By Dominic Waghorn, international affairs editor
Victory Day has an almost sacred place in the Russian calendar. Russians no longer have ideologies to rally behind if they ever really did, after the passing of the Cold War. The country is huge, the world’s largest and geographically and culturally disparate. But its people can all agree on one thing: the importance of this day when they remember the fallen of the Great Patriotic War.
Not least because 27 million Soviet citizens, eight and a half million of them soldiers, died in the epic struggle against Nazi Germany. Every Russian family has a relative to remember. And the national trauma forever seared the vulnerability of Russia’s western flank to invaders for an entire nation, as the war with the French had in the century before.
But the parade this year of tanks, planes and soldiers will have another huge significance this year. Vladimir Putin faces a challenge and the world will be watching how he handles it.
He has told his people for years now they have the greatest army in the world. The men and material being paraded through Moscow each year, he says, are the envy of rival nations. They have weapons no one else has.
And he has told them that army is being used in a “special military operation” in Ukraine. But that operation has gone on now for two and a half months. Russians will want to know what has been achieved. What is there to show for all the billions spent on Russia’s new improved world-beating military in its first test of arms?
Journalist Mikhail Reuben of independent news website Proekt told Sky News that Mr Putin has made the memory of victory in the Second World War central to his rule.
“He never had any ideology at all – he is a classic populist. The only ideology that Russian authority had for the last 20 years was the victory over Nazism in 1945, which is really important for the Russian population.”
Mr Putin has interwoven his war in Ukraine with Russia’s war with Germany. The Russian security forces patrolling Moscow this year have the orange and black ribbon used in previous years to commemorate Victory Day sewn in the letter Z on their shoulders, the symbol of the Russian military in Ukraine.
Banners across the capital have the dates 1945 and 2022 emblazoned together.
So as they watch the parade and remember the glories and sacrifices of the past, Russians will have many reasons to wonder about what has been achieved in Ukraine.
“On the Victory Day he needs to say something about a victory,” says Mr Reuben. “I think that he will lie that the campaign goes very well because the people are waiting for a success because no one was expecting a long campaign at all.”
Others expect Mr Putin to go further to up the ante and expand his war. He could officially declare war and announce a general mobilisation and put his country on a war footing. That though, say observers like Mr Reuben, would be fraught with political peril.
“It would be Putin’s death if he says something about a huge campaign asking for the Russian population to take part in the war. That would be absolutely different to what he said for the last few months. That would kill him.”