Weekly Update: Putin's Anti-climatic Victory Day Speech
The much-anticipated date was only remarkable for how unremarkable it was
Greetings from Kharkiv! This will be the first of my weekly updates on the present situation in Ukraine and Russia. You can expect these weekly updates every Monday, intermingled with longer-form features as those stories arise. I will send such an essay later this week to complement my Sunday Post writeup on my recent overnight trip to the frontline town of Slatyne (while the story was published yesterday in the Post’s print edition, the online version will likely appear within the coming days).
For the better part of this invasion, there has been speculation abound that Vladimir Putin would do something of note on May 9. The suspicions were sound; May 9, the day that Russia celebrates Nazi Germany’s defeat, is the high holiday of the Kremlin’s quasi-state religion surrounding the Great Patriotic War. Many Russia watchers presumed that Putin would use his public address on Red Square to announce an escalation of some sort, with the date also possibly serving as a deadline for the officer corps to present something resembling a win to their tsar.
Between those two possibilities, there was a creeping fear in Ukraine that something awful was about to happen as the date drew closer. Some cities in Ukraine, including Odessa and Zaporizhzhia, announced extended curfews that would cover the entire 24-hour period. Among journalists working in-country, there were some discussions about the safety precautions one should take in anticipation of a lethal escalation. Among the feared scenarios were intensified shelling, chemical attacks, or even the introduction of nuclear weapons to the battlefield.
A more likely outcome of the day, I surmised, would be a political announcement. Perhaps Putin would announce sham elections in occupied Kherson to create a so-called Kherson People’s Republic, similar to the ones engineered by the Kremlin in 2014 in Donetsk and Luhansk. Or, perhaps, Putin would drop his “special military operation” shtick and declare that a state of war officially existed between Russia and Ukraine. That might have accompanied an additional call for mass military and industrial mobilization to put Russia on a war footing.
In the end, Putin’s speech was only remarkable for being utterly unremarkable. He provided no new hints as to the direction he intends the war to take, merely repeating the justifications that he has been spewing for months. He made no attempt to spin anything as a victory, not even gloating about the invasion’s acquisition of occupied territories along the southern coast. Less surprisingly, he did not allude to the aborted offensives in the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions. Putin only spoke of a military operation in Donbas, which for eight years had already been the site of the Russo-Ukrainian war by the time this current phase began in February.
This war appears to be far from over, and eventually Putin will have to provide new answers to his people as the situation evolves. Today, however, the Russian president appeared to avoid the topic as much as one possibly could given both the gravity of the “special military operation” and the obvious need to address it in the context of a military parade on Red Square. Thus far, May 9 has proven to be nothing more than yet another day at war for Ukraine.
In other news
Russia appears to be losing ground in Kharkiv. While limited journalistic access to the frontline makes verification difficult, there has been relatively little artillery audible from the city center this past week, suggesting that the fighting is moving ever further in the opposite direction. As I mentioned above, I will be presenting an in-depth glance at life near the Russian line later this week.
The final civilians taking cover in the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol arrived in Zaporizhzhia last night. My colleagues Kaoru Ng and Alex Chan Tsz Yuk were on the ground to document their arrival; check their Instagram profiles for updates.
Ukrainian fighters still holed up at Azovstal gave a virtual press conference on Sunday vowing to continue resistance despite having limited time left. Some 2,000 combatants, largely composed of troops from the Azov Regiment, continue to make Mariupol’s final stand against Russian forces. Graphic images, which I will not link to here, suggest that a lack of antibiotics is causing widespread sepsis among the wounded.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered a speech of his own marking Victory Day in a pre-recorded video on Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk Street. With a similar message to his monologue released the day before, Zelensky used the opportunity to draw parallels between the 2022 invasion and Operation Barbarossa.