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War in Ukraine: A New Drawn-Out Phase

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Originally published on May 18, 2022 on

The Kremlin was hoping for a double celebration on May 9: to mark the Soviet Union’s victory in WW2, and the jubilant return of troops after a short victorious war in Ukraine. But it was not able to do so. It has neither achieved its first aim by capturing Kyiv and overthrowing Volodymyr Zelensky, nor has it yet completed the takeover of the whole Donbas in East Ukraine. (Donbas — the Donetsk Coal Basin consisting of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions.)

As March ended, it scaled back its operations around Kyiv and Chernihov. Howls of protest from the hard-line warmongers claimed the Kremlin was retreating from its original war aims. But so much damage had been done, and soldiers lost that the Russian “Battle groups” had to be reformed and re-equipped before being sent to strengthen Russian positions in Donbas. Since then, one General claimed the new aim was to take the whole south of Ukraine as far as Transnistria in Moldova. This raised tensions and fears of a wider conflagration being unleashed.

A ‘Proxy War’

At the time of writing it appears the war is developing into a drawn out stalemated war of attrition in East Ukraine. In the first three weeks, Russian troops advanced over significant territory in the Donbas region, and captured Kherson. After three months of bitter fighting and siege, the Ukrainians finally agreed to withdraw their last troops from the AzovStal plant in Mariupol. But in general Russian attempts to advance further in the East since then have been unsuccessful. Ukrainian troops seem to be making small headway in the Kherson region, and the Russians have retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city with a population of nearly a million and a half. Whilst Ukrainian morale appears to be confident, the Russians have been dealt several serious blows including the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet flagship “Moskva,” the loss of up to ten generals, and recently the destruction of nearly a whole tank battalion in Donbas.

The real nature of the war as a ‘proxy war’ is being revealed. Russian imperialism — claiming to be fighting NATO expansion, and U.S. imperialism — aiming to weaken Russia are fighting it out using Ukraine as the battlefield.

Many internationally are expressing their solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people, Ukrainians themselves are justifiably opposed to the Russian occupation. But the solution clearly is not, as many of those sympathetic to the Ukrainians argue, to step up the supply of weapons, increase sanctions and support the strengthening of NATO. This will only prolong the war, with all its brutality.

On the contrary, only independent working class action, by the Ukrainian working class with appeals to the Russian working class and even soldiers to oppose the war, by the Russian working class to oppose the mobilization for the war, by the international working class by giving solidarity, and blockading the transport of weapons can stop this conflict. Instead of nationalistic militarism, working class solidarity in opposition to the capitalists, dictators, and warmongers is needed.

Before May 9 speculation had been rife that Putin would announce the next step. Some thought the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics (DNR & LNR), that part of Donbas taken over by pro-Russian forces in 2014 and which have since been fought over with the death of over 14,000 people, would be annexed into Russia, joined by a new “Kherson Republic” following a plebiscite. Or the pretense this was a “military operation” would be dropped by declaring “war” allowing for a national mobilization to relieve the pressured army in Donbas. There was more speculation that the President needed urgent surgery and would hand power to the hard-line Security Council Head Nikolai Patrushev, or to Premier Mikhail Mishustin, who hopefully would wind down the war. More conspiratorially, others suggested he wouldn’t be allowed to survive the surgery.

But the speculation proved wrong. In the event his speech proved to be a damp squib. Raging that he had no alternative but to attack Ukraine, he announced no new initiatives. Despite fine sunshine, the air fly past was dropped due to “bad weather.” The centerpiece was to be the “Doomsday plane,” Putin’s command post during nuclear war, probably cancelled under pressure to avoid raising tensions with the West further.

Prolonged War of Attrition Likely

To wage the war in the Donbas, both the Kremlin and the Ukrainian regime will need many more troops, arms and supplies not least to compensate for the huge losses already suffered. The Ukrainian regime is extending its general mobilization now for a further three months, and is of course receiving many new weapons from the West.

But Russia has difficulties with a general mobilization. Firstly, the Kremlin will have to agree now that this is not a “military operation,” but a “war.” This would allow a national call-up, although it is believed it lacks the officers and equipment needed to manage full-scale mobilization. The Kremlin also thinks that there could be considerable opposition to this. Already there have been arson attacks on army recruitment centers in over ten cities, particularly in regions close to Ukraine such as Ryzan, Rostov and Volgograd, where reservists are already being pressured to sign up.

If, though, the Russian regime was to move to end the war soon by accepting annexation of DNR/LNR with expanded borders, the party of war would condemn it as a betrayal of the original aims, and of the losses already suffered. So, if there is no unexpected turn, there will now be a prolonged war of attrition in east Ukraine more akin to the trench warfare of WW1 than anything belonging to the 21st century.

Kremlin propaganda is being changed to manage expectations. Declarations are still peppered with phrases about “denazifying” Ukraine, but the accent is now on the wider confrontation with NATO. It will be more difficult to explain setbacks if Russia is only fighting Ukraine, easier if it is facing the whole West. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has even started to refer to Crimea, no longer as “part of Russia,” but as “a disputed territory.”

Demonstrating the concern of those around the Kremlin, leader of the pro-Kremlin “Just Russia” party Sergey Mironov has now suggested the cancellation of the “unified election day” in September when regional governors and some local authorities are ‘elected.’ So far no decision has been made. The Kremlin, it seems, is in favor, as they realize as the war drags out and the economic situation worsens, the elections could catalyze what they call “a serious growth of a protest mood.” But, they believe to announce this now would be a mistake as it would be de-facto recognition of a long drawn out war.

In opposition to this, the Security Council and the FSB want a quick decision to cancel the elections as, they argue, there will be a serious drop in support for the government due to the consequences of the war, which would give “outside forces the possibility to act.” If elections are cancelled in Russia itself, it would make it more difficult to justify plebiscites in DNR/LNR and maybe Kherson.

Any war devours humanity, this one is no exception. Tens of thousands of troops from both sides have perished, many more wounded. The number of civilian casualties is officially close to 4,000. Many more are buried under the wreckage of Mariupol, and in the cellars of schools used as bomb shelters hit by Russian missiles. Over five million Ukrainians have fled as refugees, although as Kyiv is now relatively safer, some are returning. There are as many displaced within Ukraine itself.

Less known is that hundreds of thousands have fled from Russia, to Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere. The world has been shocked by the horrors of Bucha, the tales of drunkenness, looting, and of rape of both women and men often encouraged by officers in areas occupied by Russian troops.

New Economic Crises

The economic costs too are great, and global. Inflation was already increasing before the war, but has been accelerated by the conflict. Energy costs are jumping, as are food costs. The naval blockade of the Black Sea by Russia is preventing the export of desperately needed wheat, threatening, according to the World Food Program, 44 million with starvation.

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) forecasts that Ukrainian GDP will fall by 30% this year. The World Bank says by 35%, and the Cabinet of Ministers suggest a 50% collapse. Up to 5 million are unemployed. And of course there are many millions of internal refugees also needing work. It is, of course, premature to predict the cost of reconstructing Ukrainian cities and industries — the government estimates about $1 trillion. Some EU figures suggest using the assets seized from Russia.

The EBRD thinks, however, that after the war GDP will bounce back quite quickly as the economy is rebuilt. What is already clear however, is that money promised from foreign donors such as the EU comes with strings attached. Ukraine, to get access to the 9 billion euro reconstruction fund just agreed will have to transform its economy in line with EU rules and in the interests of business.

In Russia, the government has taken measures to overcome the initial shock. Strict capital controls and an increase of the bank rate to 20% helped to stabilize the ruble. For all the talk about restricting Russia’s earnings from energy, this year, according to Bloomberg, its total revenues from this sector will be $321 billion, exceeding the previous high in 2019 of $230 bill. The EU alone, according to Josep Borrell is currently paying Russia 1 billion euros a day for oil and gas, more than the Kremlin is currently spending each day on the war — $650 — 900 million, according to varying estimates. These figures may be exaggerated on both sides, but they demonstrate the situation.

This does not mean that all is rosy in the Russian economy. The Ministry of Economy expects GDP to fall by 8% this year, while the Finance Ministry expects a 12% drop, which it says is the worst drop in 30 years, and will wipe out a decade of economic growth.

These dry statistics miss the reality for ordinary people. Even before the pandemic, in 2020 the average Russian had 11% less to spend than in 2013. Officially inflation is now 17%, but many basic products have increased by dramatically more. Over 300 companies have withdrawn from Russia, leaving just in Moscow alone about 200,000 without jobs. The effect is delayed as some companies, such as McDonalds, continue to pay workers at least for a few months. This is not charity. Despite McDonalds’ claim it is leaving Russia entirely, it appears to be planning a deal with local companies to continue operations under license, or with a different brand.

But effects are now being felt in the more traditional sectors. Airlines are stopping flights, airports laying off workers, and even some arms manufacturers are temporarily suspending production as supplies dry up. The Bank of Russia calls this “Reverse industrialization,” perhaps summed up by the decision of “Avtotor,” a car assembly plant in Kaliningrad, to lay off 3500 workers for 3 weeks, and giving them plots of land to grow vegetables to “help them through this difficult period.”

The Moscow government has announced it is taking over the Renault plant in the city, which employs 4000. It will, Moscow Mayor says, produce low budget, low tech cars under the former Soviet brand “Moskvich.” A new law is already being prepared to allow for the certification of new cars with lower safety and ecological standards.

West Steps Up Its ‘Economic War’

Rather than weakening NATO, the Kremlin’s actions have provoked a strengthening of the block — with applications to join launched by Finland and Sweden, and a dramatic increase in military spending by the Western powers.

The EU is struggling to agree the next, sixth round of sanctions centered on a ban on the import of Russian oil by year end. Greece, Cyprus and Malta have already forced a retreat to allow their tankers to continue transporting the fuel. Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia have difficulties finding alternative supplies. Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán, whose spokesman likened the effect of the embargo on the Hungarian economy to an atom bomb, is digging in. He wants the EU to restore the 7 billion euros of funds it withdrew in response to his attacks on democratic rights and failure to address corruption, and more money to rebuild its energy infrastructure.

Now to ensure the brutal “war of attrition” is prolonged, western imperialism is stepping up the supply of armaments. NATO countries, particularly the U.S., UK and Canada have sent billions of dollars to finance the war. Other governments are sending guns, rockets, anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, ammunition, vehicles, and in Poland’s case 200 T72 tanks.

The Biden administration is stepping up its war aims, calling for the “weakening of Russia.” The bipartisan bill to release $40 billion to the Ukrainian government, equivalent to a quarter of Ukraine’s GDP is being supplemented by a new “Lend-Lease” program. Originally used by the U.S. government in WW2 to bypass the country’s “neutrality” and give military assistance to the UK, France, China and the USSR, this time, the New York Times says, Biden has “effectively thrust the United States even deeper into another war in Europe that has increasingly become an epic struggle with Russia despite his efforts to define its limits.” Lend-Lease means the U.S. can now supply huge amounts of modern weaponry, with payment postponed or discounted after the war ends.

Changing Nature of War

Early in the war there were elements of social conflict. The vast majority of Ukrainians opposed the intervention, and sometimes peaceful opposition persuaded Russian troops to at least temporarily retreat, most notably at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power plant, when workers walked out en-masse to oppose the troops. If a strong workers movement had existed it could have organized this, making class appeals to the Russian working class, helping to galvanize the opposition in Russia.

Such methods are alien to capitalist governments such as Zelensky’s, and his imperialist backers. They only understand the use of weapons, backed up with nationalist rhetoric. Now with the Russian army digging in in Donbas, the war could be drawn out, with each side throwing as many missiles as they can at each other. Donbas, once the thriving industrial heartland of the USSR will become a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Meanwhile as Kyiv begins to return to some form of normality, pro-business politics are returning. This week the Supreme Rada has passed a new law, using the war as a cover, to make it much easier for companies to make workers unemployed. Also, this week Kyiv police arrested relatives of soldiers still holed up in AzovStal who organized a picket to demand the government send help to Mariupol. So desperate are the relatives, they have visited the pope in Rome, who promised to pray for them, and have now appealed to Xi Jinping! Pro-Russian political parties are now banned.

Peace negotiations have stalled. Until the withdrawal from Kyiv, Ukraine was agreeing to reject NATO membership, remain outside any blocks, refuse nuclear arms, and become a ‘neutral state’, and discuss the status of Crimea and DNR/LNR over the next 15 years. But now, with the flow of weapons into Ukraine increasing, Zelensky clearly thinks time is on his side. He now insists on the complete territorial integrity of Ukraine. He criticized Macron on Italian TV Rai1 for suggesting Kyiv should compromise to help Putin “save face.” Pushed by Western imperialism, and feeling confident, it seems he is prepared to continue the war to retake DNR/LNR and maybe even Crimea.

Kremlin Misjudgments

The Kremlin misjudged the mood of the Ukrainian people when it launched the invasion, expecting at least part of the population, particularly in traditionally pro-Russian cities such as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kherson, to greet it. It also expected overwhelming patriotic support within Russia too. Here too, although the mood is much more confused and contradictory, it has been disappointed.

Some are suggesting that this war has been caused by the poor health of Putin. But this is no more an explanation for this war, than that the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo caused the imperialist slaughter of WWI. The war is a consequence of the restoration of capitalism in the former USSR, the growing conflict between the imperialist powers, combined with an increasingly aggressive, and authoritarian Russian regime based on Tsarist imperialist ideology.

Although in Russia, opinion polls are conducted mainly to support the ruling elite they can demonstrate some important trends. Support for the “military intervention” has grown, not surprising really when it is an offense to oppose the war. But only a small proportion of supporters are hard-line warmongers. Most say they support the intervention only to resolve the DNR/LNR issue quickly. Many blame the West and NATO. One survey asked those who consider themselves patriots to name one thing they were proud of, very few could actually do so. Another poll mainly in the big cities asked three categories of people to express their opinion. Those “who have no problem buying anything they need” were largely in favor of the intervention. Those who “could not pay for large purchases” were divided, whilst a majority of those who “have difficulties buying even the essentials” were against the war. At the same time another survey by age identified clear and apparently growing opposition amongst the youngest group.

The war is also exacerbating the national question within Russia itself. Many soldiers sent to Ukraine are from the poorest regions, and they are suffering the heaviest casualties. Buriyatia — Northern Mongolia — on the banks of Lake Baikal has seen officially 98 deaths, whilst Dagestan in the Caucasus with over 30 nationalities, mainly Muslim, has suffered 135 losses. Moscow and St Petersburg between them report only 13. There is increasing nationalism in these areas as once again they are asked to sacrifice for Moscow, and what is increasingly called the “Russian world.”

Meanwhile the blame game is raging within the Russian ruling elite. Reports indicate that first in the firing line has been the FSB — the main successor of the KGB — blamed for misjudging the mood of Ukrainians. Intelligence gathering will now be the remit of GRU — noted for the poisoning of opponents. Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov was also noticeably missing from the Victory Day parade, thought to have been pushed aside. Field commanders and up to 150 other senior officers have been removed from their positions. Meanwhile war-mongers such as Chechen dictator Kadyrov have been told to agree any public statements with the Presidential Administration.

Isolation of Russia

Russia has become isolated even from its former friends. Although Belarusian President Lukashenko announced in December that Crimea was “de jure” part of Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan have all refused to recognize Russian rule over Crimea, DNR and LNR, and all refuse to send troops to support Putin’s invasion.

In large part this is a reflection of the national question. In Kazakhstan, for example, the official government line of neutrality is reflected in the Russian language media. The Kazakh language media is very much pro-Ukrainian. Despite the use of Russian troops to end January’s protests, the country has since been wracked by a strike wave. Armenia too is now experiencing mass protests against Prime Minister Nikolai Pashinyan, fueled by the economic situation, by disgust that he is sitting on the fence, rather than condemn Russia, but most importantly to condemn Pashinyan’s proposed concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Now the leadership of South Ossetia, the pro-Russian enclave in Georgia, say it will organize a referendum to join Russia in July. It is, however, not so certain that the majority of South Ossetians would now support such a move. Since the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, Moscow has ruled the republic with an authoritarian hand. In the first month of the Ukrainian conflict, hundreds of troops were sent from South Ossetia. After several were killed, they refused to fight returning home complaining about poor equipment, being used as cannon fodder, and officers who disappeared whenever fighting started. One officer was so afraid of his own men, he had a security guard to protect him from them.

Russia’s boast it will capture the swathe of territory in Southern Ukraine up to the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria has increased tensions in Moldova. Explosions both in Tiraspol, the enclave’s capital and around Russian armament depots, reawakened the issue of Transnistria. It is run by a corrupt clique — one oligarch alone controls 60% of the economy — which prefers the status-quo, so has resisted attempts by Russia to drag it into the conflict. Vadim Krasnoselsky, President of Transnistria has been to Kishenev to discuss strengthening its status within Moldova.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu, very much a pro EU, pro Romania neoliberal politician has stepped up the campaign to join the EU and NATO. She says she may organize a referendum on joining the EU, which a majority will probably support, but at the cost of worsened relations with Transnistria, and probably with the other minority too — Gagauzia — populated by a Turkic, but Russian orthodox people.

Although the EU promises to review the applications for EU membership from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as early as June, Macron says they will take years, maybe decades to process. To appease the three, he proposes a “parallel European Community” for them. Neither the full, nor the second-tier option in today’s developing cold war will help the Moldovan working class, or help to secure peace. But the reluctance by EU leaders to accept the application may even push Sandu to organize a referendum to merge with Romania, to join the EU through the back door. The Ukrainian regime has demonstrated its real nature by offering Sandu the use of Ukrainian troops to take control of Transnistria.

In Belarus too, Lukashenko has not been able to openly support the war due to opposition across the country. Significant numbers of Belarusians have gone to Ukraine as ‘partisans’, and in Belarus itself the sabotage of railways to block arms transport is widespread. Lukashenko has announced the restoration of the death sentence for ‘terrorists,’ aimed at those involved in sabotage.

Further afield, Russian pressure on Republika Srpska in Bosnia has increased tensions, with its leadership demanding increased autonomy. In turn, the Croatian entity is stepping up its demands in advance of October’s election, supported by right-wing nationalists in Croatia itself.

China — cautious “no limits”

The “No limits” agreement signed by XI Jinping and Putin in February has been put under severe strain. US leaders continue to underline that they see China as the greatest threat and warn it not to help Russia to override sanctions. China in turn refuses to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, blames the US and NATO for whipping up tensions, and opposes the use of sanctions against Russia. Xi faces increasing criticism from within the Chinese regime for the agreement, and was reportedly seething with anger after the revelations of the brutal massacre at Bucha, when the tone of Chinese statements changed. According to Aleksey Arestovich, Zelensky’s spokesperson, Xi has told them in secret that China supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Donbas and Crimea.

Western imperialism is using action against Putin as a warning to China. The Chinese regime is stress testing its systems. Military specialists are discussing Russian strategy and its initial failures. Taiwan is not Ukraine, but an island with half the population in a territory just a bit larger than Crimea. Zhao Tong (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) suggests Chinese strategists conclude they need “a much stronger and much more comprehensive operation at the very beginning to shock and awe the Taiwanese forces.” China’s Central bank is consulting with international bankers to secure its $3 trillion of foreign reserves, so that their assets are not frozen like Russia’s. Measures are being stepped up to localize supply chains.

China is balancing on a fine line as far as sanctions are concerned. It is doing nothing seen as helping Russia dodge them. After eight years of delays, the bridge across the Amur river is to be opened, allowing rail freight to link up with the Trans-Siberian as part of the Belt and Road initiative. There will be a certain increase in bilateral trade, which has anyway grown this year by 28%. Although not very important for China, whose GDP is ten times larger than Russia’s, for the latter it is significant.

It is, though, using its own economic leverage to pressurize the Kremlin. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation is honoring February’s contract to buy Natural Gas from Russia at the then agreed price. It will increase the volume of gas purchased to 48 billion m3 a year — equivalent to 27% of what Russia currently supplies to the EU. China is the biggest purchaser of crude oil from Russia and again, the state-owned Sinopec and PetroChina are also meeting their obligations, but refusing to purchase extra supplies. This leaves some smaller independent Chinese refiners to purchase oil at significantly discounted prices.

At the same time Chinese companies are leaving Russia for fear they will sanctioned. UnionPay, the Chinese alternative to Visa and Mastercard, has, so far, refused to allow Russian banks to use it. Other banks including China’s “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” have withdrawn from projects, while Huawei, Lenovo, Xiaomi and Lifan, the largest retailer of Chinese cars in Russia have quietly left. Drone manufacturer DJI too has stopped selling its products “to be used for military purposes.” It doesn’t, apparently mind them being used by the Chinese regime against the Uighurs.

While opposing “unilateral sanctions,” China is going onto the diplomatic offensive. In April it launched its “Global Security Initiative,” calling for sustainable security, upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs. This would justify its pressure on Taiwan, and under the guise of ‘sustainable security’ it uses Russia’s argument that Ukraine’s defense policy was a threat to Russia itself. On the day they announced GSI, China signed a defense pact with the Solomon Islands. Xi Jinping will be pushing the agreement at the BRICS Summit, which after two years of virtual meetings is due to meet in June, in an attempt to encourage India into the anti-U.S. camp. India is, however, critical of China’s incursion into Ladakh, in Kashmir.

How to End the War

Whether this war continues as one of brutal attrition from both sides, or one or other side makes a breakthrough, with the massive strengthening of militarization globally, food and energy shortages with rocketing inflation, the world, increasingly divided into warring camps, will not return to ‘normal’. Neither one side, nor the other is fighting this war in the interests of ordinary people. Whilst it is true that Zelensky has become enormously popular in Ukraine and globally, under the guise of fighting for the Ukraine nation, after the war his regime will continue with neoliberal, more right-wing nationalist politics against the interests of the Ukrainian working class.

We completely oppose the invasion and occupation of Ukraine by the Russian army, and fully support the right of self-determination for Ukraine. That also means opposition to NATO, and the massive increase in militarization, the supply of weapons and sanctions. We support neither the strengthening of Russian or western imperialism, but are for the working class organization and solidarity against the war, national division, exploitation and the capitalist system.

Only when the working class takes up the gauntlet and fights to replace capitalism and imperialism with a global democratic socialist system can these horrors be ended.

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