Victory Day for Russia? Not in Ukraine.

Analysis: With the West united and Ukraine strengthened, Russia’s Victory Day celebration rings hollow.

By Phil McCausland
Photography by Brendan Hoffman
May 9, 2022

KYIV, Ukraine — At the morgue in Bucha, black plastic body bags rustled as they were pulled back from the faces of the dead. Families hoping to identify their loved ones looked in the unmoving eyes of dozens of corpses at varying points of decay. 

In Irpin, destroyed Russian tanks were pulled to the sides of roadways to make way for Ukrainians who returned home after the invading soldiers left behind cratered roads, burned husks of houses, spent bullet casings, and booby traps for residents to discover.

In Odesa, one of the last free cities on Ukraine’s southern coast, missiles landed indiscriminately in neighborhoods, filling the air with loud booms, exploding in homes and killing a mother and her newborn, a teenage boy and others. 

In Lviv, I met women and children who had lived in a Kharkiv basement for six weeks. They could not see the sky, but they heard the explosions as rockets destroyed the city where they all had grown up. 

“People are dying and schools, hospitals and homes are all being destroyed: no windows, no water, no electricity and constant shelling,” Natalia Ryabko, 38, said outside a refugee center at the Lviv train station. She and her son were eating soup after a dayslong journey from Kharkiv.

These are just fragments of what I’ve witnessed after spending a month in Ukraine, the atrocities a result of President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade this country. Yet, Russia on Monday celebrated Victory Day, the annual holiday that stretches back to the end of World War II and the liberation of Europe from the Nazi regime.

What was once a memorial to the 27 million Soviets who died is now a celebration of the Kremlin’s perceived military power and strength. But with 11,000 Russian soldiers in Red Square and much of the country watching, Putin had no military accomplishments to share Monday: The costs to an isolated Russia continue to climb, a fractured West has united against them and Ukraine is standing strong.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy compared Russia’s attack to Nazi Germany’s invasion of its neighbors. On Sunday evening, he said, "evil has returned, in a different uniform, under different slogans, but for the same purpose.” Yet, he promised Ukraine that it would defeat the invaders and enjoy “a blue and yellow dream” once more. 

“Over the temporarily occupied cities and villages, our flag will fly again — finally again,” he said. “And we will get together, and there will be peace.”

Ukrainians of all stripes — from nationalists and conservatives to progressives and creatives — have rallied behind the government and the military. I’ve visited with tattoo artists in Kyiv who have never been busier inking patriotic Ukrainian symbols on customers. 

In Russia, we do not know the true sentiment of its people: Journalists are unable to freely report there and protesters are quickly arrested. 

We do know that, as the days have passed, a fractured West grows more solid, the economy under the Kremlin’s care tumbles and the number of estimated killed or injured Russian soldiers steadily climbs — the latter a point Putin finally acknowledged Monday. Still, what the world has largely called a war since February is known as an incomplete “special military operation” in Russia.

Image: Tatyana Tkachuk, 73, ties strips of cloth to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military on April 12 in Lviv.

Tatyana Tkachuk, 73, ties strips of cloth to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military on April 12 in Lviv.

Tatyana Tkachuk, 73, ties strips of cloth to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military on April 12 in Lviv.

Russia’s goals could be dim hopes

After Russia's humiliating defeat outside Kyiv, its second offensive isn’t moving at speed, according to the Pentagon. Russian forces have moved forward in some areas, but are still fighting to gain control of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Further, the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, said the Russians were pushed back dozens of kilometers by Ukrainian counteroffensives outside Kharkiv in recent days. 

Now, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stating that the United States is committed to seeing “Russia weakened,” Putin seems to have only empowered his perceived foes. The stated intention of the Kremlin was to demilitarize Ukraine. Yet, with the support of the West, Ukraine could soon boast one of the best equipped militaries in Europe. 

“With growing Western support, we have the advantage and Russia has nothing to respond” with, said Leonid Polyakov, a former Ukrainian deputy minister of defense who is now an adviser at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government think tank that provides counsel to the president. “They are taking equipment from storage that is not combat ready or mobile or is obsolete. We have more and more modern weaponry that we receive from the West. The disparity is growing to our benefit.”

At the White House on Monday afternoon, that disparity may grow further. While Russia is finishing its celebration of Victory Day, President Joe Biden is expected to sign the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, State Department spokesman Ned Price told NBC News. The legislation resurrects a World War II-era program that allowed the U.S. to provide its allies huge amounts of weapons and military support to combat the Axis powers.

This latest version of the lend-lease program will give Ukraine access to some of the most powerful weapons systems in the U.S. arsenal. 

“We can no longer rely on Soviet-era weaponry: It’s out of date, we’re running out of ammunition and it’s not operable with the armies of our Western partners,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. 

“We’ve been advocating for this, of course, because ‘lend-lease’ will be a huge leap forward, and it is also very symbolic. We all know what happened the last time this law passed,” he added, referring to World War II.

But it’s not just weapons that appear to be the difference. 

Three days before the invasion started, Putin called for the need to liberate Ukrainians, who he said were connected to Russians “by blood ties.” The flood of blood spilled by this war, however, seems to have severed many of those ties between Russia and Ukraine. 

People across the world have seen the images of the mass grave dug in the shadows of Bucha’s gold-domed church. That alone was traumatizing to see up close, but it is only a small piece of the full picture. Mass graves are still being found in the Kyiv region, and many more and larger ones have also been identified in Mariupol, where the Russians enlisted locals to clean the streets of bodies, rubble and unexploded ordinance for another parade Monday.

In talking to dozens of Ukrainains during my time here, it appears Putin’s aggression and these images of brutality have only united them in their desire to protect their country’s democracy and right to self-determination. Though many Ukrainians shared that they have family connections to Russia, there appears to be little love left for their neighbor.

“In the case of Ukrainian statehood and nationality, it is Russia's very insistence that Ukraine is not a country and Ukrainians do not exist that has galvanized Ukrainian statehood and patriotism still further,” said Keir Giles, the research director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre in London. 

A united West

Regardless of the parades or displays of military might that Russia holds in Moscow, Mariupol or elsewhere on Victory Day, what remains true in the long run is clear: Russia and Putin have lost much in this war and they can celebrate little unless they are truly happy to have caused themselves and Ukraine lasting pain. 

Through killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Russia has liberated many countries from the mindset that the Kremlin is an ally or partner, and completely isolated Moscow from its neighbors. 

Russia’s actions have pushed Sweden and Finland toward joining NATO after they remained neutral and opposed to entering the alliance for years. Germany increased its defense budget despite a long stance of pacifism after World War II. The U.S. has sent in howitzers and more military support than any other country after balking over sending Poland’s fighter jets

At the start of the war, the White House and its Western partners quibbled over whether they would sanction Russia and possibly even remove it from the SWIFT banking system, which they eventually did.

Now Price said that the U.S. has built a coalition of 30 allies and partners to build a range of economic restrictions that he considered some of the most wide-ranging in history, which includes cutting off Russia’s financial driver — energy sales.

Image: Serhiy Firtsovych, 20, a volunteer, plays with Artur as Viktoria Pazyayeva, 21, holds her son, Evheniy, in a room reserved for women and small children in Lviv, on April 12.

Serhiy Firtsovych, 20, a volunteer, plays with Artur as Viktoria Pazyayeva, 21, holds her son, Evheniy, in a room reserved for women and small children in Lviv, on April 12.

Serhiy Firtsovych, 20, a volunteer, plays with Artur as Viktoria Pazyayeva, 21, holds her son, Evheniy, in a room reserved for women and small children in Lviv, on April 12.

Beyond that, he said, the U.S. has also added further defenses to NATO’s eastern flank, stabilized the alliance’s unity despite Russia’s best efforts to divide them, and shared intelligence with allies and partners to undermine the Kremlin.

Sak said there were multiple items that finally caused the international community to react, including Russia’s acts of brutality in Bucha and Mariupol, as well as Ukrainians showing that they would not fold. While some in the West doubted them, he added, the Ukrainian forces have also shown that they are capable of using Western weapons. 

“It’s going to work,” Sak said. “We’re going to win together.” 

While no one may truly understand Putin’s ultimate plans, we do know that Ukraine appears ready to defend itself, and the international community seems committed to coming to its aid. 

Both of those factors may have been in question prior to the war, but — so far — Putin’s actions have guaranteed them. 

Photo Editor:
Max Butterworth

Photo Director:
Zara Katz

Art Director:
Chelsea Stahl