Russia’s Victory Day celebrations take on new importance for the Kremlin this year

MOSCOW — Russians is celebrating Victory Day on Monday, an annual event to mark the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II that has taken on added intrigue and import this year because of Russia’s fight in Ukraine.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the May 9 event has grown in scale and political prominence, with a Soviet-style military parade on Moscow’s Red Square featuring a presidential address.

This year’s Victory Day comes amid widespread speculation, in both Russia and the West, that Putin is eager to declare at least a symbolic win in Ukraine. One big question is whether — or how — Putin might try to galvanize Russians and fuse past Soviet glory and sacrifice with a new call to battle against what he claims is a “neo-Nazi” regime in Ukraine.

The Kremlin insists that what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine is going “according to plan.” Two months in, Western security officials say Moscow has struggled to reach its objectives. With few outright victories to point to, some Russians fear Putin may instead seize the occasion to announce national mobilization and formally declare war, against not only Ukraine but perhaps also other countries in the West.

Russia has made a dash to take Mariupol

Clues to the Kremlin’s search for the optics of victory may lie in a visit last week by a senior official, Sergei Kiriyenko, to the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. A pocket of Ukrainian resistance remains inside the local steel plant, but Putin has formally announced Russian control of Mariupol, unleashing a flood of Russian state media into the city.

In front of cameras, Kiriyenko, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, unveiled a statue depicting an elderly Ukrainian woman whom Russian state media have turned into a symbol of Ukrainian support for Russian troops. The woman, dubbed Babushka Anya, was apparently filmed by Ukrainian soldiers as she greeted them with a Soviet banner, mistakenly believing they were Russians. In the video, she refuses food that the troops offer her after she realizes they are Ukrainian.

She is “a living symbol of the continuity of generations and of the ongoing fight against Nazism and fascism,” Kiriyenko announced, echoing Putin’s claims that Russian troops are in Ukraine to “denazify” the country. “She’s become the grandmother to all of the Donbas and a grandmother to all of Russia.”

Kiriyenko’s presence in Mariupol came amid Russian news reports that the Kremlin adviser — who normally oversees domestic politics — has been tasked with politically integrating Ukrainian lands as they fall to Russian forces.

Putin recognized the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the hours before Russia’s decision to send troops into Ukraine in February. At the time, Putin justified the move as a humanitarian mission in defense of Russian-speakers in the area. Western intelligence services say the Kremlin may now seek the territories’ annexation as a possible prize.

The Kremlin has warned of the potential for wider conflict

Russia’s recent focus on those Ukrainian regions in the eastern Donbas area has slowed down as the U.S. and European allies boost the flow of weapons and other support for Ukraine.

Russia’s military has targeted those shipments as the Kremlin has escalated warnings and criticism, arguing that the military aid risks military confrontation between Russia and NATO powers.

Underscoring this message, Russia on Wednesday carried out drills simulating a tactical nuclear strike in its western exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders the European Union.

Putin has previously warned of “lightning fast” retaliation if the West intervenes in the Ukraine conflict directly — the latest in a pattern of amplified rhetoric that has fed theories that Putin is seeking to build public consensus for a broader war. Asked whether Putin would formally declare war on Ukraine on May 9, a Kremlin spokesman called the idea “nonsense.”

Parade preparations are underway in Moscow

In recent days, Russia’s armed forces have been rehearsing for a parade on Red Square in what has become a Putin-era revival of Soviet military traditions.

Each May 9, Russians celebrate the end, in 1945, of what they call the Great Patriotic War, in which more than 20 million Soviet citizens died at home and abroad. Celebrations and parades take place in dozens of Russian cities.

It appears Moscow’s military display on Monday may be scaled down from those in previous years to reflect the fight in Ukraine, based on statements from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Still, Shoigu said the parade would include 11,000 soldiers and show off 77 aircraft and 131 vehicles, including Russia’s newest rocket launchers.

Russia’s air force has promised to carry out celebratory runs in Z formations — the letter used to mark the Russian military in Ukraine. The letter Z has also emerged as a controversial symbol of both support for Russian troops and intimidation of dissenting voices at home.

A Soviet-era aircraft known as the Flying Kremlin will also make an appearance. It’s an airborne presidential command center to be used in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia.

Meanwhile, down below, there will be Putin and his speech — with the president’s staunchest supporters certain their leader will find the right words.

“Victory will come, but not until we’ve defeated all the Nazis in Ukraine,” said Andrei, 60, a tour guide on Red Square who was worried to give his full name to a Western journalist.

“Putin’s a clever man,” he added, as fighter jets flew in parade formation overhead. “He won’t declare anything without a real victory.”

Charles Maynes reported from Moscow; Alina Selyukh contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING)

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The sounds of Russian military jets and test runs over Red Square last week. Tomorrow, Russia celebrates Victory Day, an annual event to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Only this year’s event has taken on added intrigue and import because of Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. NPR’s Charles Maynes has been following it all from Moscow and will be watching the ceremonies tomorrow. Welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

RASCOE: So, Charles, let’s begin with why is there all this intrigue around this holiday this year?

MAYNES: Well, you know, May 9 is Russia’s most venerated holiday. This is a day when the country honors the more than 20 million Soviets that perished in World War II. But under President Vladimir Putin, the day has also become a way to project Russian power today. You know, Putin has resurrected these Soviet-era displays of military might, you know, most grandly with this massive parade of weapons and soldiers on Red Square. And this is where he addresses the nation. That will all happen again tomorrow. But of course, this year’s event comes as Russia is carrying out what it calls a special military operation against what the Kremlin insists are Nazis in present-day Ukraine.

And so there’s intense speculation about what the Russian president will say. You know, the assumption is he’s eager to declare some kind of symbolic victory. The problem – there aren’t that many to point to after two months of fighting, even as the Kremlin insists its operation is going according to plan. And that’s led to another concern. You know, maybe Putin will widen the conflict, perhaps by declaring war and mobilizing society to fight not only against Ukraine, but even the West.

RASCOE: Do we have any sense in what direction it will go?

MAYNES: The Kremlin insists there will be no declaration of war.

RASCOE: Yeah, but you can’t really trust the Kremlin on that, right?

MAYNES: Exactly. So, you know, and just to step back, you know, the context here is that Russia is angry about Western arms pouring into Ukraine, and it’s threatening to take action. You know, Putin recently even issued several not-so-thinly veiled reminders of Russia’s nuclear might. But if we’re looking for clues as to how Russia might pursue the optics of victory, it may lie in Mariupol. That’s the port city that’s been the scene of intense fighting since the conflict began. You know, Putin claimed Mariupol liberated in late April despite ongoing resistance from Ukrainian forces still holed up in a local steel factory. And we’ve seen a key Kremlin adviser and well-known figures from Russian-state media there in recent days. And, you know, in their actions and in their words, they draw this direct line between the Soviet victory over fascism in 1945 and their forces operating in Mariupol and other parts of east Ukraine today. So, you know, they seem to be preparing a torch-has-been-passed kind of moment, fusing past Soviet glory and sacrifice with today’s mission.

RASCOE: Does the public see it that way?

MAYNES: You know, polling shows widespread support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but the media environment now is very restrictive. And don’t forget Russian authorities have also criminalized any questioning of the mission or the armed forces. But certainly a lot of Russians clearly feed on these parallels between World War II and the conflict in Ukraine. I want to play a bit of tape from a conversation I had with a man named Andrei Nikolaevich. He refused to give his last name to me because I’m a Western reporter, but I met him on Red Square as we watched some of the rehearsals for tomorrow’s parade.

ANDREI NIKOLAEVICH: We have already had once, this victory in 1945. And we expect peace, but peace should be with victory over the Nazis, new Nazis who occupied all the country of Ukraine.

MAYNES: You know, there’s no doubt where Andrei’s sympathies lie, but he says he wants Putin to declare victory in Ukraine only when the mission is complete. And that’s really the thing about the way modern Russia plays with historical memory. You know, having sold the Russian public on this narrative of fighting a new wave of fascism in Europe, the leadership here is risking that anything short of total victory might look like failure.

RASCOE: That’s NPR’s Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.