It is day 70 of Putin’s war in Ukraine, but at least in Russia, the war isn’t official just yet—Russian leadership has continued to tout the invasion as a “special military operation.”
But that might all change on Victory Day, the day Russia celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to declare war against Ukraine on Victory Day, May 9, western and Ukrainian officials believe.
Putin will be declaring a full mobilization for war on May 9, Ukraine’s top military spy, Kyrylo Budanov, predicted this week. U.S. officials are also warning that Russia could declare war as soon as May 9, CNN reported.
Some senior U.S. officials fear Putin will massively escalate attacks on Ukraine in the coming days. Senior Biden administration officials are growing increasingly concerned that Putin is growing desperate to declare any sort of win in Ukraine as Victory Day approaches.
“He needs a victory to survive,” one senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “A repeat of [the Soviet loss in] Afghanistan is literally an existential threat to a regime that is built on the idea that a strongman leader can revive the glory of the Russian empire.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said that the pressure to “deliver a victory, any kind of victory,” could set into motion an unprecedented escalation.
Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied Russia would announce mobilization or officially declare war on Ukraine on Victory Day.
Some of the day’s “festivities” could tout seeming successes of the invasion into Ukraine as a way to bolster support back home—either just to show off some alleged wins to justify the invasion or to garner support for further escalation.
The pomp and circumstance could include the twisted plan to present 500 Ukrainian prisoners of war during a parade to show Russia’s military might in comparison to Ukraine’s, according to a report from Russian human rights project “Gulagu.net.” Putin is also reportedly considering holding sham trials of Ukrainians that Russia has claimed have been supportive of Nazis, in an imitation of the Nuremberg trials that worked to hold German Nazi leadership accountable.
The warnings of Russia’s plans come as Russian forces are suffering massive losses—as of Wednesday, Russia has lost 24,500 troops, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. And the Russian military has been struggling to keep its manpower up to the task, working to recruit more people to join up, without much success.
Declaring war more formally would allow Russia to tap into reserve forces to swell its military operation on the ground in Ukraine to reach for a more decisive victory.
The symbolic Victory Day comes at a moment where Putin needs all the help he can get after his forces have been faltering for weeks. After his troops failed to take Kyiv and achieve some of his more ambitious goals in Ukraine, Russian forces have had to retreat and replenish their supplies to go after Eastern Ukraine, in a kind of plan B for Russia. And while fighting continues in Eastern Ukraine, the delay in rerouting plans towards the east has allowed Ukraine to build up its weaponry to try to more effectively thwart Russian attacks, which may put Russia at a disadvantage for some time, Rob Lee, a Russian military analyst, told The Daily Beast.
“If you start sending conscripts to war, they start getting killed in large numbers, that becomes a really big political risk.”
“I don’t think time is on Russia’s side, as Ukraine receives more modern weapons [such as] the howitzers,” Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Daily Beast. “I think Ukraine is going to be in a stronger position in a few weeks relative to today.”
The symbolic nature of Victory Day could serve as the ideal platform for Putin to pepper Russians with more propaganda on the invasion in Ukraine to garner support for a larger scale mobilization. But selling a more full-hearted mobilization domestically might be difficult, given that Russia has been suggesting that the “special” operation is going well.
“I’m quite curious,” Budanov said. “How will they explain this to their own people? Why does Russia, with its, as they say, the first or second army in the world, need mobilization, when, according to their official reports, everything is going according to plan and Ukraine as a military machine is nothing?”
The date could, of course, have no bearing on whether Putin declares war. The future of Putin’s war in Ukraine will depend on what happens on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, not a date, Michael Kofman, the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a Virginia-based national security research organization, told The Daily Beast.
“The political leadership [will] assess the current situation in Donbas and their likelihood of achieving their goals by this campaign,” Kofman said. “Right now it’s still unclear if the Russian offensive is going very slowly because they’re meeting far more resistance than they expected, because their forces are much weaker now, or are they actually prosecuting this more methodically and more carefully to preserve the force.”
And Russian forces aren’t doing so hot in Eastern Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said in a briefing Monday.
“They still have not solved all their logistics problem, and quite frankly, there’s… a risk and casualty aversion that we continue to see by the Russians now, not just in the air, but on the ground,” the senior U.S. defense official said. The Russians are being “very, very cautious, very tepid.”
Pulling out all the stops for Ukraine, in any case, might be political suicide for Putin, warned Lee. After mobilizing for a war, the expectations of successes from Ukraine might be higher—successes the Russian military hasn’t proved it can achieve. And if conscripts die in large numbers, upheaval about Putin’s decisions might mount.
“With volunteers… it’s a bit of a different scenario where Russians can say, ‘ok you chose to join, you chose to serve,’” Lee told The Daily Beast. “If you mobilize it means you need to achieve something more, because then the stakes are raised higher. And if you start sending conscripts to war, they start getting killed in large numbers, that becomes a really big political risk.”
U.S. officials have warned Victory Day might not be the endgame for Putin, as well, and have been fuzzy on the date at which Putin might make his next big move in Ukraine. Sometime around mid-May, for instance, Putin will likely try to annex portions of Eastern Ukraine as well as Kherson, Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Ambassador to Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, predicted this week.
The intelligence on the plans is “highly credible,” Carpenter said.
“We believe that Russia will try to annex the Donetsk ‘people’s republic’ and Luhansk ‘people’s republic’… to Russia,” Carpenter said Monday in a briefing with reporters. “I cannot speak to whether Russia will be able to execute on its planning, but this is the planning that we are seeing.”
Budanov, Ukraine defense intelligence chief, however, warned that the Russian military is eyeing victory on May 9 in Eastern Ukraine in the Donbas.