(CNN) — President Vladimir Putin could formally declare war on Ukraine as soon as May 9, a move that would allow the full mobilization of Russia’s reserve forces as invasion efforts continue to falter, US and Western officials believe.
May 9, known as “Victory Day” within Russia, commemorates the then-Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in 1945. Western officials have long believed that Putin would harness the symbolic meaning and value propaganda campaign that day to herald a military achievement in Ukraine, a major escalation of hostilities, or both.
Officials began to focus on one scenario, which is Putin formally declaring war on Ukraine on May 9. To date, Putin has insisted on referring to the brutal month-long conflict as a “special military operation,” effectively banning words like invasion and war.
“I think he will try to move on from his ‘special operation,'” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the groundwork to be able to say ‘look, this is now a war against the Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.'”
Throughout the conflict, Putin has continually framed his invasion of Ukraine — a country with a Jewish president — as a so-called “denazification” campaign, a description dismissed by historians and political observers alike.
Wallace added that “it would not surprise you, and I have no information on that, that he is probably going to declare this May that ‘we are now at war with the Nazis of the world and we have to massively mobilize the Russian people.'”
A formal declaration of war on May 9 could bolster public support for the invasion. Also, under Russian law, it would allow Putin to mobilize reserve forces and recruit soldiers, which officials say Russia desperately needs amid a growing labor shortage. Western and Ukrainian officials have estimated that at least 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war since Russia invaded the country just over two months ago.
Russia’s battlefield effort is ‘anemic’
Following a series of military and logistical setbacks, Moscow has concentrated its efforts on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been at the forefront of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict since 2014.
But the US official on Monday described the Russian war effort there as “anemic.”
“They move in and declare victory, and then withdraw their troops, only to let the Ukrainians take it back,” the official told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
The official said that the problems that have plagued the Russian military since its initial buildup have not been fixed.
“They continue to suffer from poor command and control, low morale in many units and less than ideal logistics,” the official said.
Russian forces also wanted to avoid risks that could cause further casualties to their already depleted forces, the official said, describing the ground war in the area as “very cautious, very lukewarm.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces were making significant progress in pushing back the Russians around Kharkiv, in the far northwest of the Donbas region, the official said.
“An incredible effort there that, again, hasn’t gotten a lot of headlines and hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but it’s just another piece of the rigid Ukrainian resistance that they continue to demonstrate,” the official said.
Other Putin options for May 9
With less than a week to go until Victory Day on May 9, Moscow could look to places other than Donbas to make a statement.
Other options include annexing the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, making a big push for Odessa in the south, or declaring full control over the southern port city of Mariupol.
The United States has “very credible” intelligence that Russia will try to annex Luhansk and Donetsk “sometime in mid-May,” US Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter said on Monday. There are also signs that Russia may be planning to declare and annex a “people’s republic” in the southeastern city of Kherson.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that there are “good reasons to believe the Russians will go to great lengths 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 of distracting from their tactical and strategic failures on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Price told a State Department briefing.
Price added that “it would be a great irony if Moscow used the occasion of ‘Victory Day’ to declare war, which in itself would allow them to increase the number of recruits in a way that they cannot do now, in a way that It would amount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are faltering in their military campaign and their military objectives.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll hear more from Moscow heading into May 9,” Price added. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to hear more from the United States, from our partners, including our NATO partners, in the lead up to May 9 as well.”