Ukraine soldiers. MOD Ukraine/CC
Ukraine soldiers. MOD Ukraine/CC

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

The bloody war in Ukraine grinds on, with reportedly hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries inflicted on both sides. As we enter spring, a new massive offensive appears to be in preparation by the Ukrainian forces, with military backing and training from Western powers. A new, even more bloody, phase of the war is likely in the short term. The conflict has involved the use of high-tech weaponry, and also recourse to trench warfare and artillery assaults reminiscent of World War One and other previous conflicts.

Currently, the main theatre of war is centred on the city of Bakhmut, in the east. This is regarded as a vital staging post by the Russian forces and its capture would be a big propaganda coup and help them consolidate territorial gains in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Although some Ukrainian military strategists and Western advisers have cautioned Zelensky about throwing so many soldiers and military resources into the defence of the city, which they believe is not essential to the overall war effort, Zelensky insists it must be defended at all costs. The brutal conflict around the city alone is estimated to have cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

Socialists and the international workers’ movement must oppose the bloody invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s forces. There can be no justification for the unleashing of terror against the people of Ukraine and the huge destruction it has entailed. We call for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces and an end to the war.

The main task of the working peoples of Ukraine and Russia is to organise their own independent organisations against invasion and war and to oppose the reactionary oligarchs and their political allies in both countries. This entails urgently building genuinely independent trade unions and mass parties of the working class with a bold socialist programme for the ending of war, poverty, and exploitation, and for a democratic socialist society without coercion or oppression of any nationality or minority.

The invasion of Ukraine was a thoroughly reactionary and desperate measure by Putin, who bases his regime on an appeal to ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism. Dissent to the war in Russia is ruthlessly dealt with by the authorities. A new clampdown on travel restrictions that target higher layers of state officialdom has been introduced by Putin’s regime, indicating fears of growing opposition to the war at all levels of society.

Opposition to the Putin regime in no way implies support for the Zelensky government or his Western imperialist backers. It was significant that recently in countries like Britain, much more media attention was given to the first anniversary of Putin’s attack on Ukraine than to the 20th anniversary of the US and British-led invasion of Iraq. This coldly prepared war, justified by lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’, resulted in a death toll that runs into hundreds of thousands. This showed, once again, the double standards of capitalist politicians and media. Just as with Russia’s actions under Putin, Nato member states have previously invaded countries; for example, the above-mentioned US-led invasion of Iraq, and Turkey’s military moves into Cyprus in 1974, and into Syria during the civil war of recent years.

In Ukraine, Zelensky presides over a right-wing regime that prioritises the interests of Ukraine’s oligarchs over that of the mass of people. Zelensky’s government has banned left parties that dare to criticise its policies, and imposed draconian anti-union and anti-worker legislation under the cover of war. With the eastern Orthodox Christian Church split on national lines, and believers fighting on both sides of the war in Ukraine, the Zelensky regime has taken repressive action against Orthodox institutions supporting Russia, and against those deemed not fully supporting the Ukrainian war effort.

The people of Ukraine live daily with rising poverty, as well as a military conflict. Around eight million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion when the country had around 40 million inhabitants. Around seven million live in areas under Russian control.

The war has been catastrophic for Ukraine’s economy. Last year, its GDP fell by 30%. On 21 March the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced Ukraine would receive the seventh biggest bailout in the fund’s history ($15.6 billion over the next four years through an emergency programme). Yet the Zelensky regime estimates that it needs an extra $39.5 billion more than it expects to receive from tax and aid, a shortfall equivalent to 9% of GDP.

All told, Ukraine could face paying 7.5-8.0% rates on the IMF loan. “The nightmare would be crippling the country with debts while it is still at war, or just beginning to recover”, commented the Economist.

US v China

Ukraine has become the de facto frontline of the conflict between the United States and its allies, on the one side, and Russia and its wider alliances, particularly with China, the main economic rival to the US, on the other. While not opposing Moscow, the Beijing regime has been cautious and has not endorsed or openly supported the Russian invasion.

China’s President Xi Jinping visited Moscow recently, with a ’12-point peace plan’ for Ukraine, which was only palatable to Russia. Beijing has aided Russia by buying vast quantities of Russian oil and gas at reduced prices. While Western military intelligence admits that there is no proof that China has given significant amounts of weaponry to Russia, it is an open question as to whether this could change should Ukraine get the upper hand on the battlefield.

The Ukraine war has had the knock-on effect of greatly increasing tensions over Taiwan. Dexter Roberts, from the Atlantic Council thinktank in Washington, commented: “Xi Jinping and other top leaders genuinely feel sympathy for Russia. They believe Putin has his back pushed against the wall by Nato expanding. They very much see a parallel… with the US presence in the Indo-Pacific.”

An editorial in the Economist warns both the US and China that, “seeking military dominance around flashpoints, notably Taiwan, could spark incidents or clashes that spiral out of control”.

The US, UK and Australia held an ‘AUKUS pact’ summit a few weeks ago, and agreed that nuclear submarines can be stationed in Australia.

Trading and commercial tensions are growing between the US and China, with the IMF estimating that ‘decoupling’ can cost the world economy anywhere between a 0.2% to 7% loss of world GDP. Washington has imposed embargoes on semiconductors and other goods in an attempt to maintain US technological supremacy, for the time being.

Notwithstanding the current terrible battlefield casualty rates in Ukraine, the conflict is set to escalate. The fierce battle for Bakhmut appears to be edging towards Russia, at the moment, but there is no guarantee about the outcome for either side. Significant military resources, including battlefield tanks, are being despatched to Ukraine from several Nato countries, as Kyiv prepares for a much-anticipated spring offensive against Russian forces.

And the sphere of border tensions between Western powers and Russia grows. Under immense pressure from Washington, Turkey has relented to Finland joining Nato, and Sweden will probably follow suit. While Putin has toned down his rhetoric over the use of nuclear arms, his Belarusian ally, President Alexander Lukashenko, said that Belarus may host Russian nuclear weapons, bringing the weapons closer to the border of Nato states.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, blurted out last week that the EU is “close to sending peacekeeper troops in some form or another” to Ukraine. Such a move would be a red rag to Moscow. Former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev responded by stating: “It is clear that the so-called Nato peacekeepers are simply going to enter the conflict on the side of our enemies…” and this would “bring the situation to the point of no return.”

Whether these statements may amount to no more than a bluff, they signify the febrile situation and the ratcheting up of tensions in an already combustible military situation in eastern Europe.

Putin’s regime, should it be faced with even greater losses and a defeat, could out of desperation resort to the limited use of a ‘tactical nuclear weapon’ or other weapons of mass destruction. Putin has put this issue on the table. His recent threat to deploy such weapons to Belarus underlines this possible danger at a certain stage, should the Moscow regime face an existential threat. This would have enormous repercussions internationally and provoke massive anti-war movements.

The working class in Ukraine and Russia, and internationally, are the main losers from war and militarisation. Neither side in this disastrous war are prepared to even countenance negotiations and a ceasefire at this stage, while they believe they can still win or at least carve out the best results for themselves at the expense of countless Russian and Ukrainian soldiers’ lives.

Spring counter-offensive

The anticipated counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces is expected to strike in the south. “A thrust of about 50 miles over the steppe from the current front lines to the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol would split Russian-held territory into two zones, sever supply lines and put Ukrainian artillery within range of Russian bases on the Crimean Peninsula”, according to the New York Times.

The crucial role played by the West in preparations is spelt out by the newspaper: “Tens of thousands of new recruits have undergone training in Europe and inside Ukraine, including in newly formed Offensive Guard units. About 35,000 Ukrainians have signed up for the assault units”.

But success is not assured for Kyiv. In the south, Russian units have been building defensive positions since they were pushed out of the Kherson region last November. Sophisticated tanks will be critical in uprooting those positions, according to Western military sources. But what Moscow may lack in state-of-the-art military equipment, it will try to make up with a potentially enormous pool of human resources to throw against Ukraine.

The Ukraine offensive can lead to another bloody stalemate, rather than a quick breakthrough. “The key point in the eyes of Washington elites is that Ukraine has to be seen as having gained significant land in the coming offensive,” according to Cliff Kupchan, chair of the Eurasia Group, in Washington.

Some government figures in Nato-member countries, like France and Germany, have already raised the prospect of Ukraine having to countenance accepting territorial losses in the east, and not taking back Crimea, should the quagmire continue. They have posed the need for Kyiv to engage in negotiations with Russia, as the ‘best worst’ option.

As the war drags on at a terrible human cost, morale will inevitably be affected on all sides. The New York Times says: “Morale, an area in which Ukrainian fighters held an edge for much of the war, is becoming more of a challenge. In a dozen or so recent interviews, soldiers at positions near Bakhmut or emerging from the crucible of street fighting for short breaks expressed dismay at the scale of violence and death.”

Over the past year, about 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded, according to Western figures, which is probably an underestimate. Even higher figures are given by the West for Russian casualties, which are unverifiable, but seem likely. Whatever the true extent of fatalities and injuries, it is clear that both sides are suffering enormously, with little territorial gain over the last months or with the sight of an end to the war.

Yet, at some point, opposition to the endless slaughter will grow in Russia and Ukraine. Socialists and the international workers’ movement internationally must do all they can to support those resisting the conflict and the rule of the oligarchs, on both sides, and work to build strong anti-war and anti-capitalist movements in their own countries.