Russia's Victory Day parade overshadowed by faction fighting and losses

Questions raised over ability to fight off Ukraine's counter-offensive, with arguing generals and high casualties

Russian soldiers, whose ranks are depleted by many serving on the Ukraine front, march toward Red Square in rehearsal for Victory Day. AP
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On the eve of Tuesday's Victory Parade celebrations, the most important date in the Russian military calendar, its command hierarchy is fractured.

Parades are usually held across the huge country. But security fears and the impact of huge losses in Ukraine have led to a significantly downgrading, with six regions cancelling their marches.

Reports have emerged of “growing factionalism” among Russian commanders.

High command’s authority has been severely undermined by the extraordinary threat made by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin that unless he was given more ammunition he would withdraw his mercenaries from besieging the town of Bakhmut.

Mr Prigozhin enlisted the support of Chechen mercenary commander Ramzan Kadyrov and by Sunday it appeared Moscow had caved in, with the Wagner chief producing a Ministry of Defence document stating he would receive the bombs and bullets he had demanded.

With the looming day of national unity, the episode was an unedifying sight, especially with Mr Prigozhin’s video rant amid a field of dead Russian Wagner soldiers, and raises further questions over President Vladimir Putin’s authority as well his army’s ability to defend against an expected Ukraine counter-offensive.

Rain on parade

Tanks, heavy missiles and columns of marching men in front of a podium containing the Kremlin elite have been the mark of the May 9 parade commemorating the fall of Nazi Germany.

But after 15 months of gruelling warfare, with Russia suffering an estimated 223,000 casualties, including up to 43,000 dead, the event broadcast live on Russian state television is likely to be the most downbeat since 1945.

Already the March of the Immortals has been cancelled, an event in which Russians carry photographs of World War Two military relatives, over fears that many will hold up pictures of young men who have perished in Ukraine.

Mr Putin also made the unusual decision to host a security council meeting on Friday to discuss the parade planning, with safety concerns high following Wednesday’s drone attack on the Kremlin.

It has generated an atmosphere of tension in Moscow, with Red Square shut to the public for the last two weeks.

The damage to Russian once-vaunted military might will be far more in evidence than last year’s event with its claims of imminent victory over Kyiv.

Dara Massicot, of research institute the Rand Corporation, said that most formations will have conscripts marching instead of the contract soldiers who are fighting in Ukraine.

“With so much of the ground forces engaged in Ukraine, some regions will be forced to get creative and have military instructors and other personnel play a more prominent role to give the appearance of normality,” she said.

Mr Putin might welcome a weather forecast of a chilly, cloudy day but with no rain predicted.

Ground attack

But the coming summer will not lend much warmth to those Russia fighters dug in on the 1,000km front line.

Spring has been unusually wet with the bezdorizhzhia, the time of mud, delaying the moment for the ground to harden enough for effective armoured warfare.

That has played to Ukraine’s advantage by giving its troops more time to train on modern western tanks and artillery. It is estimated that 12 combat brigades are now poised to begin the counter-attack at unknown points along the front line.

Already it appears that some “softening up” of Russian lines has begun, with drone attacks on supply dumps and the derailing of freight trains to hinder supplies.

The Ukrainians may well also use the May 9 celebrations to conduct an eye-catching strike on Russia.

What is certain is that a major attack is coming and that is playing on the minds of Moscow’s generals and probably influenced their initial decision to ration ammunition to Wagner in order to hoard supplies to counter-attack Ukraine breakthroughs.

But penetrating those Russian lines will prove a substantial examination of Ukraine’s ability to conduct combined arms warfare.

The ability to use tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, deep-strike and close-support artillery, air power, air defence and combat engineers is something that the Russians demonstrably failed to attain last year.

But in that year Russia has been able to dig deep defensive networks of trenches, minefields and rows of the pyramid dragon-teeth tank traps.

A suggestion that Moscow believes the attack is coming through the Zaporizhia region, that includes the nuclear power plant under Russian control, emerged after it was reported that 70,000 civilians had been evacuated from the area.

Military analysts believe that Ukraine will push an armoured thrust directly south to the city of Melitopol to cut off the annexed Crimea peninsula.

Yet Kyiv’s defence chiefs have been anxious to underplay its prospects. “The expectation from our counter-offensive campaign is overestimated in the world,” said Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov. “Most people are … waiting for something huge”, he added which could lead to “emotional disappointment”.

Factional dynamics

Expectations have grown from Ukraine’s successful offensives last year and the influx of billions of dollars of western arms but the coming weeks will be critical for the direction of the war.

The tension of waiting for the assault manifested itself in Mr Prigozhin’s expletive-filled video last week in which he rounded on the leadership of Russian army chief Gen Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Gen Sergei Shoigu.

It was criticism so trenchant and public that it was thought to be unique in the history of Russia's military, while it also gave an insight into tensions in the hierarchy.

The caving in to the blackmail demand indicated that the two generals “lack the ability to command Prigozhin and Kadyrov as subordinates but must instead negotiate with them as peers”, stated the Institute for the Study of War think tank.

It also assessed that Gen Gerasimov “does not actually control all the Russian forces in Ukraine” and that disciplinary issues were “having a significant impact on the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent theatre-wide operations”.

The infighting and political manoeuvring could significantly affect Moscow’s ability to defend the territory it invaded last year.

“Factional dynamics within the Russian military are shaping decision-making to an unusual degree, and the increasing erosion of the Russian chain of command is likely caught in a self-reinforcing feedback loop with the Russian military’s growing factionalism,” the think tank concluded.

Updated: May 09, 2023, 7:49 AM