To the casual observer, yesterday’s Victory Day parade in Moscow was much like any other.
In the VIP box, President Putin was surrounded by a gaggle of heroic veterans and high-ranking officers festooned with medals and Ruritanian amounts of gold braid.
In front of them there were the usual march-pasts by thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, sailors and airmen.
And the ground shook as a convoy of armoured vehicles and heavy weaponry – from a Second World War-era tank to intercontinental ballistic missile launchers – trundled by.
But a number of perennial features of Victory Day were notable by their absence.
First, there was no flypast. Usually the parade held to celebrate the anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 is an occasion to showcase new fighter jets, bombers and helicopters.
MARK GALEOTTI: In the VIP box, President Putin was surrounded by a gaggle of heroic veterans and high-ranking officers festooned with medals and Ruritanian amounts of gold braid.
But this year the airspace above Red Square remained empty throughout.
Not even the much-vaunted Ilyushin Il-80 – the so-called ‘Doomsday aircraft’ that Putin would use as a kind of aerial command post in the event of a nuclear war – made an appearance.
Flypasts were also cancelled in some other Russian cities, raising speculation that pilots had refused to take to the air.
Another rumour was that a plan for fighter jets to fly in a Z formation, the Russian pro-war symbol, was deemed too dangerous. Imagine the propaganda disaster of two planes colliding if it went wrong!
Also missing was the customary contingent of foreign guests from Russia-friendly regimes.
China and India can usually be relied upon to send deputations of dignitaries and military officers and their absence was a stark illustration of Putin’s international isolation.
Amid all the posturing and pageantry, the moment that the world had been waiting for came at 10.15am Moscow time: Putin took to the podium to deliver his annual address.
Many had anticipated that Russia’s increasingly frail-looking strongman would use the occasion to announce the mobilisation of reservists to reinforce his beleaguered troops in Ukraine.
But that would be to acknowledge the failure of his plan to defeat Ukraine within days of invading.
Instead, he stuck to his narrative that Russia is ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine.
MARK GALEOTTI: Victory Day is always the most important set-piece of the year for Putin, and in 2022 especially, he was determined that it should go well. (Pictured: Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers parade through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022)
In his looking-glass world it was not Moscow but Kyiv that started the war.
And Russia was fighting a glorious battle for survival, as America and its Nato allies fought a proxy war designed to bring it to heel and impose their global hegemony.
The Russian people must stand firm in defence of their sovereignty, culture and independence, he said.
Victory Day is always the most important set-piece of the year for Putin, and in 2022 especially, he was determined that it should go well.
There was no sign of the twitching hands seen in previous appearances. He even looked – despite his preposterous message – calm and rational.
Until now, the Kremlin has played down the casualties in the Ukraine.
But, although he didn’t admit to the horrendous scale of the fatalities, Putin did acknowledge that there had been deaths and hailed the Russians killed in Ukraine as ‘heroes’.
There was no hint of ‘mission accomplished’ or even ‘one more push’ in his speech.
MARK GALEOTTI: The message was that, however hard and long the war, Russia will prevail. Of course for Ukraine, this means that the misery will continue. (Pictured: Russian servicewomen march on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022)
Clearly, Putin is preparing Russians for a long haul, stiffening their resolve.
He wants them to feel that their backs are against the wall, that they must fight to the death, as they did in the Second World War.
The message was that, however hard and long the war, Russia will prevail. Of course for Ukraine, this means that the misery will continue.
For the moment, the only serious fighting is in the Donbas, where the Russians are struggling to advance and relying on massive artillery barrages.
But you can’t win wars or occupy territory without enough troops and Putin’s generals are desperate for him to order mobilisation of the reserves.
Yet Putin, despite rushing into war, prevaricates over big decisions.
Calling up reservists looks bad. But if he doesn’t do it soon, the Donbas will be Russia’s last offensive for some time as it takes two to three months to recruit, train and deploy reservists.
Unless Putin orders at least a partial mobilisation, it will be winter before reinforcements are ready, when the weather makes offensive operations harder.
The Russians are facing what the military call ‘culmination’ – exhaustion, both of men and resources. Without enough of both, Putin cannot defeat Ukraine.
It’s imperative that the West keeps up the pressure.
We have opted to use economic means, but sanctions take time to bite and Putin is relying on the West getting ‘Ukraine fatigue’, waiting for our unity to crumble as some countries agitate to start buying Russian gas again.
Patience and steadfastness are required. Putin is playing a long game and so must we.
Mark Galeotti is honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies and author of We Need To Talk About Putin.