By Dave Stockton
THE 23–24 February is the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine War. On that night, 190,000 Russian armed forces launched a massive attack on the country. Their aim was to occupy its capital, overthrow its government and overawe its people. Putin called it a ‘special military operation’. In fact, it was a war of aggression that dared not speak its name, to Russian citizens at least.
He claimed the aim was to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine’, and ‘ensure Ukraine’s neutral status’. In fact, no one beyond Putin apologists and crazed conspiracy junkies believed the country was run by Nazis. Far from a neutral Ukraine, he was seeking to turn the country into a colony of Russia. To this end, he had written several essays and made speeches denying Ukraine ever had ‘real statehood’ and that it was an integral part of Russia’s ‘own history, culture, spiritual space’.
Yet, within a month, the attempt to encircle Kyiv and kill or capture Volodymyr Zelensky had failed, with great loss of life and military equipment. Plainly, NATO’s supplies of equipment and training since 2014 had increased the fighting capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces – especially when compared with their performance fighting in the east in 2014-15. The ‘morale factor’ is of enormous importance in a war and the fact that Ukrainians were defending their own homeland played a highly important role.
Putin has failed to achieve any of his major objectives; he has not achieved regime change in Ukraine, not captured either Kyiv or the second-largest city, Kharkiv, very vulnerable to Russian attack. Nor has he stopped NATO’s expansion, quite the opposite; it is expanding in the Baltic, to historically neutral countries: Sweden and Finland. In September, the Ukrainian military launched counter-offensives and by the end of 2022 had recaptured over half the territory lost to Russia last year.
The Western pushback against Putin has been much stronger than he imagined. Far from being phased by a flood of Ukrainian refugees, Germany has welcomed a million and Poland one and a half million while Britain has admitted a meagre 85,000. The Biden administration and US Congress have directed nearly $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine, 50% of it military, 30% financial and 20% humanitarian. The EU has contributed 32 billion euros to Ukraine’s finances.
Massive amounts of military support have been sent at amazing speed. Punishing sanctions, and a shift away from Russian energy, are being implemented. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has offered Putin little beyond rhetorical support, and even that not explicitly for his war. He has not provided Russia with weapons and has avoided violating the global sanctions regime.
Nevertheless, the war has been enormously damaging. On 23 January 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) released figures of 7,068 recorded civilian deaths and 18,483 casualties, but warned the true figure would be significantly higher. Between 10,000 and 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and a much higher number of Russians, though they will not release figures.
UNHCR records that 7,977,980 refugees from Ukraine have fled to countries across Europe as of 16 January 2023. This amounts to around 19% of the Ukrainian population. In addition, an estimated 8 million people have been displaced within the country.
Besides the human suffering, large parts of the country’s infrastructure, housing, hospitals, schools, factories, railways and bridges have been wantonly destroyed. Some 135,800 residential buildings have been damaged or wrecked beyond repair, among them 119,900 individual homes and 15,600 apartment buildings, at least 7 per cent of the entire housing stock. By mid-December, the UN reported that half the country’s energy infrastructure had been destroyed. The destruction of a nine storey apartment block in Dnipro, blown in half by a missile, leaving 29 dead, 73 wounded and others trapped under the rubble, is only the latest cruelty.
A clash of ‘empires’
Although Russia, under its autocratic leader Vladimir Putin, is clearly the aggressor and the Ukrainians, who rallied in huge numbers to the defence of their country, have every right to fight back and drive the invader from their country, the blame for this tragic war does not rest on one man or a single country.
Behind the conflict, on both sides, lies the confrontation between the most important great powers in the European area with their industries capable of producing ever more killing machinery. This makes possible a war of very long duration and, indeed, a growing escalation as far as the type of weapons is concerned, up to and including so-called ‘battlefield’ nuclear devices.
This conflict was not born out of ‘ancient national antagonisms’ or a clash of cultures, but out of a crisis of the imperialist world system. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the globalised capitalist economy has experienced an overall weakening of its dynamism. At the same time, China has established a stronger position vis-à-vis the USA which is now pushing back, not just economically but militarily, too.
What Lenin called a struggle for the redivision of the world between the great powers is once more underway and will determine the character of the entire period ahead. Whether or not the Ukraine war is coupled with an intensification of the Taiwan conflict in the short term, we have entered a new period of increased military confrontation, raising the hitherto economic competition of globalisation to a new level.
Despite its ruthless repression of opposition at home and its ruthless actions in Ukraine and, before that, in Chechnya, Syria etc—the Putin regime is not, in Marxist terms, fascist. It is a Bonapartist regime, rising above the parliamentary system, making elections just a popularity plebiscite for the great leader and repressing the various waves of street protest that have occurred.
In December 2011, there were mass protests in dozens of cities over the blatantly rigged elections to the Duma. These were followed by further protests in 2017, triggered by the attempted poisoning and later jailing of Alexei Navalny. The colour revolutions of the early years of the century, and the upheavals in Ukraine and Belarus, are the nightmares that Putin lives with. His response is the murder of his opponents and an increasingly totalitarian police regime.
That regime is a child of the neoliberal shock therapy imported from the West after the downfall of the Stalinist Communist Party and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. That obliterated some 50% of Russia’s productive capacity, causing greater suffering, and for longer, than the US Great Depression which began in 1929. Privatisation created the so-called oligarchs: men like Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became fabulously rich.
They thought they could run Russia indefinitely but, when the aged and incompetent Yeltsin appointed an ex-KGB operative, Vladimir Putin, as his successor, they finally met their match. Putin’s life’s work was to restore the political power of the state in Russia and its international status as a ‘great power’ not only in the regions which were formally part of the USSR, but also in countries around the world that had looked to it for protection during the Cold War.
Putin ousted the old oligarchs, and brought in new ones, men who became rich through government contracts from re-nationalised extractive industries; Yukos, Lukoil, Rosneft and Norilsk Nickel. His inner circle is composed of members of the successor to the KGB, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) known as ‘siloviki’, which roughly translates as ‘men of force’. One of the closest to Putin is Igor Sechin, chairman and CEO of the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, the largest corporation in Russia, producing around 6% of the world’s oil and employing 300,000 people.
The enormous profits from Russian oil and gas supplies, the concentration in huge capital blocs, plus the inheritance from the Soviet Union of a huge army and arms industry, nuclear weapons and a UN Security Council seat with veto powers, enabled Russia to join the club of imperialist powers.
But any imperialism must be expansionary if it is to hold its own against its rivals, both economically and geo-strategically. For a short period, Putin, like the hapless Gorbachev and Yeltsin, hoped Russia’s return to the role of a great power could be negotiated with Washington, with help from Paris and Berlin.
The US, however, soon made it clear, via the expansion of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe and the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. that they were not going to allow Moscow to become the dominant power, even in its ‘near abroad’. On top of this, came US meddling in the so-called colour revolutions and the fear this tactic might be applied towards Putin. So he set out to muscle his way into the club of great powers.
The US takes advantage
Joe Biden is leading the West’s conflict against Putin and ‘making America great again’ much more effectively than Trump ever did. The massive support of Western imperialism for Ukraine is not motivated by a defence of democratic values, or the formation of a ‘camp’ against autocracy. There are too many autocrats in Biden’s camp (the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc.) to make this claim credible, except for those who wish to be deceived.
The West is using Ukraine as a sort of proxy war against Putin and giving a serious warning to Xi Jinping and China. For good reason, not least that Russia is the second most powerful nuclear power on the planet, there is no direct involvement of NATO forces.
Nonetheless, the economic war against Russia, and the extent of economic, logistical and weapons support for Ukraine, are of unprecedented scale for such a conflict.
The re-armament programmes of all NATO countries, including the once hesitant Germany, are being stepped up. In combination with the economic sanctions, one can justifiably speak of Western imperialism using the Ukrainian defensive war to decisively weaken its Russian rival. It has also been seized upon as a favourable opportunity to drag the leading EU imperialist powers, Germany, France and Italy, into this confrontation.
Therefore, we in the Western imperialist states must protest against this abuse of the justified defensive war being waged on the ground in Ukraine as a proxy inter-imperialist war. We must also take a stand against the escalating arms deliveries to the NATO states bordering Russia. Even those to Ukraine, which at least are needed in an actual war, are designed by those who send them to subordinate Russia, not liberate Ukraine.
Likewise, despite its justified resistance to a Russian annexation of the whole or parts of Ukraine, the Zelensky government’s enormous reliance on NATO weapons supply, plus training and intelligence from the CIA and the Pentagon, puts it at the mercy of its backers and their war aims. For this reason, revolutionary socialists must oppose the war drive by their governments in the NATO countries.
In Ukraine, too, revolutionaries must oppose their government’s plans to formally join NATO or the EU. They should condemn the nationalist regime, which, since the Maidan ‘revolution’, attempted to impose language laws that privilege Ukrainian, at least potentially oppressing the Russian and Hungarian speaking minorities. Equally, we must condemn the severe anti-union laws and bans on parties.
We must also oppose the sanctions against Russia, since they cannot be separated from the global conflict that is being waged. Last, but not least, is the fact that this war has the potential to escalate—if either side faces defeat—into an immediate confrontation between Russia and NATO, that is, into an open world war.
For all these reasons, we must warn Ukrainian workers that the ‘generous’ help from the West will not come without cost to them. Imperialist-supported wars end with imperialist-imposed ‘peace’, as the treaties of Versailles and Potsdam showed. They end with partition and annexations which lay the ground for future wars.
The workers of Ukraine and Russia must struggle to take their fate into their own hands; the former taking over the defence of their country and opposing its use as a proxy for NATO, the latter overthrowing Putin. The workers in the NATO countries must oppose all aspects of the New Cold War, its hot wars and the rearmament of their countries.
The aim of the working peoples of Europe and the world must be to disarm and dethrone the warmongers, and through international socialist revolution lay the only sure foundation for world peace.