From the very beginning of the war in Ukraine we predicted that this war would not end in the foreseeable future. This is so, essentially because the conflict is not simply a war between Russia and Ukraine – if it were, Russia would have won a relatively quick victory. It is a “proxy war” – that is, the West (NATO, USA, EU, etc) is using Ukraine to strike at Russia and if not impose a clear defeat on it, at least seriously weaken it. That this war is essentially a war between two imperialist blocks, is not the only feature but is the dominant feature. This “weakening” of Russia must be seen as part of a general effort by the US (and the West as a whole) to maintain its dominant position on the planet –economically, geopolitically and militarily– which is threatened by China.
This position in no way diminishes the reactionary character of Russian imperialism and the need to condemn the Russian invasion, at the same time as condemning the expansionism of NATO to the East over the past 3 decades and the reactionary character of Zelensky’s Ukrainian government (which, apart from its neoliberal attacks on Ukrainian workers, deprived the Russian-speaking populations of Eastern Ukraine of the right to self-determination by force of arms and fascist battalions).
The West will struggle by all means not to allow the defeat of Ukraine because this will signify its own defeat and will boost the morale and strengthen Russia and the Russia-China axis. And Putin will fight the Ukraine war to the end because if he is defeated, Russia will face collapse as an economic and military superpower and a huge internal crisis economically, socially and politically.
For these reasons, the war will drag on and Ukraine will most probably take the character of another “unresolved problem” on the geopolitical chessboard, a constant source of tension and conflict for the foreseeable future.
A tragedy without end
The dead and wounded on both sides are counted in the hundreds of thousands – the Western media speak of 100 thousand Ukrainians and 200 thousand Russians, but there can be no confidence in the figures by either side. The real numbers are not being told. The economic disaster is enormous for Ukraine. Its GDP collapsed by 35% during the past year – for Russia the losses in terms of the economy are small, despite the sanctions, in the region of 2.1%. The number of refugees (internally displaced or forced to leave the country) has reached 12 million. Internal reactions by sections of the population against the war exist on both sides (although the Western media only cover the ones on the Russian side), corruption exists on both sides. Officials are being deposed or even imprisoned on both sides. Deserters exist in both Russia and Ukraine, and the rights of conscientious objectors are not recognised in either country.
The truth about what exactly is happening in this war will never be known, or will only come out partially after years. This does not only apply to Putin’s regime, which is indeed authoritarian, undemocratic and reactionary. It also applies to the countries of the West who pretend to be “democrats”, “moral”, “defenders of peace”, etc.
Western analysts and governments are beginning to recognize some bitter truths. The first is that sanctions against Russia failed to produce their planned outcome. The Russian exports to Europe were directed to Asia and elsewhere, mainly China and India. Russia’s “unity” with China and the other BRICS countries was not weakened, no cracks were caused in their relations. Western economies on the other hand faced economic stagnation during 2022 and the same is expected for 2023, with inflation at its highest levels in over 40 years. In the former colonial world, Latin America, Africa and Asia, there is no anti-Russian sentiment, rather the opposite.
Critical voices in the West
The voices in the West raising criticisms of the way Western governments approached the whole issue of relations to Ukraine, Russia, etc, seem to be intensifying.
In a recent article in Britain’s Financial Times (FT), Gideon Rachman (FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator) feels the need to respond to the views of John Mearsheimer, an American professor who has been arguing since 2015 that the war in Ukraine (which started in 2014 in Crimea and Donbass) was caused by the US and that the result will be the destruction of Ukraine (Mearsheimer’s related speech, entitled “Why the West is to blame for Ukraine” was made in 2015 and has attracted 28 million views on YouTube).
Columnist Pankaj Mishra writes in Bloomberg (USA):
“Western political and media classes are only just becoming aware of the problem and its magnitude: how, for instance, the majority-white nations of Europe and North America appear more and more isolated in their accelerating military and economic campaign against Russia.
These countries won’t be much persuaded by pointing to the barefaced hypocrisy of Putin, who poses as principled anti-colonialist while gobbling up parts of Ukraine. Their memories of exploitation and disastrous interventions by Western Europeans and Americans remain too strong. Perhaps more importantly, they see that the former masters of Asia and Africa are still refusing to address their past of violence, dispossession and plunder.”
While professor of Economics, at Columbia University (USA) Jeffrey Sachs writes in Kathimerini:
“Starting in 1979, the US armed the mujahideen (Islamist fighters) to harass the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. As President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later explained, the US objective was to provoke the Soviet Union to intervene, in order to trap the Soviet Union in a costly war. The fact that Afghanistan would be a collateral damage was of no concern to US leaders.
The Soviet military entered Afghanistan in 1979 as the US hoped and fought through the 1980s. Meanwhile, the US-backed fighters established al-Qaeda in the 1980s and the Taliban in the early 1990s. In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The US war continued for another 20 years, until the US finally left in 2021.
Afghanistan today lies in ruins. While the US wasted more than $2 trillion of US military outlays, Afghanistan is impoverished. Its 2021 GDP was below $400 per person!”
The above publications are flagship media outlets of the ruling class in their countries. The fact that they host such articles should not go unnoticed.
As important as the above is, it should also be stressed than Putin completely miscalculated on a number of issues – he overestimated Russia’s forces and underestimated the extent to which the West would throw its full weight behind Ukrainian defense.
It turned out that the 150-200 thousand soldiers with which he launched the invasion were not enough. His attempt to strike the capital Kiev was tragically miscalculated, at the cost apparently of many thousands of dead Russian soldiers.
Eventually he was forced to concentrate on Eastern Ukraine but again when the Ukrainian counter-offensive began last September, he lost huge swathes of territory north-east around Kharkiv and south in Kherson. Despite his initial announcements about not conscripting reservists, he was eventually forced to conscript 300 thousand (officially – 500,000 according to other sources).
The current phase of the war
The concentration of Russian forces in the east, where they hold a total of about 20% of Ukrainian territory, has allowed them to regroup, to counterattack and make limited gains (nothing spectacular, as at the beginning of the invasion) along the eastern front. Their most significant successes were the capture of the city of Soledar during January and the partial encirclement of the city of Bahmut, which is likely to fall in the near future.
The West of course tries to present these successes as insignificant or even as pyrrhic victories. But the real issue is that the Ukrainian army has been unable to hold its defenses and pin down the Russian offensive. The problem at the moment lies with the Ukrainian side and this explains why the West, almost in a panicky way, decided to send state-of-the-art tanks from Germany, the US and Britain. Western governments also began to discuss sending fighter planes (American F-16s) to Ukraine which was ruled out until recently.
Western propaganda claims that Putin’s goal is to take over all of Ukraine and then expand into Moldova and Romania, threatening, according to some, the whole of Europe. This is not based on any substantiated analysis; it has to be seen essentially as propaganda that aims at gaining acceptance of Western policy.
This was combined with the massive propaganda that Putin has lost his mind, that he is suffering from serious illnesses (cancer, Parkinson’s, etc.). Again, there is no serious evidence about this. It is, rather, an attempt by the West to provide psychological explanations for the war, aiming to hide the real conflict of imperialist interests.
As things stand at the moment, Russia will be looking to extend its territory grab as far as it can, over the next few weeks and months, until the spring offensive that Ukraine and the West are expected to launch (especially after Ukraine receives the new weapons from the West). What is reasonable to expect from then on (in the face of this counter-attack) is that Russia will move from the current offensive phase of the war to a defensive one, seeking to preserve what it has already conquered.
It is established that the defender has a big advantage over the aggressor. That is why the classical notion is that the attacker must have 3 times the forces of the defender to achieve their objectives. In the case of the war in Ukraine some experts estimate that the ratio is even higher and is at 5:1 (instead of 3:1) due to its special characteristics.
Beyond this, there is the general Russian military superiority, which the West seems to have failed to counter even though, as FT has reported, the weapons sent to Ukraine constitute the largest push of war material ever since the end of the (first) Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Illustrating this, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu warned (on February 20) that Ukraine is running out of shells, adding that Russia uses every day in Ukraine as many shells as are produced in the whole of the EU every month.
The question is if and when Russia turns to defensive warfare, fortifying its positions, will Ukraine ever be able to drive it out and liberate all the occupied territories up to and including Crimea, as Zelensky claims. This seems very doubtful, but there is no way secure predictions can be made.
One factor to take into consideration in relation to this, is that the West desperately wants to bring Russia to its knees so it will be willing to continue arming Ukraine as long as the latter can fight. Another factor which has to be taken into consideration is the divisions and antagonisms within the Russian army. The Wagner group, which is leading the battle to capture Bakhmut, seems to be in open conflict with the Russian defense ministry – under certain conditions this could lead to disasters for the Russian lines. There is no way to predict how these factors will develop in the next period. But if, despite all contradictions, Russia is able to keep most of what it has already occupied, the winner of the war will be Russia no matter what the Western propaganda says.
A new Afghanistan?
In his aforementioned article in Kathimerini, Jeffrey Sachs draws a parallel between Ukraine and Afghanistan. Not by accident: the West hopes that just as arming the Taliban led to the defeat of the USSR army after 10 years of war, something similar will happen today in Ukraine.
The West’s goals however have, so far, proved illusory: the Russian economy has not collapsed, Putin has not been isolated at home or abroad and Russia has not had a political crisis and regime overthrow. Could the goal of turning Ukraine into a new Afghanistan prove to be more realistic?
There are very important differences from Afghanistan. The first is that in the case of Afghanistan we had the “occupation” of the whole country, with the support of a collapsing government, by a foreign army with the population being, for this reason, hostile. In Ukraine, however, we do not have (and we believe that this will not be attempted at a later stage) an occupation of the whole country, but only of the eastern provinces where the Russian-speaking population is overwhelming. The non-Russian speaking Ukrainians who used to live there and are now refugees will not return as long as these areas remain under Russian control. So, any guerrilla warfare (of the kind the Taliban used against the Soviet army) deployed against the Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine will not have the population on its side and that dramatically limits its potential.
Secondly, there is the question of how long will the West be able to arm Ukraine with state-of-the-art weaponry, given the crisis in which the economies of the West and global capitalism find themselves.
Thirdly, there is a question of how long the Ukrainian youth and people are prepared to sacrifice their lives if and when they understand that the Russians are not going to be driven out as easily as it seemed in September 2022. Let’s also not forget that the Ukrainians are not the Taliban. This is related to the role of religion (and culture and traditions in general) as a secondary but still important factor in any war: the Taliban were convinced that if they died to drive out the infidels they would go straight to heaven, whereas the Ukrainian people are more in touch with reality.
Having said that, it is fair to say that the West will push things as far as it can. As long as Ukrainians are willing to fight and die and as long as Russia loses even small pieces of territory, they will continue to arm Ukraine.
Practically, from the belligerents’ point of view, the only way the slaughter will come to an end is if during the next few months, the two armies remain pinned down in the areas they control without either being able to achieve even minor advances at the expense of the other. Then, we are likely to have a de facto ceasefire. “De facto”, in the sense that we will have neither peace nor agreement, but simply a quagmire that will be a balance of terror that neither side can overturn at the expense of the other.
What is the Left doing?
The Left, especially in the crisis situation in which it finds itself internationally, has no way of intervening and influencing developments around the war in any positive, class, internationalist way. Most of what describes itself as left, succumbs to the pressures of its own ruling class.
In these conditions what revolutionary socialists can do is to formulate the positions that stem from a class analysis and an internationalist perspective, in an effort to prepare forces and cadres for the future struggles and battles that will inevitably come.
As mentioned above, this war has many aspects, but the dominant one is that it is a conflict between two imperialist powers – Russia and NATO. The Left should not take a position in favour of one side or the other in such a situation. It should not support one imperialist power against another on the basis of which one is worse than the other: imperialism is imperialism, whether it is Russian and Chinese or American and European.
The Left that wants to be consistent with its declarations, the Left that wants to serve the internationalist interests of the working class, should adopt a class, internationalist, revolutionary position that takes into account the rights of workers and youth both in Russia and Ukraine, plus the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. It should explain what it would do if it were in a position to determine the course of developments on the war front internationally. That, in our opinion, means:
- Fighting for an end to bloodshed, for an end to the war.
- For the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine to the pre-war borders.
- Recognition of the right of self-determination for the Russian-speaking minority of the eastern provinces – i.e. the right to independence from Ukraine.
- For Ukraine to be outside the NATO military coalition.
- For the dissolution of both military coalitions, of the West (NATO) and of Russia (CSTO)
- Fight to overthrow the authoritarian, undemocratic, reactionary regimes of both Putin and Zelensky.
- Fight for workers’ power and socialism that benefits workers in both Russia and Ukraine and the Russian-speaking Ukrainian provinces.
- These positions are of course combined with the struggle to build a mass revolutionary Left internationally, as a necessary condition for all of the above to become realistic and feasible.