Using the past to justify the present has become widespread in Russia. It is especially true considering the victory of the Soviet Union in the “Great Patriotic War”, which is genuinely the only universal value of Russian society.
However, the historical language is being used increasingly by the Kremlin to describe the near future as there are almost no other commonly understood ways of explaining it. Therefore, Vladimir Putin’s speech on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the defeat of the German Nazi forces by the Red Army in the Battle of Stalingrad can be considered precisely as this kind of forecast or even an announcement.
In his speech on February 2, 2023, Putin not only once again said the Battle of Stalingrad was a “radical turning point” in the war but also threatened European countries, Germany in particular, with punishment for “being dragged into a new war with Russia.” One can assume that the parallels between the supply of Western equipment, primarily German tanks, to Ukraine and the Soviet-German war of 1941-1945 will continue to be actively used in Russian propaganda. However, since no statements on a “radical change” in the “special operation” were made, there are doubts that Russia has a “plan B”.
On February 2, in honor of the victory over the German troops in 1943, Volgograd is renamed Stalingrad for a day (a total of 9 times a year). Along with the issue of removing Lenin from the mausoleum, the problem of renaming the city regularly pops up at the all-Russian level. At the same time, 67% of Volgograd residents oppose the return of the old name.
Putin traditionally visits the city during election years (in 2023, they will be held on September 10). It was in Volgograd on May 6, 2011, when he called for the creation of the All-Russia People’s Front.
That is why quite a few reviewers predicted Putin to give his subsequent keynote speech during this visit, to draw new “red lines” etc. Although one can’t say the Russian president struck the audience with some original opinion, his speech, on the one hand, perfectly fit into the trend of identifying the “special operation” with the “Great Patriotic War”; on the other hand, it was a reaction to the predicted changes in the course of warfare.
Let’s have a look at the main points of a speech.
1. Russia is a victim
Putin begins by repeating the thesis that it is Russia who is the victim and appeals to the visual image of German tanks with crosses:
“Now we are seeing that unfortunately, the ideology of Nazism — this time in its modern guise — is again creating direct threats to our national security, and we are, time and again, forced to resist the aggression of the collective West.
However incredible, it is a fact — we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on board. There is again a plan to fight Russia on Ukrainian land using Hitler’s successors, the Banderites.”
Since February 24, 2022, Putin has repeatedly invocated the imagery of the “Great Patriotic War” to justify aggression against Ukraine. The fact that he used the 80th anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad as another occasion to repeat the idea of “Russia being the victim” is quite understandable. But the fact that no new talking points appeared means that Putin has nothing more to say. He had already squeezed everything he could out of such an analogy; therefore, in the future, endless repetitions of what has already been said await us.
However, wiser by recent experience, Putin will be more careful to draw direct parallels between past and present events. Many expected the identification of the battle for Stalingrad with the battles for Bakhmut (or for the Donbas in general). However, Putin did not dare to make this comparison since he might assume a possible failure in this area of the front. Moreover, in this particular situation — an offensive in dense urban areas — Russian troops look more like the Wehrmacht than the Red Army, an analogy the Kremlin carefully avoids.
2. Threats to the West
Putin once again threatened Ukraine’s Western allies:
“However, those that are dragging European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia, and especially those that are irresponsibly talking about it as a fait accompli, those who are hoping to defeat Russia on the battlefield, apparently fail to understand that a modern war against Russia will be a completely different war for them. We do not send our tanks to their borders but we have what to respond with, and it is not limited to the use of armor. Everyone must realize this.”
On the one hand, this piece can be interpreted as a hint at the use of nuclear weapons since it is already clear to everyone that Russia is not able to oppose the West with anything else, neither the mentioned tanks, nor the infantry, nor the ships (after the sinking of the Moscow). Only missiles with nuclear warheads remain. If so, this is the first hint since Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s November 14, 2022 statement on the unacceptability of the use of nuclear weapons.
However, it is impossible but notice that this speech fragment is somewhat less brutal than the corresponding passage from the February 24, 2022 speech. Then, Putin said “Russia response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never faced in your whole history.” This time, wordings like “red line” were not used, and specific types of “the latest weapons that have no analogs in the West” were not mentioned.
In modern Russia, direct nuclear blackmail is the province of the marginalized Dmitry Medvedev and some other, not the highest rank, politicians. Putin’s personal attempt to raise the stakes may indicate he had run out of other arguments. If it is true, then this is an indirect admission of problems with the Russian military industry and traditional military forces and facilities.
3. Continuation of the war
Traditionally, the Battle of Stalingrad is perceived as a radical turn in World War II, but in his speech, Putin again and again emphasized its duration and entanglement.
“Exactly 80 years ago… the hated, cruel enemy was stopped and sent into irreversible retreat, bringing to a conclusion the long, arduous, fierce battle for Stalingrad.”
“For 200 days at Stalingrad, two armies fought to the death amid the ruins of this legendary city. The army that proved stronger of will prevailed.”
“The willingness to go beyond for the sake of the Motherland and the truth, to do the impossible, has always been and remains in the blood, in the character of our multi-ethnic people.”
“The fortitude of the defenders of Stalingrad is the most important moral and ethical guideline for the Russian Army, for all of us. Our soldiers and officers are loyal to this.”
The lack of evident success of the Russian troops in late 2022-early 2023 forced both Ukrainian intelligence and Western analysts to talk about the warfare transiting to being a war of attrition. However, the prolongation of hostilities bears both economic (oil price cap) and electoral risks. Throughout 2022, when asked directly whether they support the “special operation”, 65% to 75% of Russians answered “yes”. However, if respondents were allowed to choose between continuing the war or negotiating, autumn results showed only 25% of Russians supporting the hostilities and 55% — the peace (in spring, it was the other way round). In addition, the lack of great success on the battlefield has fueled radical sentiments among the so-called patriotic wing, which results in criticism of Putin personally and the military elite and also triggers tensions between the Ministry of Defense and non-state paramilitary forces.
We should also consider a step-by-step reboot of the Ukrainian armed forces with the latest weapons — first with artillery, then with air defense, and, in the short term, with tanks. From this point of view, time is on Ukraine’s side, and the warfare footdragging may result in the parity between the warring parties. Moreover, if Ukraine could summon a Western tank hammerhead, it would probably start an offensive in the southern direction, between Melitopol and Mariupol, and threaten land communication with Crimea.
Since Kremlin apparently does not even consider defeat as an option, most likely Russia will try to push forward on the offensive shortly as the answer to the mentioned problems. However, there are no serious grounds to consider it possible to repeat the Kyiv offensive: even if Russia attacks again, it will do it only in the south and east, which is unlikely to lead to the imminent victory. Therefore, a further footdragging of the war with a possible intensification of missile strikes on Ukraine’s civilian targets awaits us — which also does not mean the capitulation of Kyiv. And if Putin is aware of this, it precisely explains the lack of promises of a quick and radical change on the frontline and a victorious end to the war. Perhaps Putin’s disbelief in the capture of Kyiv “in three days” at this stage determined the nature of his speech.
The expectations of some reviewers, who were apprehensive about announcement of a new stage of the “special operation” or a new wave of “partial” mobilization, turned out to be a false dawn. Putin once again took the opportunity to emphasize the unique USSR contribution to defeat Nazism, to justify the invasion of Ukraine, to threaten European countries, and to express confidence in the definitive victory — but said nothing specific. It surely does not mean that the Kremlin does not have a “Plan B”. But even if it exists, today its configuration looks obscure. Most likely, an appeal “The Motherland is in danger”, even if voiced, we will hear no earlier than February 21-24. Therefore, we can assume that up until then, the large-scale Russian offensive will not happen.
On the whole:
1. Russia will continue to use the “Great Patriotic War” history as a justification for its aggression against Ukraine and present itself as a victim of the collective West without inventing new narratives. However, Putin will be more careful about drawing direct parallels between the past and present.
2. Many reviews expected to hear the announcement of new “red lines” or “Plan B” in the war with Ukraine in the Stalingrad speech since Kremlin doesn’t consider a defeat of Russia in theory, but the war footdragging carries high risks. However, this did not happen. Threats to the West were vague and non-specific; even if they meant nuclear weapons the readiness to use them was not clearly demonstrated.
3. The lack of announcement of a “radical change” does not mean Russian troops will not go on the offensive, but it may attest to the fact that the final version of the “plan B” has not yet been approved. Moreover, the quick capture of Kyiv plan is likely to have been cancelled in favor of the war of attrition.
4. The next bifurcation point will fall on the first anniversary of the start of the full-scale invasion — February 21-24, 2023.