Devastation in Ukraine. Photo: Public Domain
Devastation in Ukraine. Photo: Public Domain

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International

The war in Ukraine continues unabated, at a terrible cost in both lives and resources. Generally described as a ‘stalemate’, there are still ferocious battles taking place and much blood being spilt, with hardly any territory changing hands. The much-vaunted Ukrainian military counteroffensive, launched last summer, has failed. This despite the huge sums given to the Ukrainian war effort by the United States and other Western powers since the conflict began. The US has spent more than $75 billion, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. The European Union (EU) has given more financial aid to Ukraine, but the US has provided the bulk of military hardware.

In the run-up to the recent counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces were trained by Western military and large amounts of armaments were sent to Kyiv. However, they have found it impossible to seriously breach the Russian lines, so far. The onset of winter means that fighting becomes even more difficult. Both sides have increased drone and artillery attacks in recent weeks.

One commentator described the Ukrainian forces being forced to move into a “defensive position” to stop any more Russian territorial gains. The Economist magazine describes how Russian forces have more effectively used electronic warfare and how “the skies over the battlefield are now thick with Russian drones. Ukrainian soldiers estimate that Russia is deploying twice the number of drones they are able to.”

The Kyiv government is pleading for more arms, including high-tech, from the Western powers. However, according to the Economist, “There is some reluctance, especially on the part of the Americans, to show Russia its hand because actionable information, for instance on the frequencies and the channel-hopping techniques employed, is likely to be passed onto the Chinese.”

Global tensions

This comment illustrates how the conflict in Ukraine is not just about territory in that country but takes on international dimensions. Russia has increased its links to China during this conflict, as well as with Iran, some Gulf states and North Korea. In turn, the regime in Beijing has become more bellicose about its territorial claims over Taiwan and as the US conducts military exercises with allies in the South China Sea.

The war in Ukraine has helped to alter world relations and global tensions. According to the annual ‘Armed Conflict Survey’ by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the world is “dominated by increasingly intractable conflicts and armed violence amid a proliferation of actors, complex and overlapping motives, global influences and accelerating climate change… the Russia–Ukraine war is reshaping the regional and global security and economic order.”

The conflict in Ukraine has taken a huge death toll on both sides. A retired U.S. Army colonel estimates that around 400,000 have died, mainly soldiers. The New York Times puts the figure of 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed, so far, in the counteroffensive. Tens of thousands are estimated to have died on the Russian side, as well. Neither side gives truthful information on the death toll, which indicates that the regimes know it would be unpalatable for their populations.

The war is having a devastating effect on the Ukrainian economy. The pre-war population of around 30 million has fallen by around 6 million, with many fleeing the country at the start of the Russian invasion. Unemployment sits at over 20% and the economy is only kept alive by massive Western economic subventions.

As the war has dragged on, public criticism of President Zelensky has increased, despite the imposition of martial law. The Mayor of Kyiv, formerly an ally, recently called him autocratic for not allowing elections. Small protests have taken place in the capital and elsewhere in the country by the families of deceased soldiers or those missing in action.

In the current stage of the conflict, Vladimir Putin’s regime appears stronger and more consolidated than it has for months. Putin was able to see off the armed revolt, last June, by the Wagner group of mercenary soldiers. The warlord, Prigozhin, who led the coup attempt, was later conveniently despatched in a plane explosion.

The Russian economy has been able to withstand the sanctions imposed by the Western powers. Various means have been used to get around the embargoes. Fleets of container ‘ghost ships’, under various flags of convenience, trade around the world. The Putin regime has increased its military and economic ties with China, North Korea, Iran, and other countries. Russia has near full employment due to the sharp rise in production. In effect, Russia has a ‘war economy’ estimated to grow by about 3% this year (the US claims that the Russian economy has shrunk by 5% due to the war).

However, the Putin regime cannot rest easy. The vagaries of the battlefield mean that the tide can turn against him again. As the conflict drags on at a staggering cost in lives and treasure, sections of Russian society will increasingly voice opposition and can even call for a change to the regime in Moscow.

The US administration has mooted the idea of seizing up to $260 billion of Russian central bank assets held abroad that were frozen early in the war, and using them to fund Kyiv. But EU countries, including France and Germany, are reluctant. “Confiscating Russian reserves risks setting harmful precedents and undermining the global financial architecture”, warns the Financial Times (London).

Military aid

The continuing Israeli state attacks on Gaza, which entail large US funding and shipments of armaments, are putting pressure on the Zelensky regime. The US remains the world’s largest economic and military power. Yet supplying funds and arms to two conflicts simultaneously is putting the Biden administration under pressure domestically.

US and EU financial and military aid packages, worth more than a combined $110 billion, have been held up by political arguments on either side of the Atlantic. The US Republican Party, under the influence of former president Donald Trump, is increasingly sceptical about continuing funding for Ukraine. At the time of writing, Republicans in Congress continue to block funding worth $60 billion to Kyiv and are tying the issue to demands for more curbs against migrants entering the United States.

Trump has indicated that if he wins the next presidential elections, he will bring the Ukraine war to a quick conclusion, possibly aiming to weaken Russian-Chinese links. This perspective is undermining the attempts by the Biden administration to get its latest tranche of funding to Kyiv agreed by Congress.

Open divisions over Ukraine policy also exist within the EU. Both Hungary and Slovakia are holding up an EU financial package for Kyiv. The populist right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, aims to keep his ties with Moscow for economic and geo-strategic reasons. Orban has blocked the EU’s proposed €50 billion funding over four years for Ukraine. Orban opposes EU membership talks with Kyiv but removed himself from a recent EU summit which agreed to start the process. However, Orban later said that he can obstruct and halt the process at any time.

Following Zelensky’s unsuccessful efforts to secure US funding during his recent visit to Washington, EU leaders, under pressure, agreed to ‘unfreeze’ €10 billion of Hungary’s EU funds blocked due to Hungary’s violations of EU laws. Orban, however, is demanding a full review of EU policy on Ukraine even if Brussels agrees to release all the funds for Budapest.

If the EU fails to get Orban to have a change of heart it is possible that the EU will have to find other ways to send money to Kyiv, perhaps by directly funding Ukraine from outside the EU budget. The hope amongst the most pro-Ukrainian Western powers is that this will help tide over Kyiv until remaining EU and US funds can be agreed.

War weariness

There is a growing weariness over the drawn-out and bloody stalemate in Ukraine around the world. One poll found 40% of Americans thought the US was spending too much on Kyiv and only 11% thought it was not enough. The hypocrisy of the US, UK and other Western powers, who back the Israeli state’s indiscriminate attacks against the people of occupied Gaza and West Bank while demanding that Russia ends its occupation of Donbas and Crimea, is not lost on working people around the globe.

Putin has been able to exploit these contradictions to increase his influence in the so-called ‘Global South’. The Russian leader has recently visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of his policy of deepening ties with various regimes. Significantly, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, postponed a visit to Britain in order to meet Putin.

Sources around Zelensky say that the Ukrainian leader fears he will come under increasing pressure to negotiate with Moscow and to accept the status quo, ie that Russia will hold a large part of the Donbas region and Crimea for the foreseeable future. Even if this is likely, Putin is probably not under pressure to engage, at this stage.

The war may finally end with no formal negotiated settlement but as another ‘frozen conflict’ in the former Soviet Union, with more or less of the current territorial gains of Russia held (about 17% of the land of Ukraine). This would not signal a solution for working people in Ukraine or Russia – it threatens ongoing armed conflict, albeit at a lower level, but which can threaten to fully erupt again.

The war in Ukraine has its roots in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many of the initial new rulers overseeing capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union regarded the expansion of NATO eastwards as an existential threat. Putin attempted to accommodate with Western imperialism while, at the same time, building up and modernising the Russian military as the economy improved, particularly due to an increase in oil and gas prices. The Russian military recovered enough to intervene against Georgia in 2008 and later played a key role in shoring up the Assad regime in Syria.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of an independent Ukraine, governments in Kyiv tended to oscillate between a more pro-Western or a more pro-Moscow stance. This sometimes led to protests and violent clashes on the streets as ruling class factions played on the national and religious tensions of the population.

In 2014, large protests in Kyiv led to the armed overthrow of the pro-Moscow government. Putin moved to annex Crimea. Since then, more pro-Western governments have been in power. For several years, before the Russian invasion, a military conflict took place between pro-Ukrainian nationalist militias and ethnic Russian armed groups, with Russian backing, in the Donbas.

Putin amassed a huge military force on the border with Ukraine and launched an ill-advised attack towards Kyiv in February 2022, which only succeeded in rousing the masses against foreign invasion. Forced to retreat, the Russian military has since tried to secure as much of the Donbas region and parts of eastern Ukraine as possible, while also holding on to Crimea.

From the point of view of the international workers’ movement, it is essential to call for the unity of the working class across Ukraine and Russia and the region. Socialists oppose the Russian invasion and call for the immediate withdrawal of Putin’s forces. We also oppose Zelensky’s martial law and anti-worker legislation.

Socialist Party marching in London, calling for workers' unity to end the war in Ukraine. Photo London Socialist Party

Workers’ movement

In both Russia and Ukraine, the organised workers’ movement, including trade unions, and many on the left, face severe repression. However, the seemingly endless war at the cost of huge sacrifices by working-class people can lead to growing opposition. There are reports that many Ukrainians are weary of Zelensky’s endlessly upbeat and unrealistic propaganda, which cannot hide the bloody reality of the war of attrition. Zelensky has called for up to 500,000 new conscripts but neither the ruling party or top generals seem prepared to act on it, as they fear a public backlash. The development of an anti-war movement in both Russia and Ukraine can give confidence to the wider working class and help spur workers’ struggles. It is essential that the international workers’ movement and socialists give full support and assistance to any such developments.

The only real solution that can see an end to war, exploitation and poverty in Ukraine, Russia, and the whole of the former Soviet Union entails a return by the working class to the ideas of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. It is no coincidence that Putin attacked Lenin and his approach to the national question during a rambling speech justifying the launch of the invasion in 2022. Putin accused Lenin of accommodating Ukrainian nationalism and allowing the creation of an “artificial” Ukrainian state.

However, it was a correct and sensitive approach of the Bolsheviks on the national question that was a key factor leading to the success of the October 1917 socialist revolution. The young workers’ government in Russia granted self-determination for the Ukrainian people, which meant autonomy for Ukraine in the early 1920s. It was under the iron rule of Stalin that Great Russian national chauvinism was unleashed against other nationalities in the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s disastrous policy of forced collectivisation led to famine in Ukraine, further exacerbating anti-Russian feelings. In the late 1930s, exiled abroad, Leon Trotsky advocated independence for Ukraine. Trotsky made this call because he feared that politically backward sections of Ukraine masses could be won over to the German Nazis who posed as an alternative to autocratic Stalinist rule and were making links with Ukrainian nationalists.

Trotsky called for an ‘independent socialist Ukraine’, which he believed would act as a spur to a political revolution in the rest of the Soviet Union, casting aside the Stalinist bureaucracy, restoring workers’ rule, and allowing the conditions for a genuine voluntary and equal socialist federation, which a socialist Ukraine could decide to opt into or not.

Trotsky’s perspective was proven correct but in a negative way. During the Second World War, the Nazis were able to find collaborators amongst Ukrainian ultra-nationalists during the years of German army occupation of parts of the country, which led to pogroms and massacres of the Jewish population and also of many workers defending what they saw as socialism.

In the post-war period, with economic development and industrialisation of Ukraine, nationalism waned significantly. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Soviet economy stagnated, nationalist forces grew. The dissolution of the Soviet Union saw much of the Stalinist bureaucratic apparatus become evangelists of capitalism overnight. Ukraine became an independent capitalist state. Based on capitalism (poverty, class exploitation, and unemployment etc) tensions between ethnic and national groups increased, and sections of the ruling classes exploited these divisions for their own class ends. Under Zelensky, new legislation discriminating against the Russian language was introduced.

Any socialist solution to the crisis in Ukraine must take into account the right of the people of Ukraine to be free of foreign armies and outside meddling, and also the needs and aspirations of the people of Donbas and Crimea, many of whom are ethnic Russians. While it is highly unlikely that they want to live under the autocratic grip of Putin’s regime, neither do they express a desire to be part of Zelensky’s Ukrainian nationalist state that is also viewed with suspicion by some of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority.

Self-determination for these oppressed groups means the right to democratically decide their future, without any coercion from local or world powers. For socialists, this is inextricably linked up to the struggle against the oligarchs and their divide-and-rule policies, and to change society fundamentally. Only a socialist federation of the region can offer a permanent solution to the nightmare of post-Soviet, capitalist life in the region – an end to wars, national and ethnic hatreds, exploitation, and poverty.