May 9, known as “Victory Day” in Russia, commemorates the country’s defeat by the Nazis in 1945.
It is marked by a military parade in Moscow, and Russian leaders traditionally stand at Vladimir Lenin’s grave in Red Square to observe him.
“May 9 is designed to show off to the local crowd, to intimidate the opposition and please the dictator of the day,” James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, told CNN.
Western officials have long believed that Putin would use the symbolic significance and propaganda value of the day to announce either a military achievement in Ukraine or a major escalation in hostilities – or both.
The Russian president has a keen sense of symbolism, having launched the invasion of Ukraine the day after Defender of the Fatherland Day, another crucial military day in Russia.
Preparing for mobilization?
Putin has many options on the table, according to Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at Crisis Group. “Declaring war is the most difficult scenario,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – who has not officially declared war on Russia – imposed martial law on Ukraine when the Russian invasion began in late February.
Another option for Putin is to enact the Russian Mobilization Law, which can be used to trigger general or partial military mobilization “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation or direct threat of aggression, outbreak of armed conflict directed against the Russian Federation”. “
This would allow the government not only to muster troops, but also to put the country’s economy on a war footing.
Russian forces have lost at least 15,000 troops since the start of the war, according to Nixey, and reinforcements will be needed if Moscow is to achieve its goals in Ukraine.
Mobilization could mean extending conscription for soldiers currently in the armed forces, bringing in reservists or bringing in combat-age men who have undergone military training, Ignatov said.
But it would also represent a big risk for Putin.
“It would change the whole Kremlin narrative,” Ignatov said, noting that the move would force Putin to admit that the invasion of Ukraine did not go as planned. Large-scale mobilization could also hurt Russia’s struggling economy, he said.
Also, it could decrease support for Putin in the country, as some Russians support invading Ukraine without personally wanting to go into battle, the analyst said.
“If they declare a large-scale mobilization, some people wouldn’t like it,” Ignatov said.
It might still be possible for Putin to enact the Mobilization Law without officially declaring war on Ukraine, he said.
Putin could also impose martial law in Russia, suspend elections and further concentrate power in his hands, Ignatov said.
It would impose rules such as restrictions on men of fighting age leaving the country, which could also prove unpopular, he added.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was “no chance” that Putin would declare war on May 9.
What else could happen?
If Putin does not declare war, he may look elsewhere to make a declaration on VE Day.
Other options include annexing the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a major push towards Odessa in the south or declaring full control of the southern port city of Mariupol.
There are also indications that Russia may be considering declaring and annexing a “people’s republic” in the southeastern city of Kherson.
“He (Putin) will be able to declare that the Russian army has won some victories in Ukraine,” Ignatov said. “He can try to use this date to solidify his support.”
However, it is difficult to predict what Russia and its president will do, the analyst added.
“All decisions are made by one man and a few of his advisers,” Ignatov said.
Still, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that there was “good reason to believe that the Russians will do whatever they can to use” May 9 for military purposes. propaganda.
“We saw the Russians doubling down on their propaganda efforts, probably, almost certainly, as a way to distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Price said during a department briefing. of state on Monday.