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Putin´s May 9 message: “victory” or (total) war?

May 06, 2022

All eyes are, or should be, on Vladimir Putin on Monday May 9 this year; what on earth will be his message, to the Russian people and to the world, as Russia is celebrating “Victory day”, 77 years after the end of World War II, in the midst of scenes of mass destruction and mass refugees not seen since WW II?

Will he, could he somehow, declare some sort of victory as a justification of two and a half months of brutal war against neighboring Ukraine? Time is clearly – at the time of writing – running out for that. The only possibility now, given the slow military progress and the many setbacks, demonstrated shortcomings and losses of manpower and materiel, seems to be Mariupol at the Sea of Azov, a city of some 400 000 subjected to hammering and enormous civilian suffering since the start of the war. The fall of Mariupol having been predicted for seeks and weeks, it seems now (May 6) that the last Ukrainian defense position at the giant steel factory Azovstal is indeed, at long last, about to evaporate.

Could this be what Putin calls a victory on May 9 – celebrating the final defeat of diminishing, brave defenders of a now completely destroyed city? Will celebrating this and naming it a great victory be a convincing message to justify a war with a destructiveness and brutality not seen since the war that ended, in Europe, on May 9 1945? That would be rather incredible, but on the other hand what else is there that Putin and the Kremlin could proclaim as victory and a success story, worth the clear and present sacrifices? Nothing. Nothing other than, possibly, a declaration of formal annexation of the Donbas region and its two oblasts, still fiercely contested.

This leaves us with the alternative – assuming Putin has to do and say something on the great occasion of the May 9 anniversary – that he will instead announce upgrading and intensification of the Kremlin´s war effort, initially and basically by naming what happens a “war”, not any longer just a “special military operation”.

It is not so hard to imagine his rhetorical tools for announcing such a war declaration, especially in view of all the counter-productive consequences of the war so far. He could and would point to a series of examples of Western anti-Russian aggressiveness, forward deployment of military hardware to the Eastern flank countries of Nato, “devastating” economic sanctions, increasingly heavy military supplies to the Ukrainian side, and, yes, the enlargement of Nato to incorporating Finland and Sweden (sic!), all proving his case, repeated many time, that “the West” is encircling Mother Russia with acts of hostility aiming at undoing Russia´s historic aspirations as a world power. He might say all this, and more, as a “casus belli”, a reason for an expanded Russian war effort.

The question then will be what he is ready to do, militarily. This will be determined by which side fears escalation, horizontal and/or vertical, the most.

So buckle up for Putin´s message on May 9. It could be important, even decisive. It is advisable to buckle up also for how China will officially comment on Putin´s message. That will be perhaps even more crucial.

Michael Sahlin