Brace for May 9

On Russia’s Victory Day, we might find out whether Putin intends to extend his war to the rest of the planet.

Russian soldiers march in a parade.
Pavel Bednyakov / Sputnik / AP

About the author: Tom Nichols is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

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In the West, May 9 usually passes without much notice. In Russia, however, it marks the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. Russia’s Victory Day is a time for military parades and solemn remembrances, something like if the United States rolled Veterans Day and Memorial Day into one gigantic military-patriotic celebration. And even that wouldn’t capture what Victory Day means to Russians and to the Kremlin authorities; the United States, after all, did not suffer the near-death experience of losing 27 million people.

It is also a day for speeches, and Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to give one. During the Cold War, Sovietologists would pay attention to such public declarations, looking for clues to Kremlin policy. Over the past few decades, this kind of analysis fell by the wayside: Going to Putin’s meetings at Valdai and asking him questions directly was easier than to try to parse his public declarations.

This year, however, the world will be listening to Putin’s speech more carefully. Russia is once again in a major war in Europe, this time as the aggressor, as Putin pursues a mad crusade to establish some sort of Christian Slavic empire to replace the Soviet Union. On May 9, Putin is likely to provide a clue about whether he intends to bring that crusade to an end or extend it to a planet-threatening war.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace, for one, has expressed the concern that Putin will use May 9 to press for the mass mobilization of the Russian people. This would imply not only an expansion of the war against Ukraine, but also an escalation against the United States and NATO. For more than two months, Putin and his various minions in the Kremlin and the Russian press have been railing on about Nazis and threats to Russia’s existence, and as Wallace noted, it would not be a surprise to see Putin expand his campaign against the putative Nazis in Ukraine to a war against all of “the world’s Nazis.”

So far, the Pentagon and the American intelligence services have not made any on-the-record comments, but Russia-watchers are concerned that Putin will be keen to help his military avenge the humiliation of its abysmal performance in a war where every advantage, including size and geography, initially appeared to be on the side of the Russians. Instead of a lightning victory and a march to Kyiv, the Russians (even by conservative estimates) have lost more than 10,000 men—including a slew of generals and other senior officers—along with hundreds of tanks and scores of aircraft. Their flagship in the theater, the Moskva, now sits at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Someone must be held accountable for this disaster, and we may be sure that it will not be Vladimir Putin.

Putin will blame the West for his troubles, and he will almost certainly issue threats, including more nuclear saber-rattling. There may well be a call to action issued to the Russian people. But how much more capacity the Russians can bring to the war is unclear, especially if mobilization requires a large conscription effort.

Russian military life is a miserable existence, overseen by brutal and uncaring officers, and characterized by bullying of young soldiers, low pay, and poor living conditions. For decades, draft dodging was rampant, and understandably so. Reforms over the past decade, including shorter terms of service, cracking down on traditions of hazing and bullying, and allowing a bit more freedom for conscripts, have been successful in mitigating these problems. If Putin calls for mobilization, these problems will return, and it will take months or even years of training before these new troops would be ready for combat. In the meantime, mass conscription risks angering a Russian public that has until now been—from a safe distance—largely supportive of the war.

Similarly, the Russian defense industry cannot instantly kick into overdrive and solve Moscow’s equipment problems. Even if years of corruption and waste could be overcome with a Soviet-like “Fulfill the plan!” effort, what would be the point? To send more poorly designed tanks and defective missiles to the front? It would also be a tough sell at home; the Soviet people became accustomed to living in misery while money was diverted to the defense sector, but it might be trickier to get today’s Russians to live with shortages and sanctions while Putin spends their taxes building more armor for the Motherland.

Still, Putin might call for a final push to overwhelm the Ukrainians by throwing men and machines into a meat grinder. This war was a deluded scheme hatched in Putin’s COVID-isolated bubble, and even now Putin seems truly unable to understand the disaster he’s unleashed on Ukraine and the damage he’s done to Russia. Advised by a tight circle of hawks—some of whom will fear getting tagged with blame if things continue to deteriorate—he might see doubling down as a realistic option.

Such an intensification of the war effort would serve one other purpose: It would impose a certain amount of unity within a Kremlin where the finger-pointing has already begun, and increase social pressure to silence those in Russian society who might risk speaking up, especially now that thousands have already been arrested and many Russians are fleeing the country. Putin so far seems to be blaming the security services for misleading him, but he has also fulminated against Russian citizens whom he believes prefer life in the West and are therefore disloyal to Russia. (This is ironic, considering how many of Putin’s confidants seem to share such a preference.) The Russian military, for its part, might welcome a militarized nation not only to recover its pride but also to threaten the young Russians who oppose the war with enforced military service.

The more worrisome possibility is that Putin has decided that he will merely declare NATO the true source of Russia’s defeat, and plunge Russia into World War III—a genuine third world war, rather than the one that the Ukrainians and others claim is already under way—with the Russians initiating attacks against Western forces, perhaps at the Ukrainian border or at sea. This choice does not require Putin to be a madman, but rather to be as ill-informed and overconfident as he has been for years. (Putin, as one NATO official put it, “has an unwavering belief in his ability to control events.”) Faced with defeat, he might gamble the existence of Russia itself in an expanded war that Russia cannot win, betting that NATO will make peace before the Kremlin is left with no recourse but to cross the nuclear threshold.

To judge from Russian media—which have gone from purveying sensationalism to drowning in utter hysteria—the idea of Russia fighting NATO to an honorable draw is far more attractive than enduring continuing defeats at the hands of the Ukrainians and their courageous president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

And apparently, if that means courting the risk of global annihilation, so be it.

Even if Putin chooses a less dangerous path, he is unlikely to declare a kind of Nixonian “peace with honor” exit. Here, Putin is in a bind. The whole point of hiring Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a decade ago and plowing money into the Russian armed forces was to restore Russia as a formidable military power—or at least one able to win wars against smaller opponents without a national convulsion. The war, however, has proved that these basic goals were not met, and if Putin calls for a larger war effort, he will not just be admitting defeat in Ukraine, but conceding that the rebuilding of the Russian military was a failure.

If Putin doesn’t announce an escalation, what else might he say? One option is to declare a limited victory, and then go back to grinding away at the Ukrainians, as he has done in the Ukrainian east since 2014. He may simply announce, in the spirit of a day devoted to the end of Hitlerism, that he has indeed “de-Nazified” Ukraine, an easy call given that precious few Nazis were loose in Ukraine in the first place. He might say that victory is in hand but needs to be consolidated with the occupation of what’s left of Mariupol.

No one can know what Putin is going to do next, and the opacity and unpredictability of Kremlin policy will become even more pronounced now that Putin has reportedly taken personal control of running the war (while offloading the day-to-day job of governing Russia to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin). We should brace ourselves for bellicose accusations about NATO and the West. Insane rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin was part of living with the Cold War, and now that Putin has set Russia firmly into a second cold war, we should be measured and calm in our responses, just as we were when Soviet leaders thundered at us from atop Lenin’s tomb.

No matter what Putin says on May 9, the Russians will continue to inflict misery on the people of Ukraine. The question next week is whether the Russian president intends to extend this war to the rest of the planet.