Biden administration braces for Putin’s Victory Day surprise

President Joe Biden authorized another tranche of military aid to Ukraine and leveled new sanctions on Moscow this week, as the West braces for a possible escalation of the conflict from Russia’s unpredictable leader on Monday.

The U.S. president’s latest show of military support came just days ahead of Russia’s May 9 anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. It is a milestone Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to mark with an extravagant military parade through the streets of Moscow — and potentially a formal declaration of war against Ukraine.

Many analysts believe Putin had hoped to use Victory Day to declare a military victory in the conflict. But ten weeks after the invasion, Moscow has failed to conquer Kyiv and is making plodding progress in the eastern Donbas region.

Instead, experts and Western officials now believe Putin may mark the holiday by declaring a more limited victory in the southern city of Mariupol, which has been under bombardment from Russian airstrikes for weeks, and in the Donbas, which Russia first invaded in 2014 and where Moscow has concentrated most of its forces in recent weeks. Taking Mariupol is key to creating a land bridge connecting Russia to Crimea.

But looming over the holiday is the fear Putin will use the day to double down on the invasion and announce a full-scale mobilization or call-up of reservists to replenish his depleted forces in Ukraine. Already, Russia has reportedly ramped up its offensive in eastern Ukraine ahead of Victory Day.

“I think he is going to have to declare war so he can call up the reserves and more conscripts,” said Mick Mulroy, a former top Pentagon official and retired CIA paramilitary officer and U.S. Marine. “If he does not do that it may indicate he knows he can’t win. If he does, this could get even worse.”

Ahead of the holiday, Biden on Friday authorized a new $150 million package of assistance, which will provide additional artillery munitions, radars and other critical equipment to Ukraine.

“Today, the United States is continuing our strong support for the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their country against Russia’s ongoing aggression,” Biden said Friday.

In another sign of his commitment to Kyiv, Biden met virtually with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the other Group of Seven leaders on Sunday morning, coordinating another round of sanctions on Russian entities.

On Sunday, the administration announced it was imposing visa restrictions on upwards of 2,600 Russian and Belarusian military officials and 35 banking executives; banning technical support to and U.S. companies from advertising on the country’s three main television stations; and prohibiting the provision of accounting and management consulting services to Russian companies.

Additional measures include further export controls and sanctions to degrade Russian war efforts, putting restrictions on a broad range of commercial products such as industrial engines, motors, and bulldozers.

“These new controls will further limit Russia’s access to components that it needs to replenish and restock its military capabilities,” said a senior U.S. government official.

Western officials have been preparing for a possible formal declaration of war for over a week. British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said late last month that he expects Putin to declare on May 9 that “we are now at war with the world’s Nazis,” a reference to the Russian president’s claims that he ordered the invasion to de-Nazify Ukraine.

“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation,’” Wallace told a British radio station. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder.’”

Alternatively, Putin could choose a “horizontal escalation” to distract the West and Ukraine from the main fight and put pressure on NATO, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges. This could be a strike against a logistics hub in one of the NATO countries, a threat of a nuclear strike inside Ukraine, or a demonstration of nuclear capability in an isolated area, Hodges said.

However, Hodges expressed skepticism that Russia could successfully mobilize a “meaningful amount” of Russian reserves.

“To do this would actually backfire, manifesting the depth of corruption within the Ministry of Defense as well as years of neglect … and it would present a problem for the government with their own population,” Hodges said. “Why is it necessary, in this special technical operation, to now mobilize reserves?”

Rather, Hodges expects the Kremlin could declare a more limited victory and “wait for us to lose interest.”

The latest authorization, the ninth drawdown of equipment from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021, sends another signal of continued Western support. It includes 25,000 155mm artillery rounds; three AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars; electronic jamming equipment; and field equipment and spare parts, the Pentagon said Friday.

“Capabilities in this package are tailored to meet critical Ukrainian needs for today’s fight as Russian forces continue their offensive in eastern Ukraine,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby in a statement.

The new package brings the U.S. commitment to $4.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including $3.8 billion since the invasion.

But Biden’s announcement also underscored the urgent need for Congress to approve more aid. The president’s $33 billion request for new funds and authorities for Ukraine was still being written into legislative text as of Friday, according to a congressional aide.

In his statement, Biden said he had “nearly exhausted” a key fund known as presidential drawdown authority, which allows him to backfill U.S. weapons stockpiles. Congress’ initial aid package in March included a $3 billion drawdown fund; Biden’s latest request is for $6 billion.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how quickly lawmakers could move to send the new funding to Biden’s desk. Democratic leaders are weighing whether to pair the aid package with Biden’s separate request for Covid-related funding. Republicans have threatened to block such a move and are pushing for a standalone vote on the Ukraine package.

Andrew Desiderio and Ben Pauker contributed to this report.

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