Would he still believe in it himself? Russian President Putin looked a bit jaded when he addressed the nation in Moscow on Monday. The annual celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany did not turn out to be – as expected by some observers – the opportunity to declare victory in Ukraine as well. The situation on the battlefield simply does not lend itself to that.
Muddling on in Ukraine is currently Putin’s highest echelon, as even his scaled-down goal – conquering the Donbas – seems out of reach and his troops are dying in droves in a war built on a false narrative.
Much of that story echoed on Red Square on Monday: the fight would be necessary because Kiev was preparing an attack on Russia’s “historical grounds”, Ukraine wanted to acquire nuclear weapons, NATO posed a threat. In short, Putin said, “the danger grew by the day.” It was the well-known tune, which Putin has been forcing on the Russians through censored media for months.
More interesting was what the president didn’t say. Western analysts have speculated for weeks about the escalating charge Putin could put on this day. Would he declare a general mobilization invoking the victory 75 years ago? Would he threaten to use nuclear weapons again? Or declare an all-out war against ‘fascism’, as the British Defense Secretary feared?
There was no such rhetoric, and wryly enough, after more than three months of atrocities against the Ukrainians, with excesses such as the massacres in Butha and the attack on the theater in Mariupol, it can be regarded as a stroke of luck. No matter how many soldiers marched past the president, how loud the battle cry “Ura!” also echoed from their throats, Putin seemed to realize that he can no longer count on a victory. He did not even promise the Russians a victory in the Donbas in his speech.
Western speculation therefore also deserves some reflection. Kremlin watching has always been a precarious affair. That has only become more difficult as Putin has increasingly isolated himself within the Kremlin as well.
It is almost as complicated for outsiders to find out what the Russian population thinks about the war. Pollsters struggle with the question to what extent respondents dare to answer their questions honestly. So even if the propaganda does its job and Russians justify the war out loud with the story of the “necessary denazification” of Ukraine, it remains unknown whether that is their real thinking about the invasion.
Apparently Putin did not dare to count on convincing the population, at least not so much that he can rely on the willingness of Russian young men to die and the self-sacrifice of their mothers. Despite the great shortage of men, he did not order them to go into battle.
The war therefore seems to be turning into a war of attrition at the moment, in which it remains important for Europe not only to support Ukraine militarily and diplomatically, but also to combat Putin’s false narrative with a strong counter voice, based on facts. Putin started this war for the wrong reasons and with his justification is also failing the Russian people. They have a right to know that.
Read also Maxar’s satellite images make short work of Kremlin claims
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 11 May 2022