77th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, what next for Putin?

By Philip Ingram MBE

May 9th, 2022 was the Victory Parade in honour of the 77th anniversary of the victory of what the Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War, the Second World War. In an ideal world, Putin would have wanted to congratulate his victorious Russian forces for rapidly toppling the Zelinskyy Government, bringing Ukraine back under the safety of Russia and pushing western influence out and away from Russia’s borders. He would have described it as a further victory over the Nazi’s, as encouraged by his Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, he has been pushing conspiracy likening the Ukrainian Government and support from the West to Nazis.

He has failed with that desire.

He would have wanted to say how his victorious Russian forces have liberated the whole of the Donbas Region and now control the Luhsank and Donbas Oblasts having heroically captured Mariupol; his forces have failed to do that, and he didn’t even mention Mariupol in his speech. In fact, there was little of real substance in his speech apart from him emphasising that capturing the whole of the Donbas Region was his aim. Oh, how his military ambitions have been curtailed by Ukrainian defences enhanced by Western assistance and resolve.

The Victory Parade was different to previous years in that size of the parade seemed smaller by comparison, certainly there was a lot less equipment on display and a planned flypast was cancelled at the last minute due to “weather.”  The skies were clear and the weather as dry.  Putin wanted the Russian people to be rallied to the cause in Ukraine and in awe of his ongoing memorial to militarism and stance against what he described as a threat to Russia. To an extent he probably achieved that.

Of note, he talked of the threat created by the US and NATO but not of a need to defeat it just to protect the people of Donbas.  This is a significant reduction from his original objectives and likely a recognition of the loss of military capability on the ground.  In addition, the only thing of substance from Putin on Victory Day is an executive order to waive entrance exams to various military academies for children of those killed or wounded in the ‘special military operation’, replicating elements of the US, Forever GI Bill.  He knows the impact of the real casualty figures.

Interestingly, after the parade, former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, said, “Mr Putin is clearly in trouble, and it is the “beginning of the end of Putin’s era”.  He added “the fact that no victory was announced today means Russian forces are losing strength.”

However, to date it is more than strength he has lost.  The initial attack on Kyiv was to be opened via an airbridge through Hostomel airfield on the outskirts of Kyiv.  FSB intelligence had said the Ukrainians would roll over quickly, the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, referred to as the “best of the best” in the VDV, the ‘elite’ Russian Airborne Forces, led the attack.

They were supposedly professional soldiers, well-equipped, well-trained, and well-led and were well beaten by the Ukrainian defenders. What came clear over the coming days is the Russians had conducted bad battle preparation, poor operational planning, had inadequate equipment and support and had troops who didn’t know the mission, never mind believed in it with a passion. Ukraine’s defenders had passion.

Losses likely drove Russia to refocus to the East and Putin emphasised his now limited objective again in his Victory Parade speech, control of the Donbas Region, that is the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, only part of which has ever been under Russian influence since 2014.  Russian forces are still trying to encircle Kharkiv from the north and east in a horseshoe-like shape, they are not even carrying out bold moved to capture the whole of Eastern Ukraine and this is because their military clearly isn’t up to it. The forces trying to do this are not the best of the best, are not well equipped, supported or motivated.

For a professional soldier and former NATO planner, the fact the Russians have failed to achieve air superiority and don’t seem to be trying to achieve it, it a fundamental mistake. However, where is the mass of the Russian air force?

On the ground, every day the Ukrainians are getting stronger, with longer range and better western equipment and weapons, facing a weakening illegal invasion force. As the weather improves and the ground hardens, the conditions for manoeuvre warfare will be better and the Ukrainians will likely be in a better position to conduct it. June is probably the month for formation counterattacks at scale rather than the smaller ones that are happening today, but still with huge success.

Putin is in a pickle; he has a real dilemma. The fact he didn’t make any firm statements about the ongoing operation like Kasyanov, said, “Putin is clearly in trouble,” he doesn’t have the military wherewithal to wrestle the initiative back and doesn’t know where to turn. Where his rule to be threatened then that would put him in an even more dangerous position, however, the primary audience for his speech today will have been the Russian people.

To a people where messaging is controlled by the state and peoples psyce is to believe the state his words will have been believed at face value and his justifications for his actions in Ukraine, no matter how far-fetched they sound to the informed in the West, will play to many in his wider support base, in Russia.  He seemed comfortable around his inner circle and those allowed to attend the parade, he has, for the time being, probably kept his home fires burning.

Putin will be confident economically he can exploit his relationships with China, India and Pakistan and now Hungary, which gives him a potential veto and crack in the EU and NATO which he will attempt to exploit.  However, he hasn’t initiated any new and ground-breaking military initiatives, possibly because they have run out and that means a war of attrition to be fought to a geographic stalemate.

He has the resources to do that in the part of the Donbas he has already but whether he can expand that or consolidate elsewhere is rapidly becoming not his gift but the gift of the Ukrainian defenders and as such we will possibly see a slow transition to Ukrainian Offensive operations, breaking Russian supply lines and defences and Putin’s dilemma will get worse, but until them the people of Ukraine will continue to pay an enormous price and the international community an increasing price as the wider global implications over not just energy but foodstuffs including sunflower oil will have an increasing impact; especially on developing nations and economic migration.

The potential for this conflict to go on for significantly longer remains and we have only just begun to see the potential global impact.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO planner – he is available for comment.