The Russians know how to put on a parade, and Victory Day is the showiest of the shows. It may have been a portent, though, that inclement weather conditions forced the cancellation of the aerial flypast. It quite literally might have rained on Vladimir Putin’s parade.
This shouldn’t have happened. Typically, if there is any danger that this high holy day of Putinism might see rain, then the air force seeds the offending clouds the day before to make them rain, so the sun can shine on 9 May. It usually works, until it doesn’t. Which is itself something of a metaphor for what is happening now in Russia.
There had been much over-heated speculation that Putin was going to use his speech from the top of Lenin’s Mausoleum to make some major policy announcement, whether an end to the war or the opposite, upgrading his ‘special military operation’ to a full ‘war.’ This would, after all, unlock new options, including a partial or full mobilisation of reserves to reinforce Russia’s battered forces in Ukraine.
That was never likely. Even if he does move towards a mobilisation, which carries with it considerable political and economic costs, for potentially questionable military advantages, this would implicitly be an admission of the failure of his initial strategy. One thing he was not going to announce on Victory Day was a defeat.
Instead, we were treated to the usual rhetorical talking points that have been the regular diet of toxic TV propagandists for weeks now. That Ukraine, in the grip of Nazis, wanted to acquire nuclear weapons. That America was bent on global hegemony and Russia’s refusal to bend the knee – unlike the Russophobic degenerates of Europe – had made it a target of proxy aggression. That the soldiers fighting in Ukraine were the spiritual descendants of the Red Army that fought Hitler. And so on.
What did come as something of a surprise was that he did not try to spin a victory out of the current situation. Russian forces have taken a strip of land along the northern coast of the Azov Sea and are trying to extend their control over the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. But otherwise they have had to abandon their grandiose initial plans to take the whole country.
Nonetheless, this was open to spin. He could have argued that, of course this was never about forcing all Ukraine into becoming a puppet state. Instead, that ‘demilitarisation’ and the even more fuzzy ‘de-Nazification’ had been accomplished, and the focus was on protecting the benighted Russian citizens and Russian-speakers of south-eastern Ukraine from the impending genocide Kyiv was threatening.
It would have been nonsense, but it was nonsense with just enough substance that the state-controlled media – and these days, there is no other kind in Russia – could have run with it.
Instead, he focused on the struggle under way, and the costs to – Russian, certainly not Ukrainian – lives. Hardly coincidentally, today he also signed a presidential decree providing additional benefits to the families of those fighting in Ukraine. Putin also affirmed that Russians bowed their heads in memory of ‘our comrades-in-arms, who died the death of the brave in a righteous battle – for Russia.’
This was not the speech of a man who was contemplating retreat or even retrenchment. Rather, he was signalling that the war was still to be fought. Those thorny questions of mobilisation remain on his desk and will have to be addressed soon, if they are to have much relevance given that it takes months to raise and train reservists and integrate them into their units.
Putin looked in better form than at any of his recent public outings. Beyond his trademark occasional coughs, he spoke clearly and there was no sign of a previous limp. Whatever the other speculation about his health, he looked as if there was, alas, still fight in him.
All the same, this was a day marred not just by the weather, but by the inevitable realisation that what Putin had clearly once thought would be a celebration of a glorious victory, one that would fix his place in the pantheon of Russian hero-monarchs, instead had to be a foreshadowing of the greater struggles yet to come.
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