On May 9th, Vladimir Putin made a much-anticipated speech to the Russian people (https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/nato-nazis-and-the-motherland-putin-s-full-victory-day-speech-1.10787657 ). Interspersed with familiar tropes, was a softer Putin message.
1.Narrowed Focus: Rather than focus on annexing all of Ukraine, Putin now seems intent on solidifying control of the Donbas region; that is, the eastern-most provinces of Ukraine: Donetsk and Luhansk. In addition, Putin wants to build a land bridge between Crimea and Donbas: secure Kherson and Melitopol and the surrounding territory.
Putin observed, “Donbass militia alongside with the Russian Army are fighting on their land today… I am addressing our Armed Forces and Donbass militia. You are fighting for our Motherland, its future, so that nobody forgets the lessons of World War II.”
Captured Russian documents (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/putin-s-precious-war-plan-left-behind-by-fleeing-russian-troops-officials-say/ar-AAXaaQ5 ) reveal that Putin’s original focus was to annex all of Ukraine: “‘Investigators… found important documents of soldiers of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces that give a clear understanding that Russia was preparing to seize all the territory of Ukraine,’ Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation Chief Oleksiy Sukhachev said in a statement.”
2. Calmer Presentation: Although Putin’s justifications for the invasion were the same as they had been in previous speeches, his words were less bellicose.
Although western observers can be encouraged that Putin has narrowed the scope of his invasion, the fact remains that he seems intent on annexing the Donbas region. Putin is going to have considerable difficulty doing this. Russian forces have lost control of strategic terrain and they can no longer move supplies using Ukrainian railways. This suggests that Putin has put himself in a “box.” He can’t move forward and he’ll lose face if he retreats.
3. Falsehoods: Much of what Putin told the Russian people were lies. The BBC fact-checked his speech (https://www.bbc.com/news/61379405).
a. Ukraine wants nuclear weapons: “President Putin has repeatedly said Ukraine plans to acquire nuclear weapons as a justification for Russia’s invasion, although there’s no evidence this is the case… the Ukrainian government has not expressed an intention to acquire nuclear weapons and a military strategy document published last year did not refer to them.”
b. Neo-Nazis are seizing control of Ukraine: “President Putin has frequently claimed the presence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine as a justification for Russia’s invasion. At the last parliamentary election in 2019, support for far-right candidates was just 2% – far lower than in many other European countries. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and members of his family died in the Holocaust.”
c. NATO was preparing for war before the invasion: “President Putin appears to be suggesting, not only that Nato has been expanding its influence in the Baltic states which are Nato members – but also inside Ukraine, which is not in Nato. It’s true that Nato allies have supported Ukraine with equipment and training since 2014, and they have deployed more forces to some Nato member states in eastern Europe.”
4. IMPASSE: Russia cannot win this war, but it can inflict terrible damage as it thrashes around. On May 10th, President Biden’s advisor, Avril Haines (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/10/putin-nuclear-weapons-us-intelligence-avril-haines?) warned there is a dangerous path ahead : “Vladimir Putin could view the prospect of defeat in Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime, potentially triggering his resort to using a nuclear weapon… The prediction for Ukraine was a long, grueling war of attrition, which could lead to increasingly volatile acts of escalation from Putin, including full mobilization, the imposition of martial law, and – if the Russian leader felt the war was going against him, endangering his position in Moscow – even the use of a nuclear warhead.”
Summary: Putin isn’t going to “fade away.” He’s a psychopath. Hold on tight.