Briefing

Will Russia's Victory Day bring an escalation of the war in Ukraine?

Expect military parades and dire rhetoric on one of the country's biggest holidays

Victory Day, celebrated annually on May 9, is Russia's most important national holiday. Many Western officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use the event to mark a new phase in the country's invasion of Ukraine. Here's everything you need to know: 

What is Victory Day?

Russians celebrate May 9 as "Victory Day," a commemoration of the defeat of the Nazis and the end of World War II. It is similar to V-E Day (Victory-Europe), celebrated on May 8 in Europe, but takes place a day later because of the time difference between Western Europe and the Soviet Union when Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies at 11:01 p.m. in 1945. Victory Day is one of the nation's most significant national holidays, since Russia notably lost around 27 million soldiers and civilians in World War II, and is "something like if the United States rolled Veterans Day and Memorial Day into one gigantic military-patriotic celebration," Tom Nichols writes for The Atlantic

How do Russians celebrate Victory Day?

"In my childhood, in the late eighties and early nineties, it was, apart from the New Year, by far the best holiday of the year," recalls Sasha Lensky for The Spectator. "You normally spent it outside, in excellent May weather with lilac blooming all over and war songs — like 'Victory Day' or 'Katyusha' — booming out from loudspeakers in the streets. We children presented flowers to the veterans, whose chests were sparkling with medals and decorations." May 9 is "also a day for speeches" and military parades in the Red Square, Nichols adds, and during the Cold War, "Sovietologists would pay attention to such public declarations, looking for clues to Kremlin policy."

How will Victory Day celebrations be different this year?

In light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the traditional Victory Day Parade at the Kremlin has been scaled down "by almost 35 percent," Forbes' Craig Hooper writes, noting that "the shrunken parade reflects both the forces committed to the battlefield and large losses." He adds that "the Russian military knows that this year's Victory Day parade is a sad and tawdry show, and Putin, if he shows up, will have to sit though it all." Russia's foreign minister has already confirmed that "our military will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day."

But even "despite the calamitous war in Ukraine," Russia's Victory Day celebrations will include "11,000 servicemen and women plus 62 airplanes and 15 helicopters," Lensky writes. Indeed, May 9 "has become cult-of-war day, glorifying the nation as Ultimate Victors, while hinting at forthcoming revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as issuing dark threats to unnamed enemies." As a result, many intelligence experts think Putin will use May 9 to open a new phase of the assault on Ukraine.

How so?

"The Russian president has a keen eye for symbolism, having launched the invasion of Ukraine the day after Defender of the Fatherland Day, another crucial military day in Russia," CNN explains. But since Putin can't "announce the capture of Kyiv and the installation of a Kremlin-compliant president there," he'll have to look for other ways to leverage this patriotic holiday, GZERO writes.

What Victory Day announcement could Putin make?

Putin is "probably going to declare … that 'we are now at war with the world's Nazis and we need to mass mobilize the Russian people,'" Britain's defense secretary, Ben Wallace, has predicted. Though U.S. intelligence hasn't officially weighed in, "Russia-watchers are concerned that 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," Nichols goes on.

What would the significance be of Russia declaring war?

"Declaring war is the toughest scenario," Oleg Ignatov, a senior analyst for Russia at Crisis Group, told CNN, but it would also "change the whole Kremlin narrative" by acknowledging that the invasion is not going well for Moscow. Yet importantly, "if Putin were to declare war on his neighbor, Moscow would be able to draft in more conscripts — which could also be kept for longer than the usual year-long term — impose martial law and make bids for increased support from it's international allies, such as Belarus," The Independent notes. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, meanwhile, has insisted there is "no chance" Russia will use Victory Day to declare war. 

Are there other theories about what Russia could do on Victory Day?

Yes. The Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian security think tank, fears that Russia will "put hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war on display during a military parade" through the Red Square — possibly including two former British soldiers who were captured in Mariupol last month.

Russia might also use the occasion to make "victory claims of some sort," Julian G. Waller predicts to Yahoo! News. "And they're certainly going to be related to the Russo-Ukrainian war that's ongoing right now. And the new phase in the Donbas is very likely going to filter in." Indeed, because "technically" the goal of Russia's invasion was to "defend Donbas," announcing the "capture of Donbas would allow Russia to claim success [and] declare 'victory,'" Valeriy Akimenko, a senior research associate at the Conflict Studies Research Centre in England, told NBC News. Russian foreign policy expert Anton Barbashin agreeds "Russia ended the war in Syria two or three times … they announced full victory, goals achieved, mission accomplished," he told The Moscow Times. "They could announce [on 9 May] that we won: Donbas is secure … but everything continues."

Russians who fled their home country after the invasion of Ukraine are also looking for what sort of message Putin sends on May 9, with some holding out faint hope that the end of the war might be declared. "Putin's going to have to say something about the war," Olga, a Turkey-based IT specialist, told The Moscow Times. "It's a question of what they are going to frame as a victory."

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