Will Putin Declare War on Ukraine? West's May 9 Hype Could Prove Overblown

This year's May 9 Victory Day in Moscow will be the most politically charged for decades, taking place as it will in the midst of Russia's most significant direct conflict since World War Two.

As thousands of troops prepare to march through Red Square in front of President Vladimir Putin, their comrades are bogged down in vicious and costly fighting some 600 miles away in Ukraine's Donbas region, where the success or failure of Russia's latest offensive may decide the outcome of the bloody war.

The fighting—and Russia's failure to quickly defeat their numerically inferior opponents—will loom over the 2022 installment of the annual parade, which celebrates the Soviet Union and allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Putin may take the opportunity to deliver a statement on the ongoing war. British Defense Minister Ben Wallace is among those who have suggested Putin might mark Victory Day by announcing national mobilization and full-scale war, a step that would swell Russia's military ranks but risks choking its economy and stoking mass opposition to the conflict.

Vladimir Putin at Kremlin meeting Moscow Russia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin is pictured during a meeting with "Znanie" Society CEO Maxim Dreval in Moscow's Kremlin on May 5, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Mobilization also risks further escalation with NATO and EU nations, who are pushing ahead with unprecedented weapons deliveries to Ukraine and sanctions on Russian officials and their oligarch allies, industry, and banks.

Oleg Ignatov, Crisis Group's senior analyst for Russia, told Newsweek that a full declaration of war would give Putin little benefit. "It would be a huge shift in Russia's policy," he said.

"First of all, you will not get immediate effects because you still need time to train the soldiers, to find ammunition for them and so on," Ignatov explained. "And it will hit Russia's economy because you take people who can work away from the economy."

"And of course, it could change how people consider this war, how they treat this war. When you're sitting in your apartment, just watching television and supporting the war from your armchair, it's one thing. It's another thing to take a gun and to go to fight. It could harm Putin's support among Russians."

Hidden mobilization

The war has dragged on for 72 days with Russian forces unable to achieve most of their strategic objectives. The invaders have sustained serious casualties—the Ukrainians claim almost 25,000 enemies killed, with U.S. estimates slightly lower.

Moscow needs to plug manpower gaps, but it is already doing so without a politically risky and economically costly national mobilization. "Russia already has a kind of hidden mobilization," Ignatov explained, noting the Kremlin has increased pay for those willing to sign military contracts and be sent to the front.

"As I understand, they found enough people who are ready to sign the contracts. Of course they still have problems, because you need time to train soldiers. It will not have an immediate effect. But I don't think that this problem is so acute."

"If you already have a hidden mobilization, already with a lot of soldiers or people to wage this war, why should you declare a formal mobilization?"

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said this week that suggestions of a full declaration of war are "nonsense." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the May 9 celebrations would have no impact on Russia's war plans.

The Moscow Times, meanwhile, has reported that several Russian government institutions have posted job openings for "wartime mobilization specialists." Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.

"All the rumors about mobilization are from Western or Ukrainian sources," Ignatov said. "I'm asking different people in Russia about what is possible, but they say that they are not expecting anything...In Russia we don't have evidence that they're preparing for something bigger."

"He doesn't have any obligations. He doesn't have to announce anything."

Russian vehicles rehearse May 9 Victory Day
Russian tanks and military vehicles drive down Tverskaya street during the Red Square Victory Day Parade rehearsals on May 4, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Contributor/Getty Images

Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of Ukraine's Rada parliament and the current chair of its foreign policy committee, told Newsweek that Ukrainians "are concerned about what Putin might say on May 9, because he will definitely be planning something detrimental to Ukraine; possibly a new provocation."

But an official declaration of war, Merezhko suggested, has limited value. "From a practical standpoint it doesn't make much sense; everyone in the world—except for the brainwashed population of Russia—understands that we have full-scale Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine."

Russian 'victory'

Putin might take the opportunity to declare some kind of victory over the supposed neo-Nazis and American puppets that Moscow argues runs Ukraine. But there is no hiding the glaring failure to achieve the strategic goals of taking Kyiv and decapitating President Volodymyr Zelensky's government.

Limited Russian gains in the south and east, plus its degradation of Ukraine's infrastructure and military-industrial base, might be enough for Putin to claim at least tactical success of his "special operation," and a pivot to absorbing Ukrainian territory still occupied by Russian invaders.

This will be made easier if Russian forces can take more ground in the Donbas region by May 9, though reports indicate the invading forces are moving slowly, taking heavy casualties, and facing Ukrainian counters in areas around key objectives like Kharkiv and Izyum.

Iuliia Mendel, Zelensky's former press secretary who retains close links with current officials, told Newsweek that many in Ukraine expect May 9 to be more important to Moscow's disinformation campaign than its military offensive.

"Putin will definitely declare a victory even if the Russian army totally loses," Mendel said. "His second army—the propaganda army—will be praising the Kremlin policies to hold Putin's ratings inside the country. Television Will need to justify all the losses to the Russian people and give them a taste of victory on an actual Victory Day."

Russian forces do hold significant Ukrainian territory, and are reportedly preparing "independence" referendums to create puppet so-called "people's republics" as Moscow did in the occupied Donbas regions in 2014.

"Russia can declare the annexation of the south region Kherson, creation of some fake republics, victory over Nazism or a new war," Mendel said.

"All of these will be a terrorism towards Ukraine and democracy, but inside Russia will be celebrated as achievements. Though no Russian citizens will notice them. Russia has faked its strength. It's a champion in creating fake reality too."

Any significant announcement will come with costs, Merezhko predicted. More annexations, he said, "will inevitably cause negative reactions and more sanctions from the international community."

Ignatov said a fresh propaganda push is the most likely outcome. "I think most realistic is that they will try to increase, to reinforce their messages," he said.

"They will repeat again that they're fighting against Nazis, that they took Mariupol, they took Kherson, that they're going to free Ukrainians from the regime—to promote messages we already have, because they don't have big military gains right now."

Putin needs to justify his costly invasion, whether he intends to push for full mobilization or not. Russian forces have been repeatedly humiliated on the battlefield, with higher than expected casualties—including multiple generals—high levels of equipment loss, and credible reports of war crimes throughout the areas it has occupied, though Moscow denies this.

"He needs to explain to his population why his blitzkrieg had failed and what will be next," Merezhko said. "For sure, he will use anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and absurd accusations of Ukraine."

Ukraine soldier in Kharkiv Russia invasion Donbas
A Ukrainian serviceman looks over during an exercise not far from the second-largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on April 30, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

Foreign leaders won't be taking part in this year's victory parade, an illustration of Putin's political isolation. Merezhko said this may also signal that Putin is planning something insidious.

"The bad sign is that no foreign leader is coming to Moscow, even Putin's close ally [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko," he said. "It might mean that even for him, what Putin is planning to do or to say on May 9 is too much."

No concessions

May 9 won't mark an end to the fighting. Russia's initial hope of a lightning victory supported by sympathetic Ukrainians has been dashed. NATO and the EU have thrown their economic and military weight behind Kyiv—even with internal disputes—helping maintain and expand Ukraine's motivated military.

Both the Ukrainian and Russian economies are being strangled, the former by Russian blockade in the Black Sea and the latter by Western sanctions. Russian forces in occupied Ukraine appear prepared for a long stay, but local resistance units seem equally prepared for an extended guerrilla campaign.

Peace negotiations have stalled, beset by intrigue and distrust. Ukrainians were already skeptical of the Russian delegation, but a plethora of alleged Russian war crimes have further soured the well. Both sides are hoping for a Donbas victory to improve their negotiating positions.

A source close to Zelensky, who did not wish to be named publicly, told Newsweek that the fighting will continue and Ukrainian war goals will remain unchanged, whether Putin makes a significant announcement or not.

Ukrainian officials are openly talking about victory, perhaps even reclaiming Crimea and the Donbas territory occupied by Russia and its proxies in 2014. Before the latest invasion, such an outcome was unthinkable. But with the combined weight of NATO and the EU at their back, some Ukrainians think now is their moment.

"Ukraine's victory means full restoration of territorial integrity and sovereignty," Hanna Hopko—a former member of Ukraine's Rada parliament and head of its foreign affairs committee—told a Chatham House think tank panel on Thursday.

"There are different surveys showing that 93% of the population believes that Ukraine is winning the war," Hopko added. "No concessions, no compromises, and Ukraine military victory includes returning Donbas and Crimea."

The invasion has already claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides. Many more will likely die before a lasting peace is agreed, regardless of what Putin says on Victory Day.

"No matter what Putin says or does on May 9, it has no importance," Merezhko said. "The fate of Ukraine, and the world, is being decided on the battlefield."