Russian President Vladimir Putin could formally declare war on Ukraine as soon as May 9, a move that would enable the full mobilization of Russia’s reserve forces as invasion efforts continue to falter, US and Western officials believe.
May 9, known as “Victory Day” inside of Russia, commemorates the country’s defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Western officials have long believed that Putin would leverage the symbolic significance and propaganda value of that day to announce either a military achievement in Ukraine, a major escalation of hostilities – or both.
Officials have begun to hone in on one scenario, which is that Putin formally declares war on Ukraine on May 9. To date, Putin has insisted on referring to the brutal monthslong conflict as a “special military operation,” effectively banning words such as invasion and war.
“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say ‘look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”
Throughout the conflict Putin has continuously framed his invasion of Ukraine – a country with a Jewish president – as a campaign of supposed “denazification,” a description dismissed by historians and political observers alike.
Wallace added that he “would not be surprised, and I don’t have any information about this, that he is probably going to declare on this May Day that ‘we are now at war with the world’s Nazis and we need to mass mobilize the Russian people.’”
A formal declaration of war on May 9 could potentially bolster public support for the invasion. It would also, under Russian law, allow Putin to mobilize reserve forces and draft conscripts, which officials say Russia desperately needs amid a growing manpower shortage. Western and Ukrainian officials have estimated that at least 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war since Russia invaded just over two months ago.
Russian battlefield effort ‘anemic’
Following a series of military and logistical setbacks, Moscow has concentrated efforts on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been on the frontline of the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014.
But the US official on Monday described the Russian war effort there as “anemic.”
“They’ll move in and then declare victory, and then withdraw their troops, only to let the Ukrainians take it back,” the official told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
The official said problems that have plagued the Russian military since their initial surge have not been fixed.
“They’re still suffering from poor command-and-control, low morale in many units, less-than-ideal logistics,” the official said.
Russian forces were also keen to avoid risks that could lead to further casualties to their already depleted forces, the official said, describing the ground war in the area as “very cautious, very tepid.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces were making significant progress in pushing the Russians back around Kharkiv, at the northwestern tip of the Donbas region, the official said.
“An incredible effort there that, again, hasn’t gotten a lot of headlines and hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but it’s just another piece of the stiff Ukrainian resistance that they continue to demonstrate,” the official said.
Putin’s other May 9 options
With less than a week to go before the May 9 Victory Day, Moscow may look at places other than Donbas to make a statement.
Other options include annexing the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, making a major push for Odesa in the south, or declaring full control over the southern port city of Mariupol.
The US has “highly credible” intelligence reports that Russia will try to annex Luhansk and Donetsk “some time in mid-May,” the US Ambassador to OSCE Michael Carpenter said on Monday. There are also indications that Russia could be planning to declare and annex a “people’s republic” in the southeastern city of Kherson.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday there is “good reason to believe that the Russians will do everything they can to use” May 9 for propaganda purposes.
“We’ve seen the Russians really double down on their propaganda efforts, probably, almost certainly, as a means to distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Price said at a State Department briefing.
Price added that it “would be a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of ‘Victory Day’ to declare war, which in itself would allow them to surge conscripts in a way they’re not able to do now, in a way that would be tantamount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are floundering in their military campaign and military objectives.”
“I’m quite confident that we’ll be hearing more from Moscow in the lead up to May 9,” Price added. “I’m quite confident that you will be hearing more from the United States, from our partners, including our NATO partners, in the lead up to May 9 as well.”