May 5, 2022
On May 9, Putin will host his big annual Victory Day shindig in Moscow to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Germany, but this year the world awaits Putin’s speech about Ukraine. He has many options: He can portray his “special military operation” in Ukraine as a victory and continue course; he can end it, or he can escalate by officially declaring war against Ukraine to mobilize more forces. This global guessing game has been underway in advance of Putin’s massive show of force in Moscow, but only the dictator knows the answer.
Some observers believe May 9 will be anti-climactic. “All the hand-wringing about what the Russians will try to accomplish to have a great victory for the May  celebration misses the central point,” wrote Dr. David E. Johnson, a retired Army colonel and principal researcher at the esteemed military think tank, the RAND Corporation. “Wherever the Russians are on that day, Putin will declare that moment a great victory. He controls the message and a great victory is whatever he says it is. This, again, is what the Russians have always done and we should expect it from them now.”
Putin could declare “victory” at any time because only he knows what specific parameters he established as an objective of his aggression. Besides that, as seen through a military filter, he’s “winning”. His armed forces control twice as much land as the Russians occupied before February 24. The cost to Russia of this has been high — in blood and treasure — but the cost to his adversary, Ukraine, has been staggering. Untold thousands of deaths and injuries have occurred, its economy and army are on life support, tens of millions of Ukrainians are refugees or homeless, cities have been vaporized, and the steady destruction of all its infrastructure continues daily.
Meanwhile, Western media and military elites keep hyping that Russia’s military is mediocre and clumsy, and inexperienced, but this has always been the case and is thoroughly irrelevant. Russia’s setbacks, such as the sinking of its Black Sea flagship or its inability to take over Kyiv, were overcome and its armed forces pivoted quickly. Now they aggressively attack east and south and bomb everywhere else.
This steadily grinding warfare is Putin’s “Plan B”, cautions Dr. Johnson. “Plan B is to revert to what the Russians have always done when faced with a resolute adversary. They turn to fires delivered by cannons, rockets, missiles, and bombs. Russian armies have always operated this way, but somehow they managed to win ugly against almost all comers. It is not pretty to watch, but they generally prevail in what they set out to do.”
By contrast, Britain’s jingoistic Defense Minister Ben Wallace believes Putin will use May 9 to declare war against Ukraine and NATO, raising the specter of a nuclear exchange. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also raised the possibility that Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons to bring about a quick end to the conflict. But if Dr. Johnson’s assessment is correct,
Putin doesn’t need to gamble with the possibility of nuclear escalation with NATO because his war is going just fine and just as planned. This is another Chechnya or Syria. Not only is he trashing his foe, but his aggression has upended the world’s geopolitical alliances, trading partnerships, and economic markets.
And Putin wouldn’t declare war against Ukraine for two other reasons. Such an escalatory action would constitute an admission that the “special military operation” hadn’t succeeded and a “war” was needed; and, secondly, “wars” are reserved for disputes between nation-states and Putin doesn’t regard Ukraine as a legitimate nation-state, just a territory requiring remediation and a “special military operation”.
But the most welcome option would be if Putin simply decides to end his “operation”, declaring it successful. Under this scenario, Russian troops would keep their newly acquired lands and talks could begin on peace and partitioning of the country. Naturally, this would be rejected by Ukraine, but faced with slow-motion annihilation, would be negotiable with the help of a trusted Western leader like France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Newly elected and with a nuclear arsenal all his own, Macron has the only working relationship with Putin behind the scenes, as well as with Zelensky, among leaders.
The possibility that Putin intends to stop fighting is not far-fetched given reports that May 9 has been Putin’s definitive deadline all along for completion of his “special military operation”. Widespread reports are that Russian soldiers have recently been told the war must end by that date. And last month, an Italian newspaper published that Pope Francis at the Vatican was told by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that “the Russians have a plan, that everything [in Ukraine] will be over on May 9”.
And if Mariupol and possibly Kherson have fallen by May 9, Putin could declare mission accomplished, remain intact, and be heralded at home as strategically triumphant. Annexation would immediately begin of all occupied territories and protracted negotiations with Ukraine would replace protracted battles.
The worst possibility would be if, on May 9, Putin preens on the podium, praises the greatness of the Russian war machine, talks of the restoration of a new Russian Empire, then carries on killing. Dr. Johnson writes, “if I am correct, then we should expect things to get only worse in eastern Ukraine as the war continues. This is now a war of attrition, to which the traditional Russian approach of persistent brute force is highly suited.”
Ukraine has played a lousy hand better than any other nation in history, but this is a conflict that neither side will win. NATO’s flood of weaponry helps Ukrainians defend themselves and “degrades” Russia’s military. But Putin’s “special military operation” continues to ruinously “degrade” Ukraine itself which is why NATO must back whatever efforts Ukraine endorses to stop the slaughter as soon as possible. Both sides need a deal.