The strangest thing about the Victory Day parade in Moscow this year was the absence of victory. Normally it’s there, the victory over Nazi Germany, a safely won triumph, unchangeably in the past, veterans and the glorious dead honoured, the country rebuilt, and in his speech today Vladimir Putin went through the motions of commemorating it. But this year, for the first time since the original Victory, Russian troops are openly fighting a war against the descendants of their Ukrainian former comrades-in-arms, on land whose evocative toponymy casts doubt on Russia’s traditional representation of May 1945.
After the speech, after the military parade, Putin, as usual, went to lay a flower on each of a row of granite blocks outside the Kremlin walls commemorating the ‘hero cities’ judged to have shown special valour in the struggle against the Nazis. He laid the first flower on the monument to heroic Leningrad, his home town. He laid the second flower, without any noticeable hesitation, on the monument to heroic Kiev.
For the three decades after 1991, it didn’t make much difference to the original Victory that Russia accepted, however grudgingly, Kyiv’s being the capital of another country. But now that Putin has invaded the other country, now Putin seeks to beat Kyiv, to capture Kyiv – in Russian nationalists’ fantastical construction, to liberate Kyiv – Putin isn’t just setting himself the task of achieving victory. He makes the original Victory contingent on victory over Kyiv, and if he doesn’t achieve it, that foundational moment, in the top-heavy ideological framework of Putin’s Russia, is no longer Victory with a capital V. It’s just one victory in a mundane cycle of historical wins and losses.
Putin only mentioned Kyiv itself once in his speech, in the context of a false allegation that Ukraine, which voluntarily gave up its ex-Soviet nuclear weapons in the 1990s, was looking to acquire new ones. That, in turn, was part of a brief, tired version of his familiar and thinly evidenced justification for attacking Ukraine, that Ukraine had been about to attack Russia.
There was a lot of speculation before Victory Day that Putin would take the moment to bind 1945 and 2022 together in a great knot of weapon-sacralising martyrology by injecting victory directly into the present war. Either he would simply declare it, stating that the limited and vague aims of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ had been achieved – including Crimea, Russia now controls about a fifth of Ukraine, and, as well as killing tens of thousands of people, it has destroyed or damaged much of the country’s infrastructure – or he would try to promise victory in the near future, rallying the nation by allowing the ‘operation’ to be officially called a war, mobilising the country’s military reserves and putting the economy on a war footing.
Putin did neither. He offered neither victory in the present, nor the firm prospect of victory in the near future, apart from a limp ‘To victory!’ at the end. He described a world of Nazis stretching from Kharkiv to Alaska – a world in which the Ukrainian republic is run by Nazis, who are supported by American vassals such as France, Britain and Canada, who are also, by implication, Nazis, all controlled by America, likewise tainted with the Nazi stain. Not only is there no victory now or promised to come, Russia’s ur-Victory over the Nazis turns out not to have been a victory after all.
At the same time, without calling it a war, Putin made it brutally clear that it was one, and that Russian troops were dying in it in large numbers. ‘I wish the quickest recovery to [our] wounded soldiers and officers,’ he said. ‘And I thank the doctors, paramedics, nurses and staff of military hospitals for their selfless work … You’re fighting for every life, often under fire, in the field, not sparing yourselves.’ The parade ended with a bizarre disconnect, as the TV announcer and the live reporter from Red Square wore the cheery smiles suitable for a holiday celebrating something glorious that happened long ago, while the commander-in-chief’s still fresh words left a residue of doubt that it had ever happened, or ever would.
For its 9 May message, Ukraine released a video of Volodymyr Zelensky speaking to camera as he walked alone down Kreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare of central Kyiv, deserted and strewn with tank-traps, piano music in the background. Kreshchatyk is where in peacetime Ukraine holds its parades; the street, badly damaged during the Second World War, was rebuilt with the help of forced labour by German prisoners. Zelensky’s motif was the distillation of a continuing attempt to identify Putinism, rather than elements in Ukraine, as the inheritor of the spirit of Hitler. In contrast to Putin, Zelensky insisted over and over again on the certainty of Ukrainian victory in this war, even as he insisted on Ukraine’s right to celebrate its role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism as proudly as Russia. Eight million Ukrainians died during the Second World War. ‘On the Day of Victory over Nazism, we are fighting for a new victory,’ he said. ‘The road to it is difficult, but we have no doubt we will win.’
It would be wise not to overplay the contrast between the two speeches – the uncertainty of Putin’s, the bravado of Zelensky’s. And yet the absence of victory on Putin’s Victory Day and the abundance of it in Zelensky’s language reflect the fact that the initiative in the war, with all the excruciating implications for both sides, has for the time being passed from Moscow to Kyiv. Each side is within sight of a disappointing outcome that both could, nonetheless, claim as victory of a sort; neither side has yet won all that it thinks it is still capable of winning. Initiative, in this case, may simply mean defining what kind of a partial victory is victory enough.
Now that Putin’s original plan has failed – to replace the government in Kyiv with a puppet regime and create a string of autonomous, Russia-controlled regions in a weak federal state – he seems to be out to conquer as much of Ukraine as he can, either to annex directly into an expanded Russia, along the lines of Crimea, or to sponsor as loyal but nominally independent mini-states.
The maximalist project would have involved taking over all of southern and eastern Ukraine, including Kharkiv, Odesa and the great cities of the Dnipro river: Kyiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia. This project has, at least for now, been thwarted by the effectiveness and bravery of Ukrainian resistance, by Nato – mainly American – military intelligence, and by a flow of weapons, fuel, ammunition and money from the West. Russia has been pushed back from or abandoned the ground it took and held with such brutality around Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mykolaiv. It is trying to make good its intention to take over the whole of Donbas – Luhansk and Donetsk regions – but its offensive there has stalled. It still hasn’t ended resistance in Mariupol. Its troops have not yet even approached the best-fortified Ukrainian-held cities in the Donbas, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
After two and a half months, it hasn’t pushed Ukrainian troops back from within artillery range of Donetsk itself. Village by village, Russian forces are being pushed back from around Kharkiv. The cities of Zaporhizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Odesa seem out of reach for the Russian military, a half-broken behemoth hobbled not so much by the vast number of tanks and armoured troop carriers it has lost as the fact that it started the war with so few soldiers. According to the military analyst Michael Kofman, some Russian armoured troop carriers were going into battle (before a shot had been fired) with only three infantrymen, instead of the usual eight, in each vehicle.
Russian and Ukrainian forces now face each other along a front line some five hundred miles long, from the hills, rivers and forests of the Ukrainian north-east to the steppe lands of the south-west. It would be very difficult, both politically and from the point of view of another war in the future, for Ukraine to accept a truce until they have pushed the Russians back to the border north of Kharkiv and at least as far as the Siverskyi Donets river east of it. Similarly, it is hard to imagine Ukraine tolerating a pause in the fighting until the Russians withdraw from, or are driven out of, the city of Kherson and the other towns it holds on the west bank of the Dnipro.
For Putin – under pressure at home from public figures more nationalist even than him – to declare victory for Russia would be hard without taking control of all Donbas, a very distant goal as matters stand.
Still, supposing all these things were to happen – Kyiv recapturing the city of Kherson, securing Kharkiv and beating a fighting retreat from Donbas – what then? Russia would still have taken over a huge area of Ukraine, including not only Donbas and Crimea but the southern parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. Millions of Ukrainians loyal to Kyiv would be abandoned to Moscow. Tens of thousands of hectares of prime farming land, thousands of factories, Ukraine’s biggest nuclear power plant, most of its coast and the mouth of the Dnipro would be under Russian control. It would be far from Zelensky’s stated terms for the beginning of the end – to put off for fifteen years the question of Crimea’s status, and for Russia to withdraw to those parts of Donbas it controlled before the invasion. That’s without considering Russia’s naval blockade of Ukrainian ports, or reparations.
Ukraine, then, is doomed not just to go on the offensive against Russian occupation, but to make a series of agonising decisions about how much destruction and bloodshed it is prepared to bear, and inflict, to win back its land; decisions that its Western sponsors will have a say in. In his Victory Day speech Putin made clear that he already considered Donbas to be a part of Russia. In their actions in southern Ukraine since day one of the invasion (the early loss of Kherson was the biggest Ukrainian military disaster of the war so far) Russia has made clear it intends to stay as master of cities like Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk. Schools have been ordered to abandon Ukrainian textbooks and curricula. The Ukrainian hryvna is being replaced with the Russian rouble. Harvests have been diverted to Russia. Russian internet service providers, mobile phone companies and dialling prefixes are replacing Ukrainian ones. Objectors are being imprisoned.
The war will not end, and though there is a hope of it stopping, that stop seems far away. Zelensky’s talk of victory on Victory Day stems from confidence in an army that has achieved remarkable acts of defence against a staggeringly incompetent offensive. How will it fare when the roles are reversed? Putin’s entire case for war was based on the idea of defending Russia against attack from Ukraine. And although there was little victorious in his Victory Day speech, he did talk about defence. Ukraine didn’t attack Russia, but now Putin is stealing Ukraine (and Ukrainians) and declaring it Russia; by this logic, if Ukraine fights to get the lost land back, it is invading Russia after all. In the medium term, Putin’s hope of victory may lie not so much in the original act of theft as in the successful defence of stolen land declared, with righteous fury, to have belonged to him all along.