There has been a lot of talk this past week about the significance of May 9 (tomorrow) in Russia. The following article, written by Tom Nichols in the Atlantic Magazine captures possible scenarios that Vladimir Putin might in his major speech as part of those celebrations. I think Nichols’s analysis is worth repeating ahead of tomorrow’s potentially significant statements that could affect us all.
“British Defense Minister Ben Wallace, for one, has expressed the concern that Putin will use May 9 to press for the mass mobilization of the Russian people. It would not be a surprise to see Putin expand his campaign against the putative Nazis in Ukraine to a war against all of “the world’s Nazis.”
“Putin will be keen to help his military avenge the humiliation of its abysmal performance in a war where every advantage, including size and geography, initially appeared to be on the side of the Russians. Instead of a lightning victory and a march to Kyiv, the Russians (even by conservative estimates) have lost more than 10,000 men—including a slew of generals and other senior officers—along with hundreds of tanks and scores of aircraft. Their flagship in the theater, the Moskva, now sits at the bottom of the Black Sea.
Someone must be held accountable for this disaster, and we may be sure that it will not be Vladimir Putin.
On May 9, Putin will blame the West for his troubles, and he will almost certainly issue threats, including more nuclear saber-rattling. There may well be a call to action issued to the Russian people. But how much more capacity the Russians can bring to the war is unclear. Russian military life is a miserable existence. If Putin calls for mobilization on May 9, it will take months, or even years, of training before these new troops would be ready for combat.”
“Similarly, the Russian defense industry cannot instantly kick into overdrive and solve Moscow’s equipment problems. To send more poorly designed tanks and defective missiles to the front, would also be a tough sell at home. Still, Putin might call for a final push to overwhelm the Ukrainians by throwing men and machines into a meat grinder. This war was a deluded scheme hatched in Putin’s COVID-isolated bubble, and even now Putin seems truly unable to understand the disaster he’s unleashed on Ukraine and the damage he’s done to Russia.
The more worrisome possibility is that Putin has decided that he will merely declare NATO the true source of Russia’s defeat, and plunge Russia into World War III—a genuine third world war, rather than the one that the Ukrainians and others claim is already under way—with the Russians initiating attacks against Western forces, perhaps at the Ukrainian border or at sea. This choice does not require Putin to be a madman, but rather to be as ill-informed and overconfident as he has been for years. And apparently, if that means courting the risk of global annihilation, so be it.
Even if Putin chooses a less dangerous path, he is unlikely to declare a kind of Nixonian “peace with honor” exit. Here, Putin is in a bind. The whole point of hiring Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a decade ago and plowing money into the Russian armed forces was to restore Russia as a formidable military power—or at least one able to win wars against smaller opponents without a national convulsion. The war, however, has proved that these basic goals were not met, and if Putin calls for a larger war effort, he will not just be admitting defeat in Ukraine, but conceding that the rebuilding of the Russian military was a failure.
If Putin doesn’t announce an escalation, what else might he say? One option is to declare a limited victory, and then go back to grinding away at the Ukrainians, as he has done in the Ukrainian east since 2014. He may simply announce, in the spirit of a day devoted to the end of Hitlerism, that he has indeed “de-Nazified” Ukraine, an easy call given that precious few Nazis were loose in Ukraine in the first place. He might say that victory is in hand but needs to be consolidated with the occupation of what’s left of Mariupol.
No one can know what Putin is going to do next, and the opacity and unpredictability of Kremlin policy will become even more pronounced now that Putin has reportedly taken personal control of running the war (while offloading the day-to-day job of governing Russia to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin). We should brace ourselves for bellicose accusations about NATO and the West. Insane rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin was part of living with the Cold War, and now that Putin has set Russia firmly into a second cold war, we should be measured and calm in our responses, just as we were when Soviet leaders thundered at us from atop Lenin’s tomb.
No matter what Putin says on May 9, the Russians will continue to inflict misery on the people of Ukraine. The question next week is whether the Russian president intends to extend this war to the rest of the planet.
By the time most of you read this, the die will be cast. Putin will have made his speech, and we will know. However, it might be helpful for us to reflect on how well, or not, we, in the West, can read Putin’s mind. Helpful, that is, if we still have a future to look forward to!