Little did Putin from last year would have anticipated that victory would virtually be absent on Victory Day 2022 – domestically, no triumph from the battlefield to boast; internationally, no political echoes from prominent world leaders (not even from China).
Putin seemed to attempt to belie the faltering, if not foundering, so-called “special military operation” with a speech twice as long as the one from last year, relentlessly decrying the aggression from NATO and the US which ultimately led to Russia’s “forced intervention” in Ukraine. However, in the absence of claim of victory, he made no call for threat of a nuclear strike or escalation of the existential war. It is not difficult to tell, therefore, all his self-styled hardball amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is being supplanted by hesitancy and second-guessing, contra his unwavering determination from three months ago.
The subdued tone exuded from Putin’s speech can be logically attributed to a slew of Russian military failures prior to Victory Day: not only did Russia fail its “Plan A” – to take down Kyiv in 24 hours and its “Plan B” – to besiege Eastern Ukraine, but Ukrainian troops succeeded in securing further gains of Kharkiv and sinking the Russian flagship Moskva with its Neptune missiles. With unambiguous support from the US and its European allies, it appears that Ukraine is to see the light at the end of the war-torn tunnel, especially after the release of a short yet powerful video message given by President Zelensky, featuring an inspiring and adamant vow of “We won then. We will win now.”
Nonetheless, it is still far too early to conclude that the peace between these two nations is right around the corner, Putin’s intransigency cannot be negligible, nor can Ukrainian citizens’ rising nationalism big with vengeance when they have witnessed the approachable upper-hand on the battlefield. As early as March, Zelensky was starting to seek peaceful solutions to the conflict with Russia. However, when Ukraine is gaining an advantageous position, the flexibility that Zelensky can bring to the negotiation table may otherwise diminish as a result of the pressure from the public opinion.
Blind and inordinate retaliation can oftentimes backfire if not handled carefully. In the early stages of the Paris Peace Conference, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed a peace treaty that would punish Germany instead of crippling it. He was fairly concerned that excessive punishment may push Germany towards radical ideas such as Communism, which in turn would cause chaos and misery. The proposal was concurred with by the US President Woodrow Wilson, who was renowned for his “Fourteen Points” as a basis for peace and also believed that it was those in power that should be punished rather than the people. However, Lloyd George eventually gave in to the anti-German sentiment and Wilson’s blueprint of the US joining the League of Nations was shattered by isolationists in Congress. Consequently, the Treaty of Versailles played a resonate victory symphony while producing a short-lived peace before the emergence Nazi Germany.
Compared to the leaders involved in the first World War, political elites in the early 19th century seemed to have a deeper understanding of the trade-off between victory and peace. Despite the chaos that came with the drawn-out Napoleonic Wars, European leaders such as Metternich still made long-term peacekeeping for Europe the cornerstone of the Congress of Vienna instead of dismantling France. Leaders then were not blinded by or complacent about the short-sighted victory. It was their comprehensive and insightful planning that generated the balance of power, which sustained the peace in the continent for the next 100 years till the Sarajevo Assassination that triggered the World War I.
Does the West want to see an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict? For most of ordinary people, it is a resounding yes. But for some leaders, the answer might become tricky. Take the Biden administration for example, what better way to compensate for the scores lost to the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last year than a proxy war to cripple the already weakened Russia? As Ukraine’s resistance is gathering momentum, Zelensky needs to keep a cool head as he has done since the start of the war rather than being pushed around by either geopolitical calculations of great powers or irrational domestic thirst for vengeance. Pushing Putin too hard (e.g. suggesting Putin’s assassination) is likely to prod him to resort to drastic actions – a nuclear strike, which is something the West may not have completely prepared for. What Zelensky should prioritize is the peace in the region and the safety of Ukrainian citizens. After all, a lasting peace is more approachable and practical to prevent history from repeating itself than an abstract victory.