Thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of troops killed, a vast number injured, and nearly 13 million people displaced from their homes – this is the terrible outcome of the first six months of war in Ukraine.
Scenes of shocking devastation have emerged on an almost daily basis, with towns and cities pounded into rubble and many atrocities reported.
In recent months, Russia’s military forces have focused on expanding Russian-controlled territory in the Donbas region in the east of Ukraine. They now control all the cities in the eastern province of Donbass, Luhansk, and are incrementally advancing across the western province, Donetsk. Luhansk and Donetsk were recognised by Russia as breakaway “people’s republics” in February.
When Putin’s regime in Russia began its invasion six months ago, it clearly didn’t expect the ferocious Ukrainian resistance it has faced, as illustrated by its forced withdrawal in April from an assault on the capital Kyiv. However, the Ukrainian fighters have been paying a heavy price, losing an estimated 100 to 200 troops a day.
The map on the ground shifts, with Ukrainian forces recently retaking some Russian-held areas near Kherson in the south. A significant incident on 9 August was the destruction of aircraft at Russia’s Saky airbase in Crimea. But while Russia started out in February controlling 9% of Ukraine, a result of the lower-level war between Russian-backed militias and Ukrainian forces since 2014, it presently controls about 20%.
Socialists demand an immediate end to the war and the withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine. Ukraine’s peoples have the right to determine their own government and future. Along with defending that right, socialists must defend the right of minorities in Ukraine – ethnic Russians, Hungarians, etc – to have their own democratic rights, including the right to self-determination if they so desire, and not to have to suffer restrictions like those that have been imposed on their languages by the Ukrainian government.
Putin hypocritically leaned on the grievances of the Russian minority to justify the invasion. Their rights were not his real motivation though; the Russian Federation which he presides over encompasses many discriminated-against minorities. In fact, a side-effect of the invasion for Russia’s ruling elite is to serve as a warning to those minorities of its dominance, resting on the ethnic Russian majority. More pressing for Putin, however, is his ambition to expand Russia’s influence in neighbouring countries, or at least to safeguard its economic interests in them – including its oil and gas exports across Ukraine and naval base in Crimea.
Zelensky’s rule in Ukraine
Part of Putin’s propaganda has been claiming that Russian troops are fighting ‘fascism’ in Ukraine. The Ukrainian state has given funding to a number of far-right-led militias which, among other deeds, have played a role over years in helping it to fight Ukrainian Russian militias in the east. Of course, Putin doesn’t speak about the existence of far-right elements among those latter combatants and Russian assistance for them. However, Ukraine’s president Zelensky and his governing political party are not on the far right, and none of the far-right groups managed to get elected to Ukraine’s parliament in the 2019 election.
In any case, it is the task of Ukraine’s working class to counter and defeat the far-right groups, certainly not that of a foreign invader, and one that only uses that issue as subterfuge.
What attitude should socialists take to Zelensky’s government? Support for it in Ukraine was falling before the war, but inevitably increased when it mobilised the Ukrainian military against the brutal foreign aggression. The war, however, doesn’t change the fact that it is a government which defends capitalist interests. Ukraine, like all capitalist countries, is a class-based society. Before the war, Zelenksy’s government had started to introduce anti-worker and anti-trade union legislation. Last month it removed legal protections for over 90% of workers in the country and legalised zero-hour contracts.
Even under the war-crisis conditions, Ukraine’s workers can place no trust in their pro-capitalist government. They instead need to take steps towards organising independently and democratically, both for their own defence in the war and to promote working-class interests in all aspects of their lives.
Neither can workers and socialists in the Ukraine-backing capitalist powers internationally support the actions of their own governments regarding the war. The weapons and funds sent by those governments, and the sanctions inflicted on Russia, aren’t with the aim of defending Ukraine’s people. What did US imperialism and its allies care about the people in Iraq and Afghanistan when it bombarded those countries? Or about Yemenis slaughtered by Saudi Arabian shelling? Or the plight of Kurds in Turkey and Syria suffering atrocities committed by Nato member Turkey? Or Gazans bombarded recently by the Israeli military?
Rather, their goal is to defend western capitalist interests and Nato’s presence in eastern Europe, and to keep the territorial ambitions of Russian capitalism in check. So, to a significant extent, the Ukraine war is a proxy war between western imperialism and Putin’s regime. The western powers also want their intervention to be a warning to China against developing its rising global influence further – and its goal of annexing Taiwan.
However, the Ukraine-supporting governments are engaged in a constant balancing act, to aid Ukraine’s forces without intervening directly with western military force and therefore risking escalation of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders, or increased Russian retaliation on food and energy flows. On the one hand, the European Union’s pro-Ukraine measures in June included an insurance ban on Russian oil shipments and giving Ukraine EU membership candidate status. On the other hand, the Financial Times has reported that imports of Russian diesel into Europe increased by more than a fifth in July.
The western powers are also grappling with their own budget constraints and difficulties with finding enough – and manufacturing more – of the ammunition and other supplies Zelensky has requested. The EU has given Ukraine only €1 billion of €9 billion pledged in April.
While initially attempting a show of unity, they are much divided on their approach to the war. Some governments, like the UK, argue for a victory for Ukraine that restores all its territory, including Crimea. While France and Germany are among those that want the war to end as early as possible, and so have referred to the prospects for concessions and territorial losses.
This is clearly related to national political or economic interests. German industry and households are heavily dependent on Russian gas, for instance. The question of when and how reliance on Russian fuel exports can be ended in the countries that depend on them has been itself a source of division.
Tensions between ruling elites worldwide were already rising before the Ukraine war, with the background of the Covid pandemic and deteriorating economies. But the war marks a further, new stage of divisions and tensions. The global economic repercussions of the war are impacting on energy and food supplies and prices in particular – which lead all the capitalist classes to look to protect their own interests, making regional and wider blocs very unstable.
Some regimes seek to play off the rival blocs or manoeuvre between different alliances. In the case of Turkey, mediating between the US, Russia and Ukraine – refusing to join in with sanctions against Russia but at the same time selling arms to Ukraine.
Another feature globally is the escalating resources being poured into military apparatuses. In the last six months, EU member states have announced that their defence budgets will increase by around €200 billion. This militarisation includes Germany’s move to re-arm, so that the German ruling class can back up its economic interests with military strength of its own, independently of other western powers.
A protracted war?
As with most wars, the war in Ukraine is likely to continue until the leaders of the opposing sides think they have mainly exhausted the possibility of useful gains or re-gains for the time being – whether due to military drain or rising opposition at home. At present, both sides are engaging in large-scale troop recruitment drives, which indicates that point is still some way off.
No one can accurately predict where the ceasefire lines will end up, not least because the two sides have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, Ukraine’s forces, aided by training and arms from Nato member countries, have a stronger motivation as they are defending their country. The Russian regime has the supplementary economic levers of being able to block ports or reduce fuel supplies – as it has done with the main pipeline to Germany. Also, how much Ukraine will receive of the funds and arms it has requested from around the world depends on many factors.
Eventually, as part of a truce of some sort, Putin’s representatives will inevitably demand recognition of Russia’s territorial gains. Unsurprisingly, that prospect is widely rejected at present by most Ukrainians. And even after a ‘peace’ deal is concluded, it is very unlikely to stop ongoing friction and violent incidents over the control of the most disputed areas.
Earlier in the war, the question of whether Putin could resort in desperation to the use of tactical nuclear weapons was raised by commentators. Fears on this receded as the war developed, but re-emerged recently in a Sunday Times article by a retired British army officer, General Richard Barrons, who fatalistically raised the possibility of: “Catastrophic success for Ukraine: if Russia is thrown back to the extent that Putin senses strategic defeat, he is likely to employ tactical nuclear weapons”.
Nuclear atrocities in the battlefield arena can’t be discounted and would be an unprecedented, horrendous departure. But Putin no doubt knows that it would unleash a massive backlash of outrage in Russia and worldwide which would alter the nature of any ‘victory’ he could claim, and would accelerate the end of his time in power.
His propaganda machine whipped up support for the war in Russia – downplaying it as a ‘special military operation’. Anti-war protests have been largely marginalised, aided by heavy repression. It’s also the case that, while the sanctions imposed on Russia by many capitalist powers are damaging parts of Russia’s economy and affecting the population, Russia is able to sell oil and gas to its allies and is presently receiving a higher total income from it than it did before the war.
But Putin and those around him know they will face increasing problems in sustaining support for the war, as the death toll and economic consequences grow. One indication of them treading carefully regarding domestic support is that they haven’t felt confident enough to instruct former members of the armed forces to serve in Ukraine.
When capitalist wars break out, a rise in nationalism is usual. But the material, class-based issues eventually return to the fore as the destructive repercussions of the war are increasingly brought home to people, and the real motives of the ruling elite in pursuing it becomes more exposed.
Left organisations can play an important role in helping to expose those motives, as long as their understanding of the situation is sound. However, the analysis of many is hopelessly flawed. Some lean towards support for the Russian regime, because of Nato’s provocations, the crimes of western imperialism in Iraq and elsewhere, the far-right groups in Ukraine, and Russia’s history of bringing in a workers’ state in 1917, and the subsequent decades of a planned economy under Stalinist degeneration before capitalism was restored there in the 1990s.
Others echo the capitalist governments which support the Ukrainian pro-capitalist leaders, the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU, and so on. Sometimes they justify this by arguing that ‘national unity’ between Ukraine’s workers and capitalists is necessary to achieve national liberation.
However, Russia is in the hands of a gangster-capitalist elite – in no way a workers’ state. Arms being sent to Ukraine by the capitalist powers would not be sent if their use was under the democratic control and decision-making of Ukraine’s working class. Socialists must support the building of independent workers’ organisations in Ukraine – for military defence and political representation, and international workers’ action to aid those organisations.
The Ukrainian people have been forced to defend themselves, but in whose interests? Their own, or those of the Ukrainian oligarchs? The answer has to be: their own. The capitalist elite that came into being and enriched itself enormously after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their varied representatives in the presidency and parliament over the years, have presided over corruption at the top, exploitation, widespread poverty and a dire economic situation.
The ongoing war is a horrific nightmare for a great number of Ukrainians and, when it ends, capitalism has no decent future to offer them. Only one of massive debt levels and lack of investment in public services, jobs and the rebuilding of cities – and future potential for the renewal of war. The building of socialist ideas in Ukraine, Russia and internationally has never been more vital.