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Vladimir Putin delivers his Victory Day speech via video screen in Red Square, Moscow, on May 9 2024
EPA-EFE/Maxim Shipenkov

Ukraine recap: Putin celebrates Victory Day with nuclear threats to UK and France

Vladimir Putin, newly elected as Russian president for a fifth term (and being hailed, apparently, by some ultra-nationalist supporters as “imperator” like the tsars before him) has been leading his country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. As we’ve come to expect, there’s been the usual mix of pomp, nostalgia and military hardware.

It has been said in May each year since Putin sent his war machine across the Ukrainian border in February 2022 that the imperator would want to have a significant battlefield triumph to announce as the country commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over fascism in the second world war. So far this has proved elusive, thanks to Ukraine’s stubborn defence and the billions of dollars worth of military aid contributed by Kyiv’s western allies.

This time around, largely due to Kyiv’s lack of the latter, Putin has some territorial gains to crow about. Russian forces are pressing Ukrainian defences hard in the east and south of the country, especially in the Donetsk Oblast, where the frontline is creeping, albeit very slowly, towards the strategically important town of Chasiv Yar. Further north, Russian units are edging westwards with the aim of occupying the whole of Luhansk Oblast and moving westwards into eastern Kharkiv Oblast.

Vladimir Putin attends the 2024 Victory Day parade in Moscow.

But this battlefield progress has reportedly come at a high cost. The UK’s ministry of defence released an intelligence update this week estimating Russian losses through April at 899 soldiers per day killed or wounded, with a total casualty count of more than 465,000 since the conflict began two years ago.

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It remains unclear, writes Stefan Wolff of the University of Birmingham, the extent to which the US$60 billion (£50 billion) of US military aid is changing this dynamic. Wolff, an expert in international security who has been a regular contributor to our coverage of the war since it started, says that despite the US having positioned key supplies close enough to Ukraine’s troops to be delivered in some cases within a few hours, there is little sign yet that they are helping the defenders slow the rate of advance.

That said, the rate of advance is already so slow that Chasiv Yar, which appears to be Russia’s next main strategic objective, is just 10kms west of Bakhmut. You may remember that Russia occupied that city a year ago after a monumental struggle.

ISW map showing the state of the conflict in Ukraine.
The state of the conflict in Ukraine as at May 7. Institute for the Study of War

Wolff also notes two significant recent diplomatic events. French president Emmanuel Macron has renewed his calls for Kyiv’s European allies to commit to putting boots on the ground in Ukraine should the need arise, in order to prevent Russia winning the war. He first made the call in February, but so far only Lithuania has heeded his message, saying it was prepared to commit troops to Ukraine, initially for training purposes.

More significantly, though, the UK’s foreign minister, David Cameron, has withdrawn the prohibition against Ukraine using British weapons to strike targets in Russia. That this is a consequential move for the UK, which can hurt Russia, was immediately apparent in the vehemence of Putin’s response, which was to threaten to hit back against British military installations and equipment both inside Ukraine and elsewhere.

Read more: Ukraine war: battlefield setbacks stir Kyiv's European allies into taking a tougher line on Russia

Amelia Hadfield, head of politics at the University of Surrey, takes a closer look at the revitalised “entente cordiale” between Britain and France over the past two years, notwithstanding any difficulties brought on by Brexit. She highlights a letter published in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper by Cameron and his French counterpart, Stéphane Séjourné, minister for Europe and foreign affairs, declaring that “two founding members [of Nato] and Europe’s nuclear powers, have a responsibility in driving the alliance to deal with the challenges before it”.

The key, writes Hadfield, is for the UK and France to “capitalise on their leadership to coordinate the war effort in terms of defence and diplomacy by keeping allies in the fight, now and in the medium term”. This level of European buy-in to Nato’s goals and responsibilities will also go down well in the US, where successive administrations have had concerns that America has been footing more than its fair share of the bill for too long.

Read more: Britain and France are forging a new alliance over backing for Ukraine – and aim to bring Nato partners with them

This last issue, together with the possibility that Donald Trump might be elected for a second term as US president, has prompted Nato’s European members to shift up a gear. Trump said in February that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” with any Nato country that didn’t abide by the alliance’s defence spending guidelines. Jest or not, many European countries are taking the Republican presidential candidate at face value.

French president, Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with French veterans at a parade to mark the anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, greets veterans as France marks the anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe. EPA-EFE/Johanna Geron/pool

Alarmed by Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons (the latest made just the other day, prompted by France and Britain’s latest statements about the war) Nato countries are doing what Natasha Lindstaedt calls “Trump-proofing” themselves.

Lindstaedt, a politics professor at the University of Essex, tracks the way in which Poland and the Baltic States, in particular, have been beefing up their defence arrangements. Poland has said it is happy to host nuclear weapons on its soil and Macron has said he wants to “europeanise” France’s nuclear deterrent as part of the EU’s collective defence.

A key consideration, writes Lindstaedt, is the risk that talking up the importance of a nuclear deterrent increases the possibility that a threatened Russia with its back to the wall may resort to its use.

Read more: Trump-proofing Nato: why Europe's current nuclear deterrents may not be enough to face biggest threats since WWII

Meanwhile in Russia

If Victory Day is a chance for Putin to bask in the reflected glory of the achievements of the mighty Red Army in the Great Patriotic War (1939-45) it’s also a premium opportunity to indoctrinate a new generation of patriotic Russians.

Jennifer Mathers, a senior lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University, and Allyson Edwards, a lecturer in international politics at Bath Spa University, who specialises in Russian militarism, write here about how, under Putin, Russia is mobilising its youth to create a new generation of militarily indoctrinated patriots.

Read more: Ukraine war: Putin is using Russian children to promote his version of history on Victory Day

Meanwhile, as is normal following an election, Putin’s council of ministers resigned en masse and have a week to reapply for their jobs. Or not. Russia-watchers are keenly anticipating personnel changes after a turbulent year at the top of Russian politics.

Russia’s defence establishment was rocked recently when Russia’s deputy defence minister, Timur Ivanov, was arrested and charged with massive corruption, in part over his stewardship of the rebuilding of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. There’s no doubt that the man they call the “King of the Kickback” was known for his lavish lifestyle. But, as Stephen Hall – an expert in authoritarian regimes at the University of Bath – notes, corruption at the elite level is not seen as unusual in Russia, where the top dogs (including Putin himself) all have what are known as “wallets” who act as the bagmen for their ill-gotten gains.

More likely is that Ivanov is the victim of infighting between the ministry of defence and Russia’s powerful intelligence community. Hall walks us through some of the more ambitious Kremlin courtiers jostling around Putin and his defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who will doubtless be watching his own back very carefully in the months to come.

Read more: Russia: arrest of deputy defence minister on corruption charges reveals bitter factional infighting among the elite

Map readings

Each fortnight we reproduce a map here, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War, that shows the state of the conflict in Ukraine. The ISW publishes a number of maps each day, updating in great detail what can be gleaned from geolocated data about the progress of the battlefield and any confirmed movements in the lines of contact.

Doug Specht, a reader in cultural geography and communications at the University of Westminster, has made a specialism of maps and what they can tell us, not just about the shape of the world, but about the culture that produced the maps themselves. Here, Specht highlights the way that maps can dehumanise situations, as they have in Ukraine and Gaza.

“Ultimately, maps are tools that can be used for good or ill,” he concludes. “We must strive to see beyond the lines and symbols, and remember the human beings whose lives are impacted by the conflicts depicted on maps.”

Read more: How maps are used and abused in times of conflict

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