New phase in the Ukraine war

Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers’ International

The desperate, dramatic turn by Russian president Vladimir Putin, announcing the mobilisation of 300,000 reserves, coupled with his renewed threat to use nuclear weapons, indicates the seriousness of what is a new stage in the Ukraine war. He also announced referendums on joining the Russian Federation in four Ukrainian provinces that are partly under Russian occupation, including Donetsk and Luhansk.

Putin’s mobilisation announcement initially triggered small but significant protests in many Russian cities, which were brutally repressed. Military call-up papers were handed out to some of the protesters as a punishment and intimidation to deter further protests. According to some reports, in reality up to one million could be drafted. This is the first time the wider population has been called up for the military since the end of World War Two.

This dramatic change in the situation will starkly bring home to the mass of the Russian population the reality of the war, which many have probably tried to blank out from their consciousness – as until now they have been less directly affected by it. The draft is a big gamble for Putin. As it has been enforced, thousands have attempted to flee the country to avoid being drawn into the war. Flights out of Russia have been packed and the cost of tickets has rocketed. Thousands queued at the frontiers with Kazakhstan, Finland and other neighbouring countries, desperate to flee the country. Some countries are opposed to allowing these Russians entry to seek asylum.

The CWI supports the building of mass opposition to the war in Russia and demands the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Ukraine. At the same time we call for those Russians fleeing the draft to be given asylum.


Putin’s about-turn flows from the significant Ukrainian advances on the eastern battle front of the war, with the apparent routing of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. In the second week of September, the Ukraine military advanced 8,000 to 9,000 square kilometres. This followed a period of glacial advances by Russian forces of only one to two kilometres at a time. In the south, Ukrainian forces have faced far more determined Russian resistance and their advances have been much slower, with heavy losses.

In war, on occasions the seizure of vast areas can have little significance. In other battles, the seizure of smaller areas can have a major impact. It depends on the strategic significance of the area concerned and what effect it has on the contending armies involved. The consequences of the offensive in the Kharkiv region were major. It was a big blow to the prestige and standing of the Russian army and Putin’s regime, while boosting the confidence of Ukraine’s military forces. It also damaged the supply lines for the Russian military forces in the area.

Having punctured the portrayed invincibility of the Russian state, it enraged Putin’s embattled regime and has driven it to take drastic measures to try to hit back. It also strengthened the hand of hardline Russian nationalist critics of Putin who support the war but want it prosecuted more determinedly.

After failing in their original objective of taking Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine early in the war, the main war aim of Putin’s regime is now strengthening its position in the Donbas eastern provinces and in the southern areas that form a link to Crimea.

However, militarily the draft will not have an immediate effect. It will take months to train and deploy the new forces. According to some reports, the Russian state does not have enough officers to train the existing conscripts and new recruits to the army. Even when deployed, the reluctance to be conscripted and experience of the bloody military conflict will further undermine the morale of many or most of the new Russian forces. As the old British military adage says: one volunteer is worth 100 pressed men! On the other side, Ukraine’s military is likely to try to use the coming weeks, prior to the onset of winter, to secure further advances and consolidate what they have already captured.

The four ‘referendums’ are part of Putin’s strategy. The populations of these areas have dramatically dwindled since the start of the war. The outcome of ‘referendums’ carried out at gun point are a foregone conclusion. It is not genuine self-determination, there has not been a democratic debate and decision making. By incorporating these areas into Russia, Putin will then argue that any attack on them by Ukraine or other forces constitutes an attack on Russia. This could then be used as the justification to escalate the response militarily to ‘defend the motherland’ from aggression using ‘any means necessary’.

The Ukrainian military victory in the Kharkiv region arose partly from the high morale of the Ukraine forces, mirrored by the low morale of the Russian forces. It revealed that the modern military firepower supplied by the west is beginning to be effective when deployed against older and less effective Russian weaponry.

Ukraine’s regime and some of the western imperialist powers want to use that advance as a basis to drive on and eject Russia from the whole of Ukraine, of which it currently occupies about 20%. That is unlikely to result in a fast victory for Ukraine and an end to the war. However, it poses the possibility that unless the situation is reversed, Russia could eventually be faced with defeat and even the collapse of its forces. This would have existential consequences for Putin’s mafia regime, which is determining his response.

His regime is conducting a massive propaganda campaign, saying that the western powers are set on attacking and weakening Russia. A layer of the population undoubtedly accepts the draft, however reluctantly, and some see it as a ‘patriotic duty’.

Previously Putin had avoided calling up reserve forces for fear of it provoking more opposition to the war. Yet now he has taken a big gamble by going down this route, which can lead to big protests and growing opposition to the war. Significantly, it seems that university students have been excluded from the draft.

The continuation of a protracted bloody war, with little prospect of outright victory, will eventually lead to a widespread change in consciousness in the Russian population. Along with the development of massive opposition to Putin’s war, there will be growing opposition to the escalating corruption and inequality – manifestations of the rottenness of capitalism in Russia, as well as in Ukraine and internationally. Socialist ideas will inevitably attract interest from workers in Russia, Ukraine and worldwide in the search for a different future.