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.
There is a lot of commentary suggesting Vladimir Putin will want to announce a victory in Ukraine at Moscow’s annual Parade, commemorating victory in the Second World War, with this year’s parade taking place on 9thMay. Putin hasn’t said he wants to announce anything but given its position in Russian society and his ongoing Special Military Operation, it is logical to suggest he will want to do something.
In an ideal world for Putin, he would have wanted to congratulate his victorious Russian forces from 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 has failed with that desire. He would want to say how his victorious Russian forces have liberated the whole of the Donbas Region and now control the Luhsank and Donbas Oblasts; it is increasingly unlikely he will be able to do that.
So, what is he likely to say? He could resort to straight враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but as he controls the ‘truth’ as presented to the Russian people through маскировка (maskirovka), masking, he could invent a victory. However, he is unlikely to do that as it won’t explain the continuing bodies coming back to Russian mothers and need to mobilise additional troops and units to go to Ukraine.
However, he will want to do something. The indicators are appearing to suggest just that. The indicators I am talking about are:
Increasing rhetoric threatening the West for interfering
Issues appearing in other Russian breakaway regions
Missile attacks on cities across Ukraine
Russia exercising energy warfare
Unexplained incidents happening in Russia and Russian breakaway areas
Russia putting messages out about Russian victories in history
Russia continuing to try to court international support
Russia failing to gain advantages on the ground
Incidents and activities hitting all of these indicators have happened and are continuing to happen as well as increasing in frequency. Explosions in Transnistria, threats to hit supply routes from NATO countries into Ukraine, attacks on the likes of Lviv, Dnipra and other cities, the gas being turned off to Poland and Bulgaria, Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “The risks [of nuclear war] now are considerable,” on 25th April, and more, are all examples, every indicator and warning of something else brewing, has been ticked. The important issue now is what these indicators point to?
Putin’s ambitions for a swift operation to topple the Ukrainian Government and replace it with a Moscow centric regime like in Belarus has failed. Strategically his desire for a weakened EU and NATO has failed. His desire for Russia to be seen as a Global power like the old Soviet Union, something he has been working on for almost the past 20 years, has failed His contempt for the international rules-based system was highlighted perfectly by the way he treated the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres on his visit to Moscow to Putin’s version of ‘Tablegate’ and then rocketed Kyiv when Guterres was visiting there, 48 hours later.
The International Community is hitting back, ‘NATO is ready to maintain its support for Ukraine in the war against Russia for years, including help for Kyiv to shift from Soviet-era weapons to modern Western arms and systems, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in April.’ The UK Foreign Secretary said, “Ukraine must triumph. We will not relent in our efforts until they do,” as the US President, Joe Biden, asked Congress to approve $33Bn of aid including arms, for Ukraine.
We are likely to see an increase in rhetoric from both the Russians and stronger responses from the International Community as 9th May approaches. I can see Russia increasing its nuclear threats and moving from the implied to openly stated. I can see the Russians increasing their global saviours against Nazis rhetoric, siting WW2 and comparing Ukraine and the Wests ‘interference’ in a similar light to 1940’s Nazi Germany. I can see the Russians calling Ukraine and other Western countries, existential threats to Russia itself. All of this could well lead to Putin declaring War on Ukraine on 9th May. We are already hearing more war like talk from Russian commentators at all levels.
So, what will a declaration of war change? It will allow Putin to change his messaging at home and start to explain the huge numbers of casualties, it will allow him to mobilise greater numbers of reserves and give him an opportunity to try and garner additional military support from his strategic alliances. However, the main reason is all about messaging, domestically and then internationally. It is unlikely to change much on the ground except we would see more strategic rocket capabilities brought to bear with conventional warheads, on cities across Ukraine.
What happens next will dictate how the War develops. If Putin manages to capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the whole of the Donbas region, then he would likely try and sue for peace as quickly as possible with the aim of retaining all of the territory he has captured. That would probably be unacceptable to President Zelinskyy and the people of Ukraine, and this is where the first nuclear option could come into play.
To force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table, especially if they were preparing to counterattack, Putin could drop a tactical low yield nuclear device in an unpopulated area, for example the forests around Chernobyl, telling his domestic audience there was an accident but knowing the international community would know instantly what happened. He would then possibly tell the West to back off and say to Ukraine, negotiate and agree to terms or Kyiv, or Lviv are next.
I think this would be below the threshold for a Western nuclear response however, it would almost certainly alienate the tacit relationship Putin has with China, India, and Pakistan. He would be balancing advantages and disadvantages off carefully in his mind. A Joint diplomatic response from the USA, UK, France with ideally China, India and Pakistan could be the precursor to any Western Military response, as there would have to be one or Putin will declare a victory. That possible response would likely be conventional and limited to Russian forces in Ukraine, but the nuclear escalation ladder has been joined!
If Putin doesn’t capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and looks like he could be counterattacked and pushed out of Ukraine, he could try the same tactic with a lesser territorial demand.
However, both options carry a terminal risk for Russia on any part of the international stage so would be last resort tactics. The possibility, however horrifying, exists, and it is critical that Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have a contingency plan agreed with President Zelinskyy, should the unthinkable happen. Macron will have the greatest difficulty with options, as he is the only EU nuclear power and will have to try and bring the whole of the EU along with any decision he makes. Again, if it happens it will likely stimulate a massive nuclear arms race amongst many smaller countries across the globe. The global doomsday clock would be slightly closer to midnight.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner – he is available for comment.