What Putin said and did not say
Putin’s Victory Day speech: What he said, what he didn’t say — and why it matters
Monday May 09 2022, 2.30pm BST, The Times
The most striking thing about President Putin’s speech is what he did not say. There was no talk of victory — of any kind — in Ukraine, nor any assessment of how the war was going.
He did not announce any general mobilisation in Russia, as many had expected, nor say that the “special operation” had become a war. Indeed, he did not mention Ukraine by name at all.
Instead, his speech — relatively short, at only 11 minutes — repeated his insistence that Russia was fighting against the aggression of Nato and the West. He insisted that the West was preparing “another punitive operation in Donbas” and the invasion of Russia’s historic lands, including Crimea. He said that Nato had systematically created “an absolutely unacceptable threat to us” that was directly on Russia’s borders.
Putin drew an absolute parallel with the aggression of Nazi Germany against Russia, and invoked the patriotism, heroism and sacrifice the Russians had made during the Second World War to rally his countrymen for what now appeared to be a long haul in the Donbas.
Putin dwelt a lot on Russia’s history, culture, customs and traditional values — and appeared also to be invoking its Orthodox faith. Having already received the blessing of the Russian Orthodox patriarch, he was clearly attempting to link this war with Russia’s struggles for its freedom and soul in earlier ages and the defence of the Motherland — as powerful a message now as it was in the Second World War.
This, he knows, will appeal especially to millions in rural Russia but will also strike a chord with a younger generation that, even in the big cities, is no less nationalist.
He gave no update on Russia’s casualties, officially stated earlier at about 1,000 but now estimated by western intelligence to be well over 15,000. But he spoke of his “shared grief” at the death of every soldier and officer in a clear attempt to assuage the growing public concern, and he promised that the state would now make special provision for their families.
The clear implication is that he is expecting many more casualties, and that the war will now drag on for a long time.
The entire speech was addressed to a domestic audience. It was clearly an attempt to justify an action that has left Russia isolated in the world and perplexed millions of Russians. It gave little hint of what Russia’s war aims are, how the Kremlin can make up for a floundering strategy and humiliating military failures or how Russia will replace so much lost equipment.
This was not an address to warn the West of what Russia may now do. There was no mention of Mariupol or indeed of any battlegrounds in Ukraine except the Donbas, already claimed as historic Russian territory.
In many ways this was a defensive speech that indicated no fresh thinking in the Kremlin but was fashioned very much to justify Putin’s earlier challenge to Nato. It does not augur any future escalation. But the fact that mobilisation was not mentioned does not mean that it is not being planned or will not be implemented sometime soon if troop shortages become acute.
Observers note that in the past 22 years Putin has never used Victory Day for any important policy statements, but has focused relentlessly on patriotic and nationalist themes, which are now overwhelmingly the ideological underpinnings of his leadership.