He made no declaration of victory or “mission accomplished” and no promise that the fight in Ukraine could end soon. But as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin spoke in Moscow’s Red Square on Monday, he also called for no new sacrifice or mobilization, no threats of a nuclear strike, no harsh statements about a existential war with the West.
Instead, Mr Putin, speaking at Russia’s most important secular holiday, delivered a message to the general Russian public: that they could get on with their lives. The military would continue to fight to rid Ukraine, according to its false claims, of ‘torturers, death squads and Nazis’, but Mr Putin has made no further attempt to prepare his people for conflict wider.
The calibrated tone showed that while some Western officials predicted Mr Putin would use the May 9 holiday to double down on war, he remains cautious about demanding too much of ordinary Russians. The only political announcement Mr Putin made in his speech was actually aimed at alleviating the pain directly caused by the war – a decree aimed at providing additional aid to the children of killed and injured soldiers.
“He has developed a certain sense of what is and is not possible,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a close adviser to Mr Putin until his falling out with him in 2011, explaining why the Russian leader does not seem not ready to order a mass mobilization. “He understands that no amount of propaganda alone can force someone to die.”
Mr Putin’s speech was restrained, especially compared to the fiery rhetoric he has espoused on other occasions over the past two months; it was also the speech, of all his recent appearances, that the Russian people were most likely to see, as it took place during the televised Victory Day parade, the flagship annual event of the Russian state. celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Some analysts say that while polls show broad support in Russia for the war, there appears to be concern in the Kremlin that this support is not deep. Mr Pavlovsky said the president seemed keen to avoid further damage to the tacit agreement with the Russian people he struck after taking office: regular Russians stay out of politics and the Kremlin lets them largely live their lives.
While more than 15,000 Russians were arrested in anti-war protests in the first weeks of the war, the vast majority remained silent, despite opposing it. And although Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy, it has not collapsed, allowing many people to live largely as they did before the February 24 invasion.
Independent pollster Levada found last month that 39% of Russians pay little or no attention to what the Kremlin calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed Mr Putin’s claim that he purged Nazism to justify the invasion, saying in a video released Monday that it was the Russian leader who was “today repeating the crimes horrors of Hitler’s regime”.
“On Victory Day over Nazism, we are fighting for another victory,” Zelensky said as he was shown walking alone through the streets of kyiv, past government buildings protected by barriers and barbed wire.
Together, the speeches showed the two leaders engaging in what could be a protracted battle, as Ukrainian troops, armed with heavy weaponry supplied by the West, fought Russian forces along a 300-meter front. miles in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. After weeks of intense fighting, Russia made only sporadic gains.
The Ukrainian military said the Russian army had deployed 19 battalion tactical groups – each numbering up to 1,000 troops – to the Russian border town of Belgorod in preparation for an assault aimed at slowing down a Ukrainian counteroffensive around of Kharkiv and to break through Ukrainian defensive lines elsewhere. In the region.
In Warsaw, protesters chanting ‘fascists’ doused Russian Ambassador to Poland Sergei Andreev in the face with red liquid as he and other Russian diplomats visited a memorial honoring Army soldiers red killed during World War II. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria V. Zakharova, called the protesters “admirers of neo-Nazism”.
Western and Ukrainian officials had speculated that Mr Putin could use the martial pomp of the May 9 ceremony to formally declare Russia in a state of war and expand military conscription, allowing him to augment his depleted forces who have faced so many struggles on the battlefield.
But analysts said a massive mobilization of the Russian public, an increase in conscription or a shift to an austere war economy would undermine the balance he had struck and bring the reality of war into many other homes. Mr Putin promised early on that the conscripts – young Russian men who must complete a year of military service – would not be sent into combat. After many attempts, Mr. Putin ordered an investigation.
“People might be ready to support the war sitting at home watching TV, as they say, but they might not be ready to go to fight at all,” Pavlovsky said. “This is the central position that Putin understands and tries not to touch.”
The choreography of the parade itself seemed intended for those who were comfortably familiar: troops and vehicles marched and rolled through Red Square as they had done in previous years and did not display the “Z” symbol which now represents support for the war in Ukraine.
Even during Monday’s celebrations, glimmers of unrest inside Russia continued to emerge. OVD-Info, an advocacy group, reported detentions protesters scattered across the country. He handed out a picture of a man who was later arrested for placing a box of chocolates on a bench in central Moscow next to a handwritten sign that read, “Take sweets if you’re against war.”
In the most dramatic act of protest, two Russian journalists from Lentu.ru, a pro-Kremlin news site, suddenly filled its homepage with anti-war articles, including one stating that “Putin must go “.
“Do not be afraid!” the article, published briefly on the website, said. “Don’t be silent! Resist! You are not alone, and there are many of us! The future is ours!”
In his speech, Mr Putin rehashed old arguments – that the invasion was the ‘only correct decision’ because, he falsely claimed, Ukraine was planning a ‘punitive invasion’ of its controlled territory Russian, and because NATO was building troops near Russia’s borders.
But some analysts have warned that while Mr Putin has defied some Western expectations of escalation, the threat remains high in the weeks ahead. Tatiana Stanovaya, who has long studied Mr Putin and founded the France-based political analysis firm R. Politik, said the Russian president probably viewed the VE Day parade as the wrong time and place to report an escalation – particularly because many Russians were still taking advantage of the country’s traditional holiday period in early May.
She said the biggest danger lay in Mr Putin’s frustration with Western arms supplies to Ukraine, and that he could use Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal to deter it, detonate a single weapon with demonstrative effect. In Mr. Putin’s account, the West pushes Ukraine into resistance in order to weaken Russia; Late last month, Mr Putin warned countries that “create a strategic threat to Russia” could expect “retaliatory strikes” that would be “lightning fast”.
“According to him, the problems that Russia is currently facing in Ukraine stem not from a lack of forces, but from Ukraine’s Western armament,” Stanovaya said. “He is at war with the West, so he has to show the West that he has to retreat. And he has to show it in a way that really scares everyone.
Mr Putin reserved his harshest language in Monday’s speech in the United States. It was the United States and its “goons” who were using Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” to threaten Russia, he said, forcing him to respond militarily. And it was the United States, he said, that “humiliated” the world after the fall of the Soviet Union by proclaiming its “exceptionalism.”
“Without a Western retreat, there is no way Putin will win the war now,” Ms Stanovaya said.
Reporting was provided by Michael Levenson, Marc Santora, Andrew Higgins and Ivan Nechepurenko.