Putin's Ukraine War Plans Were Revealed in Parade: 'It's Not a Good Sign'

The Kremlin's Victory Day parade gave a forlorn President Vladimir Putin a chance to invoke past Soviet glories—while providing U.S. military and intelligence observers with clues to Russia's bleak future and limited possibilities.

"No fly-by, no futuristic acrobatics, not even a new nuclear weapon thrown in there as a signal of strength," a senior Defense Intelligence Agency official tells Newsweek. "It was all very orthodox. But at least this year's parade is more truthful in what it signifies.

"It was a lot of men, marching. Get it?" the official says. "That's the enduring quality of Russia, from the Soviet Union to the present. It is and always will be an Army, those same poor masses who defeated Nazi Germany at great human cost, spearheaded with tanks and backed up by artillery.

"And yet we are here in the present and the horde has been unable to defeat a much smaller country on its own border, despite numerical advantages and superior firepower," says the DIA official.

ukraine russia putin war
Vladimir Putin is "going to continue at whatever cost, trading lives for inches" in Ukraine. The Russian president during the Victory Day Parade at Red Square on May 9, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Russia is marking their 77th Victory Day today. contributor/Getty Images

The national day fizzled, with a slumping Putin amid ancient veterans and be-medaled generals on the reviewing stand, everyone looking somber and tired. This is modern-day Russia, scrabbling at every opportunity for renewal, desperate for an enemy that can be declared Nazis and then defeated.

But something else happened this year as well. Though Putin used the anniversary of Russia's 1945 defeat of the Nazis to connect the Ukraine war to past battles, his rhetoric was surprisingly toned down given the world situation and the plight of his nation.

That parallels efforts by the White House this week to itself tone down the threats to Moscow, including President Joe Biden urging his own government to stop pushing Russia into a corner.

Putin's Parade

"You are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II," Putin said Monday, speaking to his troops from the Lenin Mausoleum, as so many have done before him. There was no declaration of victory, no hint of an end to fighting in Ukraine, no announcement of an escalation or a national mobilization to secure a victory.

Instead, the centerpiece of the day was 11,000 soldiers and veterans parading in goose-stepping perfection led by Russian ground forces Commander-in-Chief General of the Army Oleg Salyukov. A total of 131 armored vehicles of all types—tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and even nuclear missiles of the Iskander and Yars classes—also drove by, every one of them flawlessly painted combat green.

And yet a spectacle that Reuters predicted would be a "doomsday" warning to the West turned into a muted affair. The number of vehicles was lower than last year's 190, and predictions of up to 65,000 marchers proved as hollow as the number of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

Most important was the cancellation of the fly-by over St Basil's Cathedral (due to bad weather, the Kremlin announced, even though there were just cloudy skies over Moscow). The fly-by was to have included Putin's flying nuclear command post for the first time ever (it flew in a rehearsal), as well as a total of 77 planes and helicopters, each one representing the number of years that have passed since the end of World War II.

"The requisite ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] drove past," the senior DIA official says, but "the cancellation of the fly-by and the absence of any explicit threat to the west seems to me to be a toning-down for Putin." The whole display was a traditional affair meant to comfort the Russian people, to convey that everything is exactly as it always has been, says the official.

"I've been watching these parades my entire career," says the official, "and we are always looking for meaning: who's on the podium, what's included for the display. This year? It looks like the army is up, because they are the dominant element of the Russian armed forces and indeed they are taking the greatest punishment in Ukraine. But in another way, the entire parade was grounded. Russia is grounded. It's not a laughing matter and it's not a good sign—that Putin is declaring that the army is going to continue at whatever cost, trading lives for inches."

Don't Provoke the Bear

In 2005, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined a strapping and vital Vladimir Putin in Red Square to mark the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, a somber acknowledgement that the war against Nazi Germany would never have been successful without enormous Soviet sacrifices.

This year the Kremlin said that no Western leader was invited, and the idea of an American president celebrating with Putin is now inconceivable.

And yet the White House has equally sought to tone down the anti-Russian rhetoric, with President Joe Biden even admonishing his own government to look to the future.

It all began with a series of flashy stories, leaks from the national security community that it—the United States—was responsible for success in Ukraine. The New York Times reported that U.S.-supplied intelligence enabled Ukrainian forces to target Russian generals on the front lines. Then NBC News said that U.S.-intelligence made it possible for Ukraine to sink the Moskva, Russia's Black Sea Fleet flagship.

Almost immediately, the Pentagon forcefully and pointedly shot down the stories, saying that the intelligence exchanges with Kyiv were not intended to point Ukraine at any particular target. The White House insisted that the United States was not engaged in any direct confrontation with Moscow: that the arms and intelligence support to Ukraine was merely to defend the country.

President Biden reportedly called the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to read them the riot act about the stories. The message: Stop the leaks. Biden was "livid," wrote Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, telling his team that "this kind of loose talk is reckless and has got to stop immediately—before we end up in an unintended war with Russia."

Senior Pentagon and national security officials tell Newsweek that both the Times and NBC stories are essentially correct, that the intelligence sharing with Ukraine is unprecedented and productive. "But to say that we are responsible for anything here is not just needlessly piling on," says one retired Air Force general who advises the Pentagon. "It also disparages the monumental efforts of Ukraine. They are doing the hard work and they are dying for their country. For leakers to suggest otherwise is not only untrue but it's also using the Ukraine war to make arguments for their own relevance and for the increases in budgets that this will surely provoke."

"The war is not going well for Russia," another senior national security official tells Newsweek via email. "I don't know if Putin is looking for ammo to escalate, but at this point we shouldn't supply it."

Grounded in Reality

This weekend, as May 9th approached, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry crowed about the sinking of another Russian naval ship, joking that the traditional parade of Putin's Black Sea fleet would take place this year "at the bottom of the sea."

Putin's Navy has played a prominent role in the Ukraine war, not in mounting an amphibious invasion but in shooting hundreds of Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles at targets around the country. This past week, Russia's attack on the fabric of Ukraine's railroad system, its only coherent "strategic" attack to date, has been dependent on these 1,500-mile-range cruise missiles.

In what U.S. intelligence officials say is a sign of growing shortages in the weapons at Moscow's disposal, a Russian submarine was used for the first time to deliver cruise missiles against Ukraine.

Ukraine is also running low on weapons of war. The supply of western anti-tank and anti-air weapons to the front has been a critical element of the country's ability to sustain its own defenses. Now, the United States and a dozen NATO countries are sending additional weapons—heavy weapons—including armored vehicles and artillery.

That new supply apparently prompted the Russian attacks on Ukraine railroad junctions these past weeks. Moscow says the rail system is being used to bring U.S. and Western weapons into Ukraine. In attacking the rail system in Ukraine (there have also been attacks on airfields receiving western reinforcements) Putin is waging his own indirect war with NATO, not attacking staging bases, particularly in Poland. That tactic, including attacks on railroad targets close to Ukraine borders, has been a part of Russia's strategy from the beginning, to carefully avoid any spillage over the border that might escalate the fight beyond the battlefield.

Though Ukraine has undertaken a dozen or so strikes onto Russian soil in the two-and-a-half months of fighting, Kyiv has also been careful not escalate the fight. It has not attacked targets in Belarus and has limited its attacks inside Russia to purely tactical targets.

When the history of the Ukraine war is written, these efforts by Ukraine, Russia and the United States to avoid escalation will be seen as either a successful way to avoid World War III or as a cynical failure, trading U.S. interests for Ukrainian lives.

"I know we say loose lips sink ships," the senior DIA official says, "and indeed only sanctioned leaks are acceptable in the ways of Washington.

"But in this case loose lips threaten this delicate balance, one that even clumsy Russia has managed to maintain. Victory Day? I'm afraid this one's going to end without any future victory to celebrate. Maybe that's what Putin also sees. Maybe that's why he clings to the past."