The devastating war in Ukraine one year on

Build workers’ unity against war and capitalism  

Judy Beishon, Socialist Party Executive Committee

As the war in Ukraine approached its first anniversary, there was no let-up in the relentless bloodshed. The Russian military assault on Bakhmut and surrounding areas in the country’s east has drawn comparisons with the horror of first world war attacks and trenches. The untold death toll of troops on both sides has continued at a high level throughout the winter, with many civilians killed as well.

More residents have been forced to flee their homes but with nowhere safe to go in Ukraine, as Russian missiles have hit densely populated urban areas. Recent atrocities included the killing of 45 residents of Dnipro in January, including children, when a Russian missile hit their block of flats. A new bloody phase of the conflict now seems imminent as both sides prepare to launch a spring offensive.

It goes without saying that the landscape of Ukraine – the human suffering, infrastructure destruction, shattered economy and all else – has been dramatically changed during this year of war. It also impacted significantly on the global economy and relations, marking a negative step-change for stability in a world in which tensions between the imperialist powers were already worsening. It divided them into a wide spectrum of different positions on the war, ranging from the staunchest support for the Ukrainian government to allying with Putin’s Russia.

Before the war, the competition between US imperialism in decline and China in economic and military ascendancy was already a major destabilising factor. Now, after a year of the war, although the US has managed to assert itself as the de facto leader of the western intervention, providing by far the largest amount of aid and weapons to Ukraine, the war also marks a further stage in the process of the world becoming more multi-polar, with increasing division, shifting alliances, and social, political and economic volatility. US imperialism, despite being the major world power, is not able to dominate world relations as it did previously. 

It is possible that further developments and turns in this war could inflame world relations to an even greater extent than at present. Diplomatic editor of the UK Guardian, Patrick Wintour, reported on 20 February: “The US has said it believes China may be about to provide lethal aid to Russia in the war in Ukraine, prompting a direct warning against doing so from the secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, to China’s top diplomat”. While it isn’t yet known whether the Chinese regime will intervene in that way, the news that it is being considered shows how rapidly and acutely escalation could develop.

No end in sight

The course of the war over the last 12 months was largely set by its initial stage, when the Russian forces dramatically failed to occupy Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine. Putin and his advisors had greatly under-estimated the resistance of Ukraine’s people and Zelensky presidency and the foreign aid they would receive for it.

Further setbacks for the Russian invasion followed during the course of 2022. But Russia still occupies a sixth of Ukraine today and in recent weeks has increased its troops on the ground to over 300,000 to try to make advances.  According to some western leaders Russia has now deployed 90% of its army in Ukraine. 

It isn’t possible to predict whether it will succeed. The Ukrainian forces have higher motivation than Russia’s, as they are defending territory against foreign aggression, while a large number of the Russian troops have been reluctantly conscripted. But there are reports of exhaustion on the Ukrainian frontlines and many other issues on both sides will influence the course of the war.

From an economic point of view Putin’s regime is able to push on with it for now, because although Russia is an energy exporter facing lower world energy prices, plus an oil price cap imposed on it by the G7 countries, there are also countervailing factors. These include record levels of bilateral trade with China and the rouble strengthening as a currency.

However, Putin’s powerful state regime of crony gangster oligarchs will come to face a crisis as the war drags on. A rising Russian body count and casualties together with the impact of sanctions and other developments could eventually lead to the outbreak of a mass movement to remove him, or a move against him from within Russia’s ruling elite.

Prigozhin, the head of the private Wagner militia in Russia that is playing a leading role in the fighting, recently said that Russia’s focus is on fully taking the Donbas region. It is possible that Putin will aim for a ceasefire on the basis of gaining Russian control of that entire eastern region as well as further solidifying control of the Crimea and the link areas between those territories – although this will not be easy to achieve and will not resolve the conflict in those areas.

At some stage, though not necessarily soon, pressure will grow stronger for ceasefire talks – internationally as well as in Russia and Ukraine. But the aims and interests of the capitalist leaderships in both Russia and Ukraine and scope of the issues involved are such that even a temporary agreement may not come about. Instead, there could be a period of ‘frozen conflict’, punctuated by localised clashes which would inevitably break out.

Meanwhile, at present the war continues because both sides believe they can still make military gains, and both face great difficulties in any moves to end it.  Attitudes in Ukraine to making concessions would inevitably be very forceful and polarised following the massive loss of life from keeping or retaking land. In Russia, Putin can’t ignore right-wing nationalist support for the war, including criticism that the war isn’t being conducted sufficiently skilfully or ruthlessly. Should his forces suffer major military setbacks, it cannot be excluded that in desperation he could order the use of one or more limited tactical nuclear weapons, which would provoke massive anti-war movements in many countries and have a major impact on world relations and the political situation.

But as the war grinds on, opposition to it is likely to creep up in both countries and in the countries supplying arms to Ukraine too. In the US and Europe, inflation, along with wages being held down, has led to more questioning of the expenditure on Ukraine.

Zelensky felt it necessary to warn against ‘support fatigue’ during his recent rapid tour to London, Paris and Brussels. An Ipsos poll conducted in 28 countries late last year showed 42% of respondents believing “the problems of Ukraine are none of our business and we should not interfere” – with Germany having a particularly marked increase in that response. 64% thought their own country “couldn’t afford to lend financial support to Ukraine”. While the public finances of the countries sending weapons and aid come under greater strain from doing so, arms manufacturers and investors are rolling in money and able to test out their latest deadly produce – additional sickening consequences of wars under capitalism.

The Russian invasion

When ordering troops into Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s regime was seeking to protect and advance the business interests in Ukraine of Russia’s capitalists and their trade routes across Ukraine and the Black Sea. It also had a security viewpoint: to try to head off the prospect of Ukraine developing closer military links with the western imperialist powers and Nato. Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have all joined Nato since the collapse of the Soviet Union, geographically adding to northern Norway in taking Nato to the borders of the Russian Federation – too close for the comfort of Putin’s regime. Ukraine had been entering more and more into the orbit of Western capitalism, to which Putin and the most nationalist wing of the Russian elite reacted with propaganda harking back to the 19th century vast ‘greater Russia’ empire and before.

They claimed to be defending the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and the Russian language, which, like other minority languages, was being increasingly limited by Ukraine’s government.  However, Putin is no defender of national minorities, as his regime’s treatment of minorities in the Russian Federation has shown. And in any case only a future democratic socialist society in Ukraine will be able to give full rights to minorities, no capitalist regime will do so.

No socialist should give any justification whatsoever for Putin’s invasion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t at the same time recognise and oppose the manoeuvrings by the western imperialist powers for economic and political influence in Eastern Europe since the collapse of Stalinism at the start of the 1990s.  Their greed for potentially profitable markets played into an inter-imperialist conflict with Russia’s post-Stalinist capitalist elite, who proved unwilling to accept a second-tier role in their own region.

That self-interest has been the overriding motive for the arms and funding sent to Ukraine by western governments. As with Putin’s lack of genuine concern for ethnic Russians in Ukraine, neither do the western powers have humanitarian concern for the Ukrainian people or with ordinary people anywhere else. The amount the US administration has budgeted for weapons and other aid to Ukraine’s government in the next fiscal year is a phenomenal 500 times more than it has so far offered the millions of homeless people in Turkey and Syria following the recent devastating earthquake.

The capitalist media across much of the west tries to mask the real motives for sending arms, by adopting a cloak of Ukrainian nationalism – ‘freedom for Ukraine’ – and constantly saying they are being sent to defend western, democratic values. They are silent on why arms aren’t sent to aid many other populations that are repressed by, or fighting against, dictatorial regimes. The real priority slipped out in a Financial Times editorial that bemoaned the low ammunition stock levels in Nato countries and added: “But defence industrial capacity is a vital component of security underpinning the international order and global trading system. Maintaining it is also a way of deterring aggression” (31.1.23).

Also, while pro-capitalist commentators in the west don’t hesitate to call Putin a war criminal, what should George W Bush and Tony Blair, who ordered the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, be called?  Much is being made too of resistance to the forcible redrawing of borders, while next year is the 50th anniversary of Nato member Turkey invading and dividing Cyprus, which included ethnic cleansing Greek Cypriots out of the north.  And little is said about Turkey still controlling northern Cyprus, or its present occupation of part of northern Syria.

Stepping up arms

Throughout the war, the western powers backing Ukraine have placed strict limits on the arms supplied and objectives, in the main to try to prevent the war from spreading beyond Ukraine but also to restrict the Russian regime’s response within Ukraine – including to counter Putin’s oblique threats to consider use of a ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapon.

In December US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that US policy is to help Ukraine regain territory seized since the Russian invasion last year, and not the Crimea and areas in the east occupied previously. Governments in western Europe have the same position; only Poland and the Baltic states call for Ukraine to retake Crimea.

But the type of weapons and equipment supplied has gradually been stepped up, and at present, with Russian forces poised to make possible advances, western governments have been faced yet again with the dilemma of whether to go a step further.  It was only in January that the UK, Germany and the US conceded to sending tanks, and just a few weeks later they were pressed by Zelensky to consider sending fighter jets and long-range weaponry.

Each government bases its criteria for making a decision on the interests of its own national capitalist class, including domestic electoral considerations. Self-congratulatory praise among them for a ‘united response’ in support of Ukraine is in part a smokescreen, as in reality their disagreements over what to supply have been increasing – both within some governments and between them.

Capitalism in Ukraine

They send the arms and equipment firmly into the hands of Ukraine’s government. Being staunchly pro-capitalist itself, that means the defensive battle led by that government against Russia is not primarily aimed at protecting working-class Ukrainians from oppression, but rather is in the class-based interests of Ukraine’s capitalists and their international backers. After the war they intend that a capitalist ruling elite will continue to own and control most of the resources, services and industries. On the basis of capitalism Ukraine will be a poverty stricken, severely war damaged country, dependent on trying to attract foreign aid and investment for reconstruction in a crisis-ridden world where astronomical debt levels are the norm and economic growth is meagre at best.  

Zelensky has adeptly behaved as a leader ‘uniting the nation’ against the terrible onslaught from Putin’s Russia. He has also attracted support for pledges to curb the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs and to tackle the massive level of corruption at the top – last year Ukraine was labelled the second most corrupt country in Europe by Transparency International. But as his political ideology is firmly capitalist, he – or any pro-capitalist successor – will not be able to deliver what the Ukrainian people will demand when they eventually emerge from this war: good housing, services and living standards, and everything else needed for a decent quality of life.

Even during war conditions Zelensky’s government has enacted neoliberal anti-labour laws restricting workers’ rights and it has banned a number of left-wing organisations. The mantra of ‘national unity’ will come to be seen as the cross-class mask it is, a cover for enrichment of those at the top of society through exploitation of the overwhelming majority.

So, for socialists, the fight in Ukraine against foreign aggression can’t be separated from the need for Ukraine’s working class to build a movement that can remove capitalism and replace it with public ownership of the main pillars of the economy; and socialist planning of reconstruction and the economy.

It is not socialist to write, as the Stop the War Coalition in Britain repeatedly does, that “the only real solution to the war lies in a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement”. That would be a settlement agreed between the ruling classes on both sides, which at best could bring some respite from the bloodshed, but would be no real or lasting solution. Capitalist interests, competition, territorial claims, exploitation and repression of minorities would remain.

It is not a question of calling on capitalist representatives to decide which capitalist class should have control of Crimea, or the Donbas, or anywhere else, but of saying clearly that the people in those areas should have the right to democratically decide their own future, with no coercion – the right to self-determination.

Workers and socialists in every country of the world, including in Russia and Ukraine, can place no trust in the actions at home or abroad of their own country’s capitalists or the governmental representatives of those capitalists. Confidence can only be placed in building working-class based democratic socialist organisations, completely independent of capitalist interests, and in building solidarity between those organisations internationally.

This is an expanded version of the article which appeared in The Socialist issue 1215.

For more socialist news and analysis from across the world visit the Committee for a Workers’ International website.