The crossroads of May 9: towards total war in Ukraine?

This Monday, May 9, may mark a turning point in the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. that day, Russia celebrates the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, an event that since 1945 has acquired the category of myth in the mentality of the Russian people, one of the most mistreated by that war. To parades and military parades throughout the country, the Russian president, Vladimir Putincould add this Monday a shocking announcement that would try to overturn the Kremlin’s strategy in the invasion of Ukraine, a war that Russia has not just won and that risks stalling for many months or even years.

Foreign leaders have not been invited to the celebrations of this sacred day for Russia, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has indicated, but this does not prevent all eyes in the world from being fixed on that date.

These days, Western foreign ministries and intelligence services ponder Putin’s real intentions for May 9 and offer a thousand and one guesses about what the Russian head of state supposedly intends to present to his fellow citizens. From a formal declaration of war on Ukraine, in order to mobilize all of Russia’s war potential against its southern neighbor, to an expansion of the theater of operations, including the proclamation of victory in the conflict based on the undoubted Russian military advances in the Ukrainian east.

And yet the Kremlin it appears to be looking elsewhere as that date approaches and plays down Western fears. “Our army is not going to artificially adjust its actions to any date, not even Victory Day,” the Russian Foreign Minister said a few days ago. Sergei Lavrovfor whom the course of military operations in Ukraine “depends, above all, on the need to minimize any risk to the civilian population and military personnel of Russia.”

It is not known how many Russian soldiers have already died in the invasion. According to the Ukrainian authorities, they would exceed 23,000, that is, almost two out of every ten soldiers who have participated in the campaign. According to the British secret services, there would be no less than 15,000 dead Russians. The Government of the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, does not mention their own casualties, of course, and neither do their Western allies, but they should not be much lower than those calculated for the Russians. There is no veracity, neither in one nor in the other, and only when the conflict ends, perhaps the military casualties in this war can be counted, as well as the civilian ones, which the UN puts at least 3,238 people dead, according to data provided by the last Wednesday and that, surely, are very far from the real number.

It seems clear, in any case, that the initial objectives set by the Kremlin in its “special operation” in Ukraine are far from what has been achieved so far. Its forces have established themselves in the east and south of the country, in Donbas and in that crescent of territory that reaches the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in February 2014. They also exert unbearable pressure on Kharkovthe second largest city in the country, in the northeast, and seem to have won the battle for the port city of Mariupolwhere Ukrainian soldiers are still resisting under inhumane conditions in the underground of the Azovstal factory, surrounded by the Russians.

But the Ukrainian Army is far from defeated. The arrival of weapons and ammunition from the United States and many European countries is incessant. The involvement on the ground of US, Canadian, British and other NATO advisers in support of Ukraine seems clearer every day. The provision of strategic intelligence by Washington and Brussels to Kyiv, with information from US satellites and the Atlantic Alliance, is being vital in marking vulnerable targets for the invading forces. Under these conditions, the war could last for a long time.

Time that the Russian Army does not have, with supply problems, replacement of troops, lack of ammunition and with an unstoppable deterioration of Moscow’s image in the world. If the war in the Ukrainian countryside and cities could be tilted towards the Russian side for the time being, the media battle has already been won by Ukraine long ago. The propaganda and disinformation deployed by kyiv have beaten the propaganda and disinformation from Moscow, as can be seen every day in most of the Western media. The manipulation of information by the Kremlin, for its part, only seems to be successful within the Russian Federation itself, where many people continue to think that its soldiers are helping to denazify Ukraine and liberate the brotherly Ukrainian people.

The look, therefore, is set on May 9 and the Victory Day party. A formal declaration of war on Ukraine would entail full Russian mobilization, martial law, large-scale conscription, war economy, full provision of all national logistics and seizure of private means of production, increased supplies , supplies and conventional weapons (and non-conventional, that is, atomic) destined for the battlefield, and the preparation of the civilian population itself at the service of the war effort. Few doubt, however, that this whole series of measures would mean, in the medium term, the catastrophe of the already impoverished Russian economy.

Putin knows, however, that such a shift cannot be counteracted by the West and its military aid to Ukraine, unless its intervention in the conflict also turns the tide, with the consequent risk of a large-scale conflagration and consequences unpredictable, but very serious, in Europe. A successful Ukrainian counterattack in Donbas or on the Crimean peninsula, backed by the heavy weapons promised by the United States, Germany and other NATO countries, could push Putin to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which would change not only the course of the war but also of the history of Europe and the world.

Rumors about the illness that Putin could be suffering from support, on the other hand, the opinion of those who think that on May 9 the Russian president could temporarily delegate the reins of the country to his trusted man, also a former spy. Nikolai Patrushev, current secretary of the Russian Security Council, and one of the Kremlin’s hawks. Those who know Patrushev do not breathe a sigh of relief at this possible change in command of the country. Rather the complete opposite.

Perhaps the announcement, if it comes, will be reduced to the proclamation with great fanfare of the seizure of the Azovstal steelworks and the destruction of the last Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. There could also be an announcement of victory in the war and the annexation of Donbas to Russia. Another possibility would be the expansion of the theater of war to the southwest, to the city of Odessa, the main Ukrainian city on the Black Sea. Kharkov is also in the Russian crosshairs, as is neighboring Izium, and military action on Ukraine’s now quiet border with Belarus should not be ruled out, although the president of this country, Alexander Lukashenko, has reiterated several times in recent times the need for the war to end. By the way, not even Lukashenko, Moscow’s great ally in this crisis, has been invited to the parade and military parade that will presumably host Moscow’s Red Square on May 9.

Putin wants his country to close ranks around the war on that day, something he is not sure of at the moment, given the scale of the protests in Russia itself that have opposed the conflict since it began on February 24. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested since then and no one doubts that tens of thousands more would be arrested if such “total war” were declared on Ukraine.

That is why the Russian leader urgently needs a more attractive flag, positive news, a marked decision that will bring that desired turn to the current situation of uncertainty surrounding the Ukrainian campaign, especially for his inner circle of power, but also to garner the greatest possible popular support in case the war drags on longer than expected. A support that, likewise, will be essential to face an eventual peace that will leave a lot of collateral damage also in their own country.


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