As Russia’s May 9 World War II Victory Day approaches, the country’s military is looking more vanquished than victorious in Ukraine.
In the third month of war, Moscow has made minimal territorial gains and continues to face stubborn Ukrainian resistance. To appear triumphant, President Vladimir Putin will need to escalate by declaring an outright war against Ukraine, rather than a "special military operation," while claiming that he will defeat NATO’s alleged attempts to destroy Russia.
Victory Day is an annual display of Russia’s military prowess that glorifies the Soviet defeat of its former collaborator, Nazi Germany. Putin will manipulate the symbolism and emotion of the event to portray Ukraine and the West as the new Nazi threat to Russia. He is likely to announce a general mobilization to allow for the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of reservists and place the economy on a war footing.
With casualties estimated at over 20,000 dead Russian soldiers and the destruction of thousands of pieces of military hardware, mobilization is necessary to maintain a high-intensity invasion. But such a move in a rapidly contracting economy is unlikely to bring any immediate results. Russia’s reservists are poorly trained and not motivated to fight in a hostile state, while increasing news of military losses in Ukraine will convince many to avoid military service.
Despite its failures, one should never underestimate the capacity of the Russian military in inflicting destruction. Facing a resilient and determined enemy, Russian forces will use greater levels of indiscriminate firepower to level towns in eastern Ukraine that they are incapable of occupying. Ultimately, however, controlling rubble will prove a hollow and precarious victory for Moscow.
Putin could also use Victory Day to announce the formal annexation of territories that Russian forces currently occupy. These include sizable parts of four oblasts (regions): Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. He may also make an aspirational announcement with claims to other unoccupied regions. By asserting that these are part of Russia, any attack would be considered an assault on Russian territory.
But despite Moscow’s bravado, even retaining the occupied territories will come at an immense price. The more successful Kyiv’s military campaign proves to be, especially with increasing supplies of heavy weapons provided by NATO states, the more emboldened Ukraine will feel to push out all Russian forces. Facing the loss of Ukraine, Putin will also begin to lose at home. Amid growing reports of internal disputes between military, internal security, and intelligence services, as well as arrests, suicides, and disappearances of oligarchs and security personnel, Russia’s elite look more conflicted than at any time since the Soviet collapse.
Mysterious explosions and fires in various parts of Russia are also multiplying each day. The targets have included military facilities, fuel depots, and ammunition dumps. Among the most notable have been a military base and oil facilities in Bryansk responsible for the flow of oil to Europe, a military base and ammunition depot in Belgorod, just over the border from Ukraine, a munitions factory in Perm near the Urals, and a major air force base in Ussuriysk, in the Pacific region, in addition to police stations and military recruitment centers burned in several major cities.
There are three possible sources of these attacks: Ukrainian special forces operating on Russian territory, local anti-regime activists disrupting military capabilities, or sabotage operations by elements seeking to oust the current leadership. A combination of all three would be the most ominous indication of the vulnerability of the Putin regime and the fragility of the Russian state.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks with Margarita Assenova. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, will be published in May.