When Vladimir Putin stood on a Red Square podium Monday, at the annual celebration of the Soviet victory in World War II over Nazi Germany, he looked weak and defensive.
Putin didn’t use his speech, as many were expecting, to formally declare war on Ukraine. He didn’t call for a mass mobilization, or repeat threats to use nuclear weapons. Nor did he talk of Russian “victories” in Ukraine.
In a telling indication of how badly things are going for Putin, the Russian military chief, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who should have been standing next to his Kremlin boss, was noticeably absent. Gerasimov was reportedly wounded when visiting the front lines at the end of April.
Putin’s speech was one of a man treading water, uncertain what to do next.
Indeed, it was what Putin didn’t say that spoke volumes about the quagmire in which he has trapped himself — and about Ukraine’s potential path to victory.
“He scraped the rough edges off his speech because he’s a bit unsure he can deliver,” retired Air Force General and former NATO commander Philip Breedlove suggested to me. “He’s starting to see it may not be the victory he sought, looking to see how to close it out and call it a victory”
It was striking that, on a day Putin considers almost holy — marking one of the most hallowed Russian historical moments — the Russian president downplayed his usual false and disgusting comparisons between supposed Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and Hitler’s Nazis.
Only the day before, in a statement that got much less international attention, he regurgitated that slime, claiming Ukrainians were the “ideological successors of those who were defeated” in World War II. Perhaps, even Putin understood — at a moment when Russia was slamming missiles into civilian targets in Ukraine — he would look depraved spouting such trash with the world’s cameras on him.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it, in his Victory Day video speech, Russia is implementing “a bloody reconstruction of Nazism.” Zelenskyy added, “Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone won’t have any.”
Three other things struck me about Putin’s speech.
First, even though the Russian military is short of men in Ukraine, he did not call for a mass mobilization. “He thought it would raise much more domestic opposition,” I was told by Angela Stent, author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.”
Right now, Russian troops fighting in Ukraine include conscripts from rural areas or units from the far east of the country, many of whom reportedly believe they are fighting Nazis. A national mobilization would have brought in youths from cities, meaning news of Russia’s ugly war would have trickled back to urban populations. Even the Kremlin’s near total control of Russian media wouldn’t have prevented wider public grasp of war realities, including Russian casualties.
Second, Putin didn’t brag about annexing the new territory Russia has grabbed, including Mariupol. No doubt he is aware the world has seen the video of Russia’s massive destruction of cities and people — equivalent to Hitler’s — or perhaps he realizes the takeover may not be permanent.
Third, before an international audience focused intently on his speech, Putin did not make the expected comparisons between victory in 1945 and defeat of Ukraine. That tells me he is now trying to redefine what kind of “victory” he can achieve. Clearly, he now recognizes he can’t take over all of Ukraine.
The Russian dictator also appears leery of provoking a wider war with NATO, even though he ludicrously blamed NATO for provoking Ukraine into “threatening” Russia. By pointedly refraining from nuclear saber-rattling in his speech, Putin may have indicated he knows Russia can’t afford a war with the West.
So where does that leave “Putler,” as Ukrainians call Putin — an amalgamation of his name with Hitler?
My guess is he hopes to win more territory in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and in the south, occupying a wide swath of Ukraine that connects mainland Russia with occupied Crimea and cuts Ukraine entirely off from the Black Sea. This would include seizing the beautiful port city of Odesa.
At that point Putin would offer “peace talks,” without any intention of succeeding. He would likely hope that a broken Ukraine, its economy shattered without sea access, would eventually give in to Russian control.
Ukraine, however, won’t accept this. And there is a chance that, if the West gets new weapons to the front fast enough, Ukraine can roll back Russian advances and retake much of their land.
“The next few months are critical,” I was told by Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary-general of NATO. “Ukraine needs to turn the tide in the next months. A draw doesn’t solve things.”
This should be an incentive for the Biden team — and its NATO allies — to get critical weapons systems into Ukrainian hands immediately. Despite all the West’s bragging about arms deliveries, there are key systems, such as anti-ship missiles, that still have not reached the country or the front.
Now is the moment, before this war passes into stalemate, to enable a Ukrainian victory. “We won then [in 1945],” Zelenskyy said on Sunday. “We will win now … and see the victory parade, the victory of Ukraine!”