THE natives are restless, and a certain nervousness pervades Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

That’s the growing impression emerging from the country as it prepares for its annual Victory Day which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany 78 years ago on May 9, 1945.

Already the Russian authorities have said they will scale down this year’s celebrations including the shows of military might and the Immortal Regiment procession, which sees people across the country marching holding photographs of their relatives who fought in the Second World War.

Russian authorities have cited security reasons and attacks from pro-Ukrainian forces for the changes.

These past days, dozens of overnight explosions have been reported in Russia and Ukraine as both sides step up air attacks ahead of an expected spring counteroffensive from Kyiv.

In both countries, the tension is said to be palpable, but could it be that the playing down of the Victory Day pomp and goose-stepping military parade in Russia is yet another sign of a nation’s unease and Kremlin jitters about what that disquiet could mean?

Putin, it would seem, has become a prisoner of his own propaganda. His promises of delivering a short, sharp military victory and turning Ukraine into a puppet state have foundered in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.

If recent US intelligence and other reports are accurate, it’s estimated that Russia’s military has suffered 100,000 casualties in the last five months of fighting in the Bakhmut region and other areas of Ukraine.

This includes more than 20,000 dead, half of them from the Wagner mercenary group, which includes convicts released from prison to join the fighting.

In many ways, the “Bakhmut meat grinder” as it’s now known has become a leitmotif for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

First, there are the tactical and strategic shortcomings. Then there is the belief that quantity will always overcome quality.

And finally, there are the signs of a fractious leadership epitomised by Wagner founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s threat to withdraw his mercenaries from the embattled eastern city if they don’t receive more munitions and support to continue the fight.

While Prigozhin has a track record of misleading statements, for some time now the drip feed of evidence has pointed to his frustration and sometimes outright anger at Putin’s generals and even the Kremlin itself.

“Do we go on with our assaults or not? Do we stay or go?” Prigozhin was quoted as saying in a recent interview with the Russian pro-Kremlin blogger Semyon Pegov, who blogs under the alias WarGonzo.

“It’s a complete mess everywhere, there’s no discipline. The army has everything, but there is absolutely no control, while there is an absolute paranoid gap between what is happening in the trenches, and what they know and think about in headquarters,” Prigozhin continued.

“Russia is on the brink of catastrophe … We need to stop deceiving the population and telling them that everything is fine.”

For months now, Prigozhin has been wrestling with Russia’s military over a stream of calamitous defeats in Ukraine which many observers say are signs of an increasingly bitter Moscow power struggle over the war.

Indeed it’s not entirely inconceivable that in the future this could come to a head, pitching Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries into a more direct and serious confrontation with the Russian military.

Which takes me back to the coming Victory Day celebrations which are expected to look starkly different this year.

For decades, the glorification of Soviet – particularly Russian – sacrifices in defeating Nazi Germany has been manipulated as part of Putin’s nationalist resurgence in the country.

It was used in part to justify Putin’s so-called “special military operation” when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but now it seems the Kremlin’s efforts to extol the prowess of the Russian military has collided with the need to conceal the enormous human and equipment cost Russia has suffered in its latest war.

In recent days, a number of Russian opposition activists and commentators have been at pains to make this very point, notably with regard to the Immortal Regiment march.

In a Facebook post on April 18, Moscow political activist Elvira Vikhareva depicted the possible scenario whereby: “People would come out not bearing the portraits of their great-grandfathers ... people would come out with portraits of their fathers, sons, brothers.”

“The regiment would turn out not to be immortal at all but all too mortal, the scale would be evident,” Vikhareva added, arguing this is why the Kremlin has “cancelled it.”

Another activist and blogger, the Ukrainian Alisa Kovalyova, offered another take, highlighting that, “trillions of rubles have been spent on security, which it turns out, they can’t ensure… or do they fear large crowds?”

Viktor Muchnik, the former editor-in-chief of a Siberian TV network, who has now left the country, said the Russian state was “maniacally suspicious” and was less concerned about a “hypothetical terrorist attack” than it was about damage to its image.

While reporting from what is an increasingly closed Russian society is problematic, evidence of growing dissent still manages to get out.

Human rights groups say the authorities have ramped up their crackdown on anti-war dissent, handing down long prison sentences and opening an unprecedented number of “treason” cases according to the broadcaster RFE/RL.

For the moment, Russia insists that it is not “cancelling” the Immortal Regiment march, but rather running it in “a different format”. Among its citizens, the Kremlin is still trying to control the narrative of what is happening in its war in Ukraine.

Last year, President Putin led the procession across Red Square in Moscow while holding a photograph of his father in uniform. That, it appears, will not happen this year whether it be for reasons of security or fears of public expression of disquiet and dissent.

Tweeting last week, Mark Hertling, former commanding general of the US army in Europe, offered yet another interpretation.

“Nothing says you’re a grand strategist quite like not having enough soldiers and equipment to hold an annual parade,” Hertling observed wryly.

Maybe, just maybe, the first chinks in Putin’s political armour are beginning to show.

And, with the prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the offing, the Russian president and his Kremlin cronies might just have their work cut out more than ever to keep the lid on things.