make a declaration of war or of a general mobilization, contending that making either move would tarnish his image and underscore questions about his handling of the war.

"If you start a war, then this means admitting that the 'special operation' did not end or ended in nothing, or it turned out to be insufficient. One way or another, it is perceived as a defect," Oreshkin told Current Time.

"And if you announce mobilization, it's the same thing," he said. "It means that [Russia and its military] did not have enough strength, that Ukraine put up unexpectedly powerful resistance, and now we need to invite new people, recruit new manpower."

So, a declaration of war or a mobilization would be something of an admission of defeat, he suggested.

But the most telling omission, perhaps -- Putin did not declare victory, either.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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