Weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to deliver his annual 9 May speech to mark Victory Day against the German Nazi army during World War II, US and Western officials speculated that he might use that occasion to escalate the ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine, and officially declare a war that will go on for months, if not years.
Other Western media reports expected Putin would call for mass mobilisation and draft thousands of young Russians to fight in Ukraine, while reminding the world, yet again, of his country’s large nuclear arsenal ready for use in no time in case of an existential threat.
However, surrounded at the Red Square in Moscow by army generals and a few remaining veterans who witnessed the extreme human cost of victory against Germany in 1945, Putin used the opportunity to draw comparisons between World War II and the current war in Ukraine which started on 24 February, and to detail a long-standing list of grievances against the United States and its claim of “exceptionalism” following the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin insisted the military operation in Ukraine was a preemptive move against future aggression targeting Russia by the United States and NATO alliance members, ignited by a large-scale offensive against the breakaway republics in the eastern Donbass region.
“We saw the military infrastructure unfolding [in Ukraine]; hundreds of foreign advisers starting their work; there were regular deliveries of the most modern weapons from NATO countries. The danger grew every day,” he said. “Russia gave a preemptive rebuff to aggression – this was necessary and timely, and the only right decision by a sovereign, strong and independent country.”
He cited Moscow’s attempts to engage in dialogue on security guarantees with Washington late last year, which failed to yield results. “NATO countries didn’t want to hear us, which means that, in fact, they harboured completely different plans, and we saw it,” he elaborated. “There were open preparations for a punitive operation in the Donbass and an invasion of our historical lands, including Crimea,” Putin insisted, adding that Kyiv also announced plans to restore its nuclear capabilities.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has increasingly spoken of American exceptionalism, Putin pointed out. “The United States, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, began to talk about its exclusivity, humiliating the whole world.”
Over the years, Putin’s disquiet about American hegemony has resonated with many different political currents globally and is at the core of many parties’ admiration for him.
By claiming the right to lead the world alone, Washington was “humiliating not only the whole world, but also its satellites, which have to pretend that they don’t notice anything and humbly accept it all. But we are a different country,” Putin argued.
But the West has apparently decided to “cancel” those values, with such “moral degradation becoming the basis for cynical falsifications of the history of World War II, and the incitement of Russophobia,” he said.
Feeding speculations that Russian military operations in the coming weeks will focus on strengthening control on Ukraine’s eastern parts bordering Russia, Putin said “the self-defence forces of the Donbass Republics together with the Russian military are fighting on their land… for the motherland, for its future, to make sure that no one forgets the lessons of World War II, so that there would be no place in the world for butchers, punishers, and Nazis.”
Putin said that Moscow should not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet leadership of 1940-1941. Back then, he explained, the USSR tried not to provoke Nazi Germany by “refraining or postponing the most urgent and obvious preparations it had to make to defend itself from an imminent attack”. As a result, the Russian president continued, the moment was lost and the country was not prepared to counter the invasion. “The attempt to appease the aggressor ahead of the Great Patriotic War proved to be a mistake which came at a high cost for our people…We will not make this mistake the second time. We have no right to do so.”
In Russia, “Victory Day,” as it is referred to in the post-Soviet era, was for decades a day of sorrowful remembrance. The Soviet Union lost millions of its citizens during World War II, and 9 May was a day to reflect on that loss.
Yet that has changed over the past several years. Increasingly, Putin has used the day to serve his own domestic purposes. Unlike in previous years, this time no foreign heads of state were guests at the parade.
Europe and the United States celebrate Germany’s capitulation after World War II on 8 May. The formal surrender in 1945 was intentionally timed to take place late on 8 May west of Moscow and at the stroke of midnight in Russia, granting the then Soviet Union its own day of commemoration.
Some analysts say that while the polls in Russia show broad support for the war, there appears to be concern in the Kremlin that this support is not deep. While more than 15,000 Russians were arrested at antiwar protests in the first weeks of the war, the vast majority stayed silent. And while Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy, it has not collapsed, allowing many people to live largely as they had before the invasion.
But some analysts warned that even if Putin defies Western expectations of escalation, the threat remains high in the coming weeks. The greatest danger lies in Putin’s frustration at the West’s arms deliveries to Ukraine, and that the situation could deteriorate fast if Moscow decided to target those weapons during delivery. Late last month, Putin warned countries that “create a strategic threat to Russia” could expect “retaliatory strikes” that would be “lightning fast”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.