A tale of two Victory Days

Ed wrote earlier about Putin’s surprisingly subdued speech this morning commemorating the end of World War II. No nuclear threats; no mass mobilization orders; not even a declaration of victory in occupied and Kherson and Mariupol. On Victory Day!

There was no military fly-over to demonstrate Russian air power either. Putin’s team blamed the weather but apparently it was a perfectly fine day in Moscow when the parade got going.

And where was the Russian chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov? His presence would normally be required on the most important day of the year for the country’s military. Was he injured in that Ukrainian attack last week in Izyum after all?

The production had the stench of defeat about it, as if Putin had finally realized how weak his position is and concluded he was in no position to issue threats or to make promises about the outcome of the war.

That was Victory Day in Russia. But Russia isn’t the only former Soviet state that celebrates, of course.

Ukraine also commemorates the end of World War II each year, having lost many millions to battle and to Nazi atrocities. Zelensky shrewdly chose to mark the occasion with an address, viewing it as a singular opportunity to rebut Russian propaganda about Ukraine being a Nazi state. The message of the speech he recorded can be summed up in four words: Who’s the real Nazi?

This is the best thing you’ll watch today, a banger even by his standards. And the optics are superb. Two months ago, Russia expected to conquer the entirety of Ukraine. Two months later, check out this guy strutting like Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” through the streets of free Kiev.

Which side seems more confident in the inevitability of victory?

The Ukrainian advantage in optics goes beyond the location. Here was the scene in Moscow today for Putin’s speech:

Same old, same old — literally. The WWII veterans in attendance are pushing 100. And the assembly of troops, which was apparently smaller than usual due to the strain of war, is S.O.P. for the Kremlin on Victory Day. Contrast that lack of imagination with Zelensky’s video, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a national leader in wartime. Instead of a crowd of thousands dressed in their civilian or military best for a parade, with all the pomp and circumstance that entails, it’s one guy in olive drab all alone. The symbolism is obvious — Ukraine may be the underdog, outnumbered and outgunned (although not for long), but its resolve is unbroken.

Elevating an actor to the presidency seems nutty in the abstract but it worked out okay for America in the 1980s and it’s working out okay for Ukraine. One thing actors know better than most is stagecraft. Zelensky understands it in spades.

Back to Putin. What explains his unexpectedly low-key Victory Day speech, particularly his failure to order a full mobilization of the Russian population? Most western observers thought there’d be at least a partial mobilization undertaken in the name of winning the war. Instead, nothing.

Maybe he’s begun to face the hard reality that … it just won’t work. Russia needs to tide the turn in Ukraine quickly and mobilizations take time. Here’s a remarkable clip from Russian television of one of the country’s own experts warning that mobilization won’t solve anything, at least not soon enough:

If Putin gives the order for a general draft, he risks a public backlash and potentially a popular uprising. That risk is arguably worth taking if it’ll ensure victory in Ukraine. But it won’t, in which case giving the order could create a double nightmare for him. Imagine that he ignites widespread resistance to his presidency by ordering a mobilization, threatening his hold on power, and then goes on to lose the war anyway before most or all of the new conscripts are in the field. It would be a comprehensive debacle. How would he survive?

Which leaves us to wonder: If he’s not mobilizing, has he begun to look for an exit in Ukraine? He needs reinforcements in the Donbas. If he’s not sending any, what’s the plan for victory, exactly?

By the way, there are signs of morale weakening inside and outside the Russian military. Small acts of sabotage (probably timed for Victory Day) are being reported today, like Russian journalists posting anti-war articles on a pro-Kremlin news site and Russian TV listings being commandeered by hackers:

Other possible acts of sabotage are more significant but much harder to verify. Was this an accident, for instance, or something more?

Reports circulated last week about Russian troops being caught on phone calls admitting to pouring sand in their tanks’ gas tanks and attacking the Chechen forces that are deployed with them allegedly with orders to shoot any soldier who tries to desert. If that’s representative of the morale problems Putin is now coping with, no wonder Victory Day was such a bummer.