Last Monday (9), Russia celebrated Victory Day, a national holiday that commemorates the success of Soviet troops over Nazi Germany in World War II.
In recent years, the commemoration has served as a platform for Vladimir Putin to promote national values espoused by his government. In the context of the war in Ukraine, which exceeds the 75-day mark with no clear gains, the commemorative date has gained vital importance for the Russian Executive.
It is in the administration of Vladimir Putin, in the early 2000s, that Victory Day recovers values linked to the military symbology of the Soviet Union, something that had been annulled shortly after the end of the USSR with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
To the Brazil de factohistorian Rodrigo Ianhez, a specialist in the Soviet period, comments that, with Putin, Victory Day becomes the country’s main holiday.
“It is the main holiday in Russia and of course it is used ideologically, in a propagandistic way, there is no doubt about it. It is propaganda of the Putinist regime, values that the Putinist regime regards as appropriate values for Russia today,” he highlights.
In his speech, Putin declared that the defense of Russia, “when its fate was at stake, was always sacred”, adding that, just like “in the past”, Russia’s soldiers in Ukraine fight for the security of the country and for the Russian people. in Donbas.
“But we are a different country. Russia has a different character. We will never give up our love for the motherland, for our faith and traditional values, for the customs of our ancestors and respect for all populations and cultures,” said the Russian president.
Reinforcement of civilizational rhetoric
The current situation of the war in Ukraine made the commemoration of such an important military date in Russian history create great expectations about the speech of the Russian president, who dedicated most of his speech to the current conflict in the neighboring country, justifying the military operation.
On the one hand, it was speculated that, pressured by not presenting substantial military successes in more than two months of conflict, Putin could announce an intensification of the fighting in the east of Ukraine, in the region of Donbas. It would be a way of securing control in the pro-Russian breakaway regions and delivering some victory on May 9. This would signal a return to negotiations and a de-escalation of fighting, especially after the retreat of Russian troops from the outskirts of Kiev.
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On the other hand, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace had stated that he “would not be surprised” if Putin said that Russia was now “at war with Nazis all over the world” and announced the need for mass recruitment. This would happen from an official declaration of war against Ukraine.
This was widely reported in the media, especially in the US and Ukraine. Such a mobilization would represent an intensification of the conflict in search of control of more Ukrainian territories.
Surrounded by speculation, Putin’s speech had no announcement of mass mobilization as a result of a declaration of war, nor announcement of the conquest of territories. The Russian president’s speech, however, did not spare criticism of the West, in particular the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US, due to the current situation in Eastern Europe.
Historian Rodrigo Ianhez notes that, for those who expected some drastic stance on the course of the conflict in Ukraine, Putin delivered a speech that was unsurprising and less inflammatory than on other recent occasions. The analyst points out, however, that the leader maintained a rhetoric of confrontation with the West, reinforcing the civilizational aspect of the conflict with Ukraine.
“There is this element of treating this war as something other than Ukraine. He does this by pointing to NATO’s responsibility and the support the military Alliance has provided to the Ukrainians as a conflict of civilizations. This is clear in this discourse that emphasizes traditional values as opposed to decadent values of the West,” he says.
According to the historian, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself uses similar rhetoric from the opposite perspective.
Speaking about Victory Day, Zelensky harshly criticized Russia and Vladimir Putin’s intervention in his country. According to him, “this is not a war of two armies, it is a war of two worldviews”. He continued: “They are afraid of our philosophy — that we are free people, going our own way. We are proud of our ancestors and we will not allow anyone to take this victory as their own,” the Ukrainian leader said.
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For Ianhez, both sides will use historical references and try to use the nationalist discourse already enshrined in both countries as war rhetoric.
“So there is this (civilizational) aspect, at least in the rhetoric. And we hope, of course, that it stays in the rhetoric, as a direct conflict between Russia and the West would be a tragedy on a global level,” he adds.
Even without achieving broad control of the Donbas region, Putin maintained the speech that “all plans are being implemented and the result will be achieved”.
“If there was a single opportunity to solve this problem (Donbas) by other peaceful means, of course we would accept it, but they didn’t leave us this option, they just didn’t give it to us,” the Russian president said.
Political scientist Serguey Markov says Putin’s speech at the military parade in Moscow showed a focus on “military special operation”, reinforcing Kremlin rhetoric that this is not a war against the Ukrainian state.
The analyst, who has previously served as an adviser to the Russian president, notes that military personnel who were directly involved in the confrontation in Donbas participated in the May 9 military parade, which reveals a closer link between the current fighting with Ukraine and the patriotic motivations of the past.
Commenting on the objectives of the Russian operation explained by the Russian president, Markov says that one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the president’s speech is that “the military operation was absolutely inevitable”.
“The main objective is to protect Russia from the inevitable future aggression. The main objective is now Donbas. The main enemies are neo-Nazis and Bandera supporters [ultranacionalista ucraniano]NATO and the US”, says Markov in a post on social networks.
The position of the political scientist and former Russian deputy reflects the thinking of a significant portion of the population and justifies the actions of the Kremlin. “The people of Russia are shocked by the fact that all the countries that have made history in the last few centuries have turned against Russia,” he said. And he adds: “It seems that the entire Western civilization is against Russia”.
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Markov’s conclusion is that “the vast majority of Russians are convinced that we are right. The truth is with us. And Europeans and Americans are wrong.”
Nationalism remains on the rise: until when?
The main objectives of the military operation announced by Russia on February 24 were the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. In this sense, the Russian president took advantage of the commemorative date of the Second World War — or the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia — to draw parallels with the current war in Ukraine and emphasize nationalist values.
However, given the lack of concrete military successes, it remains to be seen whether the feeling of patriotism will be enough to maintain the approval of Putin’s actions in the neighboring country.
“I think it all depends on the results. If Putin manages to fulfill some of his goals and manages to make sense of them in a narrative that draws these parallels between the Great Patriotic War and the war that is now being fought with Ukraine, perhaps this narrative will be consecrated, at least while the Putinism resist in Russia”, highlights Rodrigo Ianhez.
On the other hand, the historian says that the feeling of nationalism that Putin rescued on Victory Day could be shaken “if this war continues to drag on, sanctions continue to suffocate the Russian economy and the living conditions of the people are affected to a point that Putin’s popularity also starts to be impacted.”
Editing: Arturo Hartmann