foreign interests

What Is Putin Planning for May 9?

Photo: Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool/via REUTERS

It has been ten weeks since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, and things still aren’t going according to plan. Having failed to secure the initial objective of capturing Kyiv, deposing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and installing a pliant puppet regime, Russian forces have regrouped and focused their forces in the south and east, where U.S. intelligence believes Putin will attempt to annex the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson. But the invaders continue to face stiff resistance from a resilient, determined Ukrainian army, bolstered by a continuous influx of weapons and intelligence from the European Union and NATO countries.

All eyes are now on the symbolic date of May 9, Victory Day in Russia, when the country commemorates its monumental defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Victory Day celebrations typically include military parades and a presidential address, and Putin will certainly use that occasion to advance his narrative of what Moscow still refuses to call a war in Ukraine — and potentially, launch the next phase of the war itself. Most Russia experts and observers agree that something is going to happen on Monday, but nobody is sure just what that will be.

There is a significant concern that Putin will leverage the militaristic sentiment of Victory Day to escalate the conflict, perhaps with a formal declaration of war and a national mobilization. Such a move would bring a lot more Russian manpower into the field, but it would take time for new recruits to arrive, they would be poorly trained, and their involvement would not necessarily change the trajectory of the war. A mobilization also carries risks, starting with the implicit admission that Russia is not, in fact, already winning, as well as bringing the war closer to home for the majority of Russians (most of the conscripts fighting in Ukraine come from poor, remote regions of Russia, so your average middle-class Muscovite doesn’t necessarily know anyone on the front lines).

A map showing the state of the war as of May 8. Illustration: @War_Mapper/Twitter

Putin might justify a mobilization by doubling down on his propaganda that Russia is somehow a victim of NATO aggression in this war and needs to take more dramatic steps to defend itself. This may not be a hard sell, since the public has been fed a steady diet of lies and fabrications about Ukraine; according to Russian state television, the country is overrun with Nazis (despite the fact that Zelenskyy is Jewish) and is committing genocide against Russians.

But enlarging the scope of the war also raises the risk of a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO forces. Doubling down on the war might entail attacking NATO supply convoys delivering weapons to Ukraine, which Russia has already threatened to do. There are those within the Russian political-military establishment who would very much like to take the war directly to NATO. Russian state television has also recently indulged in fantasies of launching nuclear attacks on European countries, and even if these are just propaganda theater, they fit with a recurring pattern of nuclear threats from Putin and his propagandists since the start of the invasion. It would be grimly ironic for Russia to celebrate the end of World War II by starting World War III.

Putin has another option: Simply declare victory on Victory Day. Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-American co-founder of the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike who correctly predicted the invasion back in December, argued in an insightful Twitter thread that calling for full mobilization would entail too much risk and too little benefit for Putin. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the possibility this week, which is not to say it won’t happen.

As Alperovitch pointed out, declaring victory would by no means require Putin to pull his forces out of Ukraine or stop fighting. Russian soldiers would instead attempt to solidify their gains and hold the territory they’ve occupied in the Donbas region and the southeastern corridor between the Donbas and Crimea. If after a lengthy war of attrition, the Ukrainians fail to recapture this territory, Putin may reckon he can grind Ukraine down to the point that Zelenskyy is willing to make territorial concessions in exchange for peace. The small problem with this plan is that Russia has not actually won the war — and it may not even be able to hold the territory it has occupied

From the perspective of the U.S. and Europe, it is imperative that Putin fail to illegally carve off any more Ukrainian land than he already has, and Western countries are pouring billions of dollars worth of aid and military equipment into Ukraine to prevent that very outcome. As political analyst Anton Barbashin argues, declaring victory when no actual victory has been achieved would require Putin to explain to the Russian public in three or six months why they are still suffering under severe international sanctions and why military and logistical targets within range of Ukraine are still somehow blowing up. Putin’s inability to credibly announce that Russia has won actually makes the situation more volatile, Barbashin infers, because “he no longer has a plug” for the flood he has unleashed.

But one thing Putin appears to have learned over the course of his career is that powerful lies can create what feels like an inevitable truth. Russia may not actually have a durable hold on the vast swathes of Ukrainian territory it claims, but if Putin declares on Monday that Kherson, Mariupol, Donetsk, and Luhansk now belong to Russia, the annexation of that land starts to look less tentative and more like a fait accompli. He may expect the world to eventually acquiesce to this conquest, just as it acquiesced to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

To that end, Ukrainian officials say Russian forces in the depopulated and devastated port city of Mariupol are planning a military parade there on May 9. Per the officials, Russians are clearing bodies and rubble out of the streets in preparation, including debris from the theater where hundreds of civilians has sought shelter and were reportedly killed when Russia bombed the building (the cleanup operation may also be intended to scrub evidence of that alleged war crime). Turning Mariupol, where Russian forces have been attempting to clear out the last redoubt of Ukrainian defenders at the Azovstal steel works, into the center of Victory Day celebrations certainly does not suggest that Putin plans to relinquish the city when the war is over.

However, the notion that Ukraine would ever accept the loss of the territory Putin reportedly seeks to annex is fantastical. On Friday, Zelenskyy laid out his conditions for peace talks with Russia, which include the restoration of pre-invasion borders, the return of refugees, E.U. membership, and accountability for Russian military leaders. In a video address to the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit on Wednesday, the Ukrainian president also stressed that he would not agree to any deal that leaves Russian troops on occupied Ukrainian soil and creates another “frozen conflict.” And he insisted that Russia must pay reparations for the war and help pay for the country’s reconstruction.

There is little reason to expect that Zelenskyy will change his tune by Monday. While Mariupol has been largely destroyed and Russian forces continue to occupy much of eastern Ukraine, the offensive appears to have stalled and the Ukrainians are even beginning to regain some ground, particularly around Kharkiv in the north.

Both sides are now in a race against time, as Russia adjusts its tactics to the reality on the ground and Ukraine tries to claw back territory as it awaits, from its allies, the arrival of weapons that it needs to retake major cities. It is too early to feel confident of any given outcome, but Ukraine remains utterly determined to fight off the Russian invasion and defend its territorial integrity, despite Putin’s best efforts so far to terrorize the country into submission. With continued robust support from the West, Ukraine has more than a fighting chance.

And that support remains robust. Badly needed weapons continue to flow to Ukrainian forces from Western countries, including through the lend-lease bill the House passed last week, enabling the Biden administration to send more weapons, more quickly, in an echo of the famous World War II–era program. Germany agreed last week to send anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine, reversing its previous stance against supplying heavy weaponry. The U.K. pledged another $375 million of military aid last week and other countries continue to step up their assistance.

Sanctions are taking a toll as well, shrinking and isolating the Russian economy. The E.U. is pushing for an almost total ban on Russian oil imports, though Hungary and a few other Central European countries have balked at this, as well as a scheme to disrupt Russia’s oil exports globally by banning European companies from providing insurance or other services to the transportation of Russian oil. The U.K. also banned Russia from using British management consulting, accounting, and PR services, as part of a package of new sanctions announced Wednesday. (This matters, but it is also a reminder of how those companies have previously been complicit in the Kremlin’s bad acts.)

Unfortunately, a swift victory for Ukraine is unlikely even in the best-case scenario. If Ukraine’s forces continue to over-perform and Russia’s continue to flounder, Kyiv may not rapidly recapture the occupied territory in the east, but could fight Russia to an unsustainable stalemate. The scary unknown in this scenario is how Putin might lash out if he continues to lose and feels backed into a corner.

For the U.S. and NATO, the only strategically or morally viable path forward is to continue supporting Ukraine’s efforts to beat back the Russian invasion and raise the cost for Putin. It is equally important, however, to push for a negotiated peace and give Putin options other than continuous escalation. Muscular rhetoric about weakening Russia as a goal of the war and leaks about U.S. intelligence helping Ukraine kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships is not helpful in this regard. Putin cannot be coerced into peace negotiations if he thinks we are simply trying to destroy him.

Unfortunately, most of the price will be paid by the Ukrainian people, who continue to face displacement, death, torture, rape, starvation, forced relocation, and other atrocities. The U.N. estimates that more than 5.6 million Ukrainians have fled the country during the war, and another 6.5 million may have been displaced internally. The count of confirmed civilian deaths is over 3,000, but the actual total is certainly far higher. Full accountability for the mounting number of horrific crimes the Russians are committing in this war will be extremely difficult to achieve, no matter the outcome.

And anything resembling a just resolution is impossible without first demonstrating to Putin that he cannot win a military victory, at least not without practically destroying his own country. As has been true from the beginning, no other person has more influence over the trajectory of this conflict than the Russian president. Whatever he says and does on May 9 and in the coming weeks, these decisions will have huge consequences for Ukraine and the world. The best the Biden administration and other allied governments can do is be prepared to meet them.

What Is Putin Planning for May 9?