When Ukrainian forces repelled Russian troops aiming to capture the capital, Kyiv, they said they found some interesting baggage among the detritus of the Russian retreat — abandoned ammunition and armor, and inside the military vehicles, Russian parade uniforms. “They expected to get Kyiv in two days and then have a parade here,” said Oleksandr Hruzevych, the deputy chief of staff of Ukraine’s ground forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t get a parade in the Ukrainian capital, but a parade is coming soon to Moscow and, whatever happens on the battlefield, the Russian President is likely to declare victory during that event three weeks from now.
May 9 is when Russia marks one of its most important national holidays, Victory Day — the anniversary of Germany’s surrender at the end of World War II. The Kremlin has used that anniversary for more than 70 years to commemorate the successful heroism against the Nazis but, just as importantly, to proclaim to the Russian people and to the country’s friends and foes alike that Moscow’s leaders rule over a great and mighty power.
Victory Day is all about military muscle, and when it comes in the middle of a war — even one that Russians are forbidden to call a “war” and one that state propaganda falsely claims is going perfectly according to plan — there’s almost no alternative but to use the occasion to boast of victory.
US intelligence assessments, Russian foreign policy analysts and common sense all indicate that Putin will use May 9 as a sort of self-imposed deadline in Ukraine. It’s not a deadline to win the war — that will likely not happen by then — but to pretend Russia has won something. Something major. Something important.
The campaign over the next three weeks will focus sharply on Ukraine’s east, the Donbas region by the Russian border, where there’s a larger concentration of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, and where Russian-backed separatists have been waging war against the Ukrainian state for eight years.
That’s where Putin will seek a face-saving success, a concrete victory he can take to the Russian people to tell them he is still the larger-than-life leader whose “special military operation,” with all the hardship it is causing for Russians — let alone the calamity it is inflicting on Ukraine — has been worth the price tag. Unfortunately, his desperation for a win likely means that next three weeks are sure to bring even worse death and destruction to Ukraine.
So far, Putin’s war has produced almost exactly the opposite of what he wanted — strengthening Ukraine’s sense of nationhood, fortifying and unifying NATO and the West, tarnishing the image of Russia’s military forces and strategists, and on and on. And yet, Putin has been mostly successful at concealing those facts from the Russian people, shutting down independent media and prompting Russia’s genuine journalists to flee the country. That has left almost all Russians consuming only state-controlled media, which is little more than propaganda.
But even dictators need to worry about their domestic standing. If the Russian people view Putin’s Ukrainian adventure as the disaster it has been so far, his hold on power could weaken.
Even under state-controlled information, some facts can eventually become impossible to conceal. Soldiers will return home to tell their stories to friends and relatives. Thousands will not return. And a small segment of the population may still get its news from abroad. Meanwhile, the Russian people, suffering in dire straits due to sanctions and the departure of many foreign companies from their country, may soon reach an economic breaking point. Either way, slowly the truth will seep in.
That’s why Putin urgently needs to show his campaign as triumphant.
On May 9, Putin almost certainly will stand in Red Square, on a stage built in front of the mausoleum where Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body has lain on display for more than 90 years, and pretend all is well on his Western front. He will ceremonially review the troops — however many the military can spare from the massive deployment in Ukraine.
We will see if Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu makes an appearance. Until last year, he played a major role, his chest bedecked with medals, resplendent after bloody victories in Syria and Chechnya. These days, he leads a humiliated force and persistent rumors of his demise refuse to die.
On that day, Putin will likely announce something about Donbas. Perhaps he will declare it has been “liberated” from the “Nazis” whom he claims rule Ukraine (an absurdly false claim, given the Ukrainian President is Jewish himself). Maybe Russia will hold a phony referendum, as it did after it captured Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. If Russia releases a referendum showing most people in Donbas eager to join Russia, remember a recent independent survey does not support that claim.
Not long after the 2021 Victory Day parade, Putin released an article arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. It was an ominous sign that Putin would try to erase Ukrainian identity, nationhood and its very borders soon after. Most people in Donbas, the one area of Ukraine where one would expect sympathy for Putin’s historical analysis, soundly reject that view. In an exclusive CNN poll, fewer than one in five agreed that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” Still, that is a key element or rationale for Putin’s war.
Another strategic victory for Putin could come if the port city of Mariupol falls, as Russian forces try to establish a land corridor between the territories they control in Donbas and Crimea. That would strengthen Moscow’s control over a large segment of Ukraine, amounting to much more than a symbolic victory. It would be a moral, strategic and economic blow to Ukrainian sovereignty.
To secure any such victory by May 9, Putin will almost certainly unleash even more fury on eastern Ukraine. That will be met with uncompromising ferocity by Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that Ukraine will not give up territory in the east to stop the war. If Donbas falls, he believes, Putin will target Kyiv again.
To resist the renewed onslaught, Ukraine needs even more help from the West. And Ukraine needs it fast. Putin’s desire to declare victory in three weeks will bring more suffering. But it has also put the Russian leader in potential peril. Whatever he announces on May 9 has to be credible. Otherwise, Putin knows he will become dangerously vulnerable.
After all, the parade is happening in Moscow, not in Kyiv.
Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.