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What Victory Day means for Russian identity

Street actors in St. Petersburg talk as military band musicians rehearse on April 8 for the May 9 Victory Day parade. (AP)

As Russia’s war against Ukraine stretches into another month, Ukrainians and Western nations are in suspense about how the Kremlin will observe a celebrated day in Russian history.

This year, May 9, known as Victory Day for Russians in remembrance of their role in defeating Nazi Germany, could signal the end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — or something more frightful that’s unlikely to halt the violence.

In late March, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian soldiers were being told that the war must end by that date. On April 10, Axios reported that such a deadline could become a pivotal and menacing moment in a war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, on Wednesday dismissed speculation that Moscow was working toward a deadline to declare a formal war with Ukraine by May 9. Asked by journalists whether President Vladimir Putin could declare war with Ukraine on Victory Day, Peskov told reporters: “No. We have already answered this question. No, this is nonsense.” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday projected that the invasion that began Feb. 24, which Russia has called a “special military operation,” may last until September.

The United States is not ready to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans for the invasion’s duration, the State Department said Monday, but it would be “a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of Victory Day to declare war.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Kremlin’s objectives — “to subjugate Ukraine, to enhance Russian power, to divide the West” — have fallen short in a “strategic failure,” which may lead to more propaganda.

“I am quite confident that we’ll be hearing more from Moscow in the lead-up to May 9th,” he said in a news conference Monday. “I am quite confident you’ll be hearing more from the United States, from our partners, including our NATO partners, in the lead-up to May 9th as well.”

While speculation about that day swirls, its importance for Russians cannot be underestimated, scholars of Russian history told The Washington Post, as the nation seeks to become an empire by waging war in a country trying to maintain its independence.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a Hitler loyalist and commander of the German armed forces during World War II, signed the act of Military Surrender on May 8 in Berlin, though the time difference between Germany and Russia meant that it happened on May 9 for Russia and its neighboring countries.

That date would go on to be recognized in the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet bloc. Putin added more gloss to the holiday, and lore about the World War II victory continues to trickle down through Russian media, including film and television.

May 9 is more than a day off work. It’s a day for parades, for veterans to drape themselves in their military regalia and for Russians to delight in things they see as being uniquely Russian.

Celebrating beating Nazi Germany when they weren’t expected to win is deeply ingrained in the Russian national identity and has the same level of reverence — if not more — as Sputnik and mass literacy triumphs, said Stephen Brain, associate professor of Soviet and Russian history at Mississippi State University.

“It’s the victory of good over evil,” he said. “Maybe you can call them stereotypes, but it’s toughness and hardship. … That war was a moment when they demonstrated that.”

At Russia's Victory Day parade, a show of military might amid tensions with the West

Last year, Russia celebrated the day by rolling Soviet World War II-era T-34 tanks through the streets, flying 76 fighter jets and helicopters and showcasing a Russian RS-24 ballistic missile in Red Square.

Putin used the day’s celebration to spread propaganda and to throw jabs at the West, denouncing “Russiaphobia” and vowing that his nation would defend its interests. Russia was already attracting international criticism at the time for beefing up its military presence around the Ukrainian border and for its treatment of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Victory Day is nearly equivalent to July 4 in the United States, but even that comparison doesn’t truly capture the magnitude of what the day means for Russia and for what it means to be Russian, Brain said, noting that the Soviet Union lost at least 24 million civilians and troops — the highest total number of casualties of any country in World War II.

Although the veterans who fought in the war are dying off as years pass, the memory of that war is unlikely to fade, and the upcoming holiday will probably come with rhetoric around Nazism and fascism, according to Faith Hillis, professor of Russian history and modern Europe at the University of Chicago.

Hillis noted that those terms haven’t been rooted in their original definitions for a while and that they often connote being anti-Russian.

Anti-Ukraine sentiments probably will be stitched into the festivities of this year’s Victory Day celebrations, but whether Russia will see a true victory in Ukraine by that date remains to be seen.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a former infantry officer and National Security Council director of European affairs, told Axios that May 9 could mark a turning point for Russia.

“If they succeed, I fear, it’s a recipe for a protracted war, and Russia will not stop at limited gains,” said Vindman, who was born in Soviet-era Ukraine. “Protracted war is a recipe for spillage over into, potentially, confrontation with NATO.”

Experts say Russia has already lost its propaganda war against Ukraine after reported atrocities in Bucha and other Ukrainian allegations.

But it seems implausible that Putin would concede, scholars said.

“I think for Putin, there’s not going to be a defeat, even if there’s a defeat,” Hillis said. “There’s no room for a defeat in his mind-set. It’s going to be spun as a victory no matter what happens.”

Mary Ilyushina and Adela Suliman contributed to this report.

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