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Foreign Affairs

James Brooke: Russia’s Potemkin army to parade on Red Square

Russia Victory Day Explainer

Russian military vehicles roll down Red Square in May 2019 during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia. Some in the West think Russian President Vladimir Putin may use the Victory Day on May 9, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, to officially declare that war is underway in Ukraine and announce a mobilization — a claim rejected by the Kremlin.

During my eight years in Moscow, the annual May 9 Victory over Nazism Parade was a huge, nationally televised extravaganza. Journalists parsed President Vladimir Putin’s speech. Military attaches from Western embassies studied new armaments with binoculars. Hours before the big day, Russian Air Force planes “seeded” chemical substance in clouds to prevent rain.

Now, all eyes and ears are on Putin’s speech.

Will he declare “victory” in Ukraine’s Donbas, a strategic off-ramp that would allow him to wind down his “special military operation?”

Or will he officially declare war on Ukraine, a step that would open the door to martial law, national mobilization and conscription? To rally the nation, he could cite sabotage attacks inside Russia over the last week: a fire at a rocket munitions factory near the Urals, a fire at a major fuel oil depot north of Moscow and, in Kursk region, the destruction of a railway bridge used to ferry men and munitions to Ukraine.

Either way, Putin’s rhetoric is expected to be bellicose.

But his actions may be circumscribed by facts on the ground — and by the weakened state of Russia’s military.

On the ground, Russia’s Army suffered defeat and then retreat in its attempt to take Kyiv. This was compounded by international humiliation over its brutal occupation of Kyiv’s northern suburbs. In Bucha, Ukrainian prosecutors say, Russian soldiers looted, raped and left behind the bodies of 1,200 civilians — many summarily executed. Ukrainians now call Russian soldiers “orcs” — the brutish monsters popularized in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Russia’s second military defeat now is happening around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. For two months this largely Russian-speaking city of 1.4 million was under a devastating assault that destroyed one-quarter of the housing stock. Although Kharkiv is only 30 miles from Russia’s border, Ukrainian soldiers have regained control of almost all villages between Kharkiv and the border.

Now, Russian troops are in a slow-motion offensive, trying expand their 8-year-old toe hold in Ukraine’s southeast corner. Although the jury is out on this battle, a Pentagon briefer told reporters Monday that Russia’s progress is “anemic.”

Last month, Putin declared “victory” in the key city of Mariupol, Ukraine’s largest port on the Sea of Azov. But, as the clock winds down to Putin’s Victory Day speech, the Ukrainian commander in Mariupol, Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, said in a video posted Thursday: “Heavy, bloody battles are raging.”

Hoping to provide Russian TV viewers with at least a video victory, the Kremlin sent Vladimir Solovyov to Mariupol this week. Sanctioned by the West, this TV host often is described as the “Kremlin’s chief propagandist.”

While Putin may trumpet victory on Monday, the emperor’s parade may speak louder than words.

Last Tuesday, Craig Hooper, a U.S. national security writer, analyzed the advance guide for the parade. His story in Forbes is headlined: “Russian Victory Day Parade Cut By 35%, Emphasizing Ukraine’s Battlefield Prowess.”

Citing the lineup posted by the Russian Army’s Red Star news site, Hooper compares it to last year. The number of ground combat vehicles has been cut by one-third to 131, the number of infantry fighting vehicles has been cut in half and the number of late model tanks has been slashed.

After losing 10 Sukhoi fighter aircraft in Ukraine, these modern fighters will be absent from the parade. More than one-quarter of the aircraft will be Mig-29s, Soviet-era fighters developed almost half a century ago by the Mikoyan Design Bureau. Fifteen helicopters will fly in the parade, down one-third from last year. Ukraine’s military claims to have shot down 155 Russian helicopters in the first 10 weeks of the war.

“The May 9 military parade only highlights Russia’s massive losses in Ukraine and its crumbling industrial capabilities,” concluded Hooper. “Putin’s authority is backed by a Potemkin military — an apparently over-hyped and increasingly damaged force.”

Missing among formations marching through Red Square will be Russia’s elite National Guard, or Rosgvardiya. Reuters reports that the unit was decimated in the initial assault on Kyiv and later was involved in occupation atrocities in Bucha.

Indeed, undermining the bellicose rhetoric expected Monday, Moscow has lost more men and materiel in 10 weeks of war in Ukraine than in 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

Since Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, 1,077 Russian tanks have been destroyed — more than seven times the Soviet tanks destroyed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In Ukraine, Russia has lost 2,610 armored personnel carriers — double the number lost over a decade in Afghanistan. These numbers do not include the dozens of tanks and APCs abandoned intact by their crews in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Russia has lost 194 fixed-wing aircraft, almost double the 118 fighters and bombers shot down in Afghanistan.

Russia’s loss of soldiers in Ukraine has topped Soviet losses in Afghanistan. NATO estimates that more than 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry puts this toll at 24,500. In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union lost 14,453 soldiers. For each invading soldier killed, about three are believed to have been wounded. Using the NATO death estimate, this would put Russian casualties at 60,000 — almost one-third of the 190,000 Russian troops that were massed around Ukraine at the start of the invasion.

With Russia’s conventional forces battered, one novelty in the sky over Red Square on Monday is to be Russia’s Il-80 “doomsday” aircraft. Converted from a Soviet-era Il-86 widebody passenger airliner, the Il-80 is meant to be used as an airborne command center for President Putin in the event of nuclear war. Absent from recent parades, the flyover of an Il-80 seems to be a warning to Western military attaches that, if conventional forces fare poorly on the ground, Russia could go nuclear.

James Brooke, of Lenox, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.

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