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On a Victory Day without victory, Putin faces choice over all-out war

A general mobilization of soldiers could give Russia new momentum, but the risks would be enormous

A honor guard soldier marches during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade which will take place at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square on May 9 to celebrate 77 years after the victory in World War II in St. Petersburg, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
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RIGA, Latvia — Ahead of Russia’s most patriotic and somber holiday, Victory Day on Monday, there is no victory in the war against Ukraine but plenty of rumors that President Vladimir Putin will order a general mobilization of soldiers to secure one.

Analysts see mobilization as Russia’s best hope to turn the tide and defeat Ukraine, by reinforcing demoralized forces and plowing them back into the war. But the risks — admitting that the military campaign so far has been a failure and igniting domestic opposition — may be too great.

Several top Russian officials have sought to quash the rumors. “No, no. I can tell you this on and off air,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament, in comments Thursday to Russian radio.

Russia celebrates the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany on May 9 with a parade, fireworks and speeches, but this year all eyes are on Vladimir Putin. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

A day earlier, two shadowy figures in the Siberian oil city Nizhnevartovsk made clear what they thought of conscription. One, wearing a gray hoodie and camouflage pants, hurled seven Molotov cocktails into a local military recruiting center while the other recorded the incident — one of six recent arson attacks on Russian recruiting offices. Several of the attacks led to the arrests of young Russian men.

Russia’s 10-week-old military campaign was not supposed to come to this.

On the day of the invasion, a jubilant Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state-owned RT, wisecracked that the Russian campaign was just “a standard parade rehearsal” for Victory Day. “It’s just that this year they decided to hold the parade in Kiev,” she tweeted, using the Russian spelling of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

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But Russia’s efforts to fuse Victory Day — its celebration of the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II — with a victory in its war against what Moscow calls “Nazis” in Ukraine fell flat with the failure to capture Kyiv. The occupation of the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol marks a rare Russian success, but the city’s bombed-out ruins make for a unpalatable backdrop for a parade. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian presidential administration, ruled out an official Victory Day parade there Thursday.

Over the years, Putin has used the holiday to legitimize his increasingly authoritarian rule, exploiting the myth of Russia as a nation that never invaded anyone, fights only in self-defense and single-handedly saved the world from Nazis in World War II, at a staggering cost of 27 million Russian war dead.

“Putin is going to use this day to justify his war against Ukraine and to underline, as he believes, the historical mission of Russia to fight fascism. He has to legitimize his war, and he’s trying to present it to the world and to Russians as some kind of fight for historical justice,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, Paris-based head of R.Politik political consultancy, in an interview.

“The strategic problem that Russia is facing today is that Russian society has not been prepared for protracted and costly war. It wanted a fast, decisive victory, and Putin can’t give it to Russians,” she said.

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If Putin were to declare all-out war and mobilize recruits, it would take at least six months to train them, Stanovaya said. That would also be a recognition that the “special military operation,” as Moscow calls the invasion, has been a failure, and “Putin can’t admit that,” she said. “There are no signs that the Kremlin is ready to shift from a special military operation to a war.”

So far, Russia has relied primarily on soldiers who have voluntarily signed contracts to serve in the military. Russian officials have previously pledged that conscripts would not be sent into battle, although some have.

Speaking to U.S.-funded Current Time TV, Russian military analyst Ruslan Leviev, of the independent open-source analytical group CIT, said that partial mobilization could help Russia take control of eastern Ukraine, where much of the fighting is now concentrated.

Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who led a separatist militia in the Donetsk area of eastern Ukraine in the 2014 uprising, has repeatedly warned that without a general mobilization, Russia faces a drawn-out war with high casualties and possible defeat.

“In our case mobilization is necessary in order to win in the war that we got into up to our ears,” he said in comments last month on Russian social media VKontakte, adding that Russia’s future depended on it.

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But Dmitri Alperovitch, head of Washington-based Silverado Policy Accelerator, a think tank, said in an interview that a mobilization would be unpopular and risky. “If you have a general mobilization, everyone in Russia is going to know someone or have a husband, son, nephew or a relative going into the fight,” he said.

If Putin calls a general mobilization, “Russia will have a very long war,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, in an interview. “First the Russians will have to train trainers to train all those people.”

This year, Putin faces a more delicate and difficult task than on previous Victory Days. While Russian media have largely ignored Russia’s battlefield losses, they have been substantial. Russia has lost significant numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft and warships, most notably the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea fleet destroyed with the help of U.S. intelligence. Between 7,000 to 15,000 Russian servicemen have been killed, according to a NATO estimate.

Russia’s reputation as a leading military power has been badly tarnished, and the country faces debilitating economic isolation that will likely last for years.

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This year’s Victory Day parade will be smaller and humbler than in years past, with less equipment on parade and no friendly heads of states invited, not even Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who criticized Thursday the way the war has dragged on.

But for many Russians, like a 79-year-old Muscovite named Valentina, the sacrifices and successes still loom large — and underpin support for the war in Ukraine.

“Victory Day is our sacred holiday. I always cry on that day,” Valentina said, sitting on a Moscow park bench with two friends Friday. She declined to give her surname. “I was little. My uncle was killed. It was terrible. So many people died, and so many cities were destroyed, but our country, the U.S.S.R., won that war, and we celebrate the heroes on May 9th.”

She then repeated the anti-Ukraine propaganda that Putin and the Russian media have been promoting, alleging that Ukrainians had been harassing and killing Russian speakers for many years. “Our president did the right thing when he sent troops there. We are peaceful people, but something had to be done,” she said.

Analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, speaking to online outlet We Can Explain associated with exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, predicted that Putin would use the holiday to vow never to leave eastern Ukraine and would give the name “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, to a slice of Ukrainian territory along the Sea of Azov.

Stanovaya said she expected Putin to emphasize his grievances over Western support for Ukraine and could ramp up efforts to intimidate the West, for instance, with more test launches of nuclear-capable missiles.

As the war effort has faltered, commentators on Russian television have complained that Russia is fighting with a hand tied behind its back to avoid civilian casualties — contrary to the evidence — and have claimed that Western assistance, including arms and intelligence, is drawing out the fight.

They’re focused on “the idea the that Russia is a victim of unjust and hostile actions of the West,” Stanovaya said. “It means that Putin doesn’t really need to present Russians with some gains. It’s sufficient for him just to continue talking about Russia’s historical mission to fight fascism.”

Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.