One tank. According to press reports and news broadcasts from Moscow, a solitary T-34 dating back to the second world war was the only tank that trundled past the Russian president as he marked a scaled-down Victory Day on May 9 this year.

As we have previously noted here, Victory Day parades are a big deal for Vladimir Putin. During his time in power he has transformed them from a solemn (if obviously martial) commemoration of the part the Red Army played in the defeat of Nazism in the second world war to a macho demonstration of imperial might. It's now one of Russia's most important national celebrations.

A clearly piqued Putin told the (rather smaller than usual) crowds in Red Square that "a real war has again been unleashed" on Russia, a reprise of his oft-articulated theme that the whole thing is actually a conflict forced upon the motherland by evil forces in the west.

Presumably Russia needs all its military hardware at the front as it prepares for a spring offensive that is expected to begin any day now. Indeed, the respected US-based thinktank the Institute for the Study of War has flagged what it is calling "successful limited counterattacks" around Bakhmut. Russian troops have been bogged down there for months in a murderous and attritional slugfest at a huge cost in terms of both lives and ammunition.

But anyone thinking that the much-heralded offensive will be the prelude to a swift Ukrainian victory on the battlefield is mistaken, writes Frank Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer now researching and teaching military strategy at the University of Portsmouth. Ledwidge has recently returned from Kyiv where he attended a conference organised by the thinktank Globsec.

"One abiding impression remains," he writes, "the profound determination of Ukrainian people to fight what almost everyone now accepts is going to be a long war. At no level is there any appetite for settlement or ceasefire." But there are also no illusions that the spring offensive will be decisive and Ukraine is going to need western help – and lots of it – for some years yet.

Russian masculinity

One thing is certain though. The heavy toll this is taking on Russia's troops – whether regular army or the various private militias, of which the now-notorious Wagner Group is but one – means that there will have to be another major round of conscription.

The Russian Duma recently rubberstamped legislation that will make it significantly harder for young Russian men to avoid the call-up. Last September when Putin announced Russia's first mobilisation since the second world war, there was a general rush for the exits. Hundreds of thousands of draft-eligible young men headed for the safety of neighbouring countries rather than join up.

Russians have been treated to a blitz of advertising appealing to the Russian male's sense of their "warrior masculinity". Marina Yusupova of Edinburgh Napier University is an expert in expressions of masculinity – particularly in Russia – and has researched Russian men's views on the army and military service.

She says while there is a huge amount of respect for the Soviet-era military, today's army holds little appeal for most men – who tend to see it as "corrupt", "deeply damaged" and "discredited". Appeals along the lines of "You're a real man, be one" – as one advert implores – are unlikely to be as effective as Putin might hope.

More false flags?

Muscovites got a nasty shock one night last week when two drones exploded close to the Kremlin itself. This sparked intense speculation, not least from Putin himself who immediately announced that this was a dastardly attempt at assassination.

"A planned terrorist act and an attempt on the president's life, carried out on the eve of Victory Day", his office declared. This blithely ignores the fact that it's not exactly a state secret that Putin rarely if ever sleeps over at the Kremlin, so this would be a particularly futile attempt to bump him off.

Kyiv has flatly denied having any part in the attack. But, as David Dunn and Stefan Wolff of the University of Birmingham note, Putin has form when it comes to false flag operations. They argue there could be myriad reasons for Russia to have staged what they see as a piece of badly managed theatre.

China syndrome

Putin's war in Ukraine has given Xi Jinping the opportunity to walk the world stage as ostensible peacemaker. Despite declaring "friendship without limits" with Putin when the pair met a couple of days before the invasion last February, China has since sat on the fence diplomatically, It has abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions condemning the war but also, thus far, refrained from supplying Russia with military equipment.

As Natasha Kuhrt from Kings College London and Marcin Kaczmarski from the University of Glasgow note, Xi and his advisers will be thinking through the various possible outcomes of the war. Here they give us three possible scenarios.

Xi also called the Ukrainian president last week for the first time since the conflict began. As Stefan Wolff notes, there's a lot at stake for China – whatever the outcomes. One the one hand it needs Russia for balance in its great power competition with the west. On the other, various senior EU representatives have made it clear that Beijing's stance on the war will significantly influence the future of Europe's relationship with China.

But if Xi pulls off a diplomatic solution, writes Wolff, it will further cement China's status as an important power broker in a bipolar order.

Nowhere to hide for Putin?

The International Criminal Court's recent decision to issue an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes associated with the alleged kidnapping of Ukrainian children was greeted with a degree of weary cynicism all round. As US president Joe Biden noted at the time, the International Criminal Court “is not recognised by us either”.

But, as Aaron Fichtelberg, an expert in criminal justice at the University of Delaware notes, it would be rash to assume that Putin is safe from the court’s grasp. Fichtelberg runs through a number of former strongman leaders who have faced justice, not just at the hands of the ICC but a variety of other ad hoc legal jurisdictions set up to try war crimes. And, he adds, life as a fugitive – even as a former head of state – can be pretty miserable, as the late former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet found out in the 1990s.

Jonathan Este

Associate Editor, International Affairs Editor

Experts expect the war in Ukraine to be a lengthy, grinding conflict similar to what is playing out in Bakhmut. AP Photo/Libkos

I’ve just returned from Kyiv where they are expecting a long war and want more help from the west

Frank Ledwidge, University of Portsmouth

The author was part of a delegation to Kyiv of military, intelligence and diplomatic experts. Here are his impressions.

EPA-EFE/Yuri Kochetkov

Russia’s appeal to ‘warrior masculinity’ is unlikely to encourage men to enlist in the army

Marina Yusupova, Edinburgh Napier University

Interviews with Russian men found most no longer see military service as a marker of masculinity.

Security: the Kremlin has banned the use of drones in the centre of Moscow ahead of the May 9 ‘Victory Day’ celebrations. EPA-EFE/Yuri Kochetkov

Ukraine war: drone ‘attack’ on Kremlin – logic suggests a false flag to distract Russians ahead of Victory Day on May 9

David Hastings Dunn, University of Birmingham; Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

The drone ‘attack’ on the Kremlin remains shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the possible explanations.

Read more


Featured events

View all
Introduction to Hospital Episode Statistics

11 - 12 May 2023 • Southampton

Promote your event

Contact us here to have your event listed.

For sponsorship opportunities, email us here