Russian President Vladimir Putin could move to formally declaring war on Ukraine as soon as May 9, which would allow for the full mobilization of Russia’s reserve forces as they attempt to conquer eastern and southern Ukraine, US and Western officials believe.
May 9, known as Russia’s “Victory Day,” commemorates the Russians’ defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Western officials have long believed that Putin would leverage the symbolic significance and propaganda value of that day to announce either a military achievement in Ukraine, a major escalation of hostilities—or both.
Officials have begun to hone in on one scenario, which is that Putin formally declares war on Ukraine on May 9. To date, Russian officials have insisted that the conflict was only a “special military operation” with the central goal of “denazification.”
“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say ‘look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”
Wallace added that he “would not be surprised, and I don’t have any information about this, that he is probably going to declare on this May Day that ‘we are now at war with the world’s Nazis and we need to mass mobilize the Russian people.’”
More context: A formal declaration of war on May 9 could galvanize Russian citizens and surge popular opinion for the invasion. It would also, under Russian law, allow Putin to mobilize reserve forces and draft conscripts, which officials say Russia desperately needs amid a growing manpower shortage. Western and Ukrainian officials have estimated that at least 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war since Russia invaded just over two months ago.
Other options for May 9 include annexing the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, making a major push for Odesa in the south, or declaring full control over the southern port city of Mariupol.
The US has “highly credible” intelligence reports that Russia will try to annex Luhansk and Donetsk “some time in mid-May,” the US Ambassador to OSCE Michael Carpenter said on Monday. There are also indications that Russia could be planning to declare and annex a “people’s republic” in the southeastern city of Kherson.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that there is “good reason to believe that the Russians will do everything they can to use” May 9 for propaganda purposes.
“We’ve seen the Russians really double down on their propaganda efforts, probably, almost certainly, as a means to distract from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Price said at a State Department briefing.
Price added that he had “seen the speculation that Russia may formally declare war” on May 9, and said, “that would be a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of ‘Victory Day’ to declare war, which in itself would allow them to surge conscripts in a way they’re not able to do now, in a way that would be tantamount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are floundering in their military campaign and military objectives.”
“I’m quite confident that we’ll be hearing more from Moscow in the lead up to May 9,” Price added. “I’m quite confident that you will be hearing more from the United States, from our partners, including our NATO partners, in the lead up to May 9 as well.”