The much-hyped event did not live up to its billing
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 9 Victory Day speech was perhaps the most anticipated speech of his career. Nuclear scientists, Western intelligence, European leaders, Ukrainian militiamen, and Japanese bankers, were all waiting amid warnings that Putin could declare an all-out-war, abandoning its pretence of calling the conflict a ‘special military operation’ or launching full mobilisation.
Putin disappointed. He delivered a short 20-minute stump speech seeking to rally his troops — 11,000 of whom gathered on Moscow’s Red Square for the event, as they do every year. Typically there would be more soldiers in attendance, but the Russian President noted the unique circumstances by highlighting that some had returned from the front for the celebration. He sought to tie the fighting in Ukraine to World War II, repeating his blood libel against a Ukrainian government led by Europe’s first post-holocaust Jewish head of state.
But there was no declaration of war. Victory was spoken of as if it was assured, but Putin’s comments centred on the Donbas. Putin again equated the territory with Russia itself, declaring that: “Now as (during World War II), you are defending our people in the Donbas, for the security of our homeland, Russia”. He referred to eastern Ukraine as (our) “own land”.
Some observers may take that as an indication that Putin’s initial war aims to take all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper and along the Black Sea coast have therefore been scaled back.
The clearest message from the President is that he lives in an alternate reality. Or he is at least fully committed to the alternate realities his advisors have created for the Russian people. Putin declared the war one of self-defence, against the West, which he sees as wilfully turning a blind eye to the ‘fascist’ threat he sees in Ukraine. But he did not make any reference to the sanctions his warmongering has wrought, or the costs that Russians will have to bear, excepting a minute of silence for fallen soldiers. The silence was, however, accompanied by a droll drumbeat of war.
He did not differentiate between those who fell in the current war and in World War II. Russians have long been primed by a ‘victory ideology’ regarding the War — one of the few threads of public belief to stretch unbroken over the turbulence of the Soviet collapse, 1990s and subsequent development of the Putinist state.
It is this belief that allows Putin’s blatant falsehoods to take hold. He described his ‘special military operation’ as pre-emptive, warning “in Kyiv they considered acquiring nuclear weapons”. He described the pre-invasion war in the Donbas, which he stirred up, as a series of “punitive operations” against Russian-speakers. But it was his forces killed around 60 children, likely all Russian speakers, when bombing a Luhansk school just 48 hours prior.
According to Putin, Russians are still fighting a war that began over 80 years ago — and that this belief is sufficiently widely held to justify civilian deaths, economic collapse and the shutting-off of any alternate path for Russia’s future. The lack of resistance to his war domestically supports Putin’s line of thinking.
Needless to say, it is an absurd justification glorified in yet another Putin speech, no matter how drab and monotone. But unfortunately, this is what the Russian Army is fighting and dying for, nothing more.