President Vladimir Putin is preparing to use Victory Day celebrations on May 9 to tell the Russian people he is conducting a war — not a special military operation — in Ukraine, Britain’s defence minister has said.
Ben Wallace said the Russian leader will have no choice but to come clean about the reality on the ground if he needs more conscripts to be pushed to join the fight under a formal declaration of hostilities between the two nations.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its 10th week on Thursday, Mr Putin has yet to call it a war, instead describing it as a “special military operation” aimed at achieving the “denazification” of the former Soviet nation.
Victory Day, which commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, is celebrated in Russia with a huge military parade in Moscow’s Red Square, attended by Mr Putin and his officials.
“I actually think what he’s trying to do is lay the groundwork for an announcement on their May Day Second World War celebration to cover his failure, which if you remember it is a special operation how they describe it,” Mr Wallace told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“He’s going to have to admit if he wants to mobilise more of the Russian people that it is a war.
“Now he can’t admit that by saying ‘I got it wrong’. He’s going to have to admit it by trying to blame everybody else, and I think that is rolling the pitch for.”
Mr Wallace said people “should not be too alarmed” by Mr Putin’s recent comments in which he warned against “outside intervention” in Ukraine and a “lightning fast” response to any nation that interferes in the war.
He stressed that while the UK takes Mr Putin “incredibly seriously”, the government would not be intimidated by the Russian leader.
Asked what direction he believes the war is heading in, the defence minister said brutality remains the only card Mr Putin has to play in the battle. He said Mr Putin had made “strategic blunders” by invading his neighbouring country, pointing to Finland and Sweden’s recent clamour to join Nato.
Mr Putin has been wrong on several calculations, he said, by believing Ukrainians would welcome his forces, that his troops were invincible, and that the international community would not unite against Moscow.
“But he’s got one calculation left which it is why in this country both left and right, the SNP, the Labour party, are united with us. One of his calculations is going to be he might win through brutality,” Mr Wallace added.
He warned the Kremlin’s “battle-winning component” could be the mass killing of civilians and destruction of infrastructure. “And if he is successful in that, then what does that message say to all those other nations around the world [about] how to win a battle?”
Mr Wallace reinforced Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s view that Russian forces must be pushed out of “the whole of Ukraine”, saying Britain would support Ukrainians in “both diplomatic efforts or military efforts”.
Russia has suffered “embarrassing losses” to its navy, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update on Thursday. Around 20 Russian Navy vessels, including submarines, are stationed in the Black Sea operational zone, the MoD said.
“The Bosporus Strait remains closed to all non-Turkish warships, rendering Russia unable to replace its lost cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea.
“Despite the embarrassing losses of the landing ship Saratov and cruiser Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet retains the ability to strike Ukrainian and coastal targets.”