Western Imperialism Turns to Pessimism in Ukraine

It is now over 100 days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. There is no end in sight to the war. The gung ho statements of the West following Russia’s withdrawal from the areas it had occupied around Kiev, Sumy, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, have turned into more pessimistic appraisals. Russian forces, through superior artillery, have been advancing in the Donbas, slowly, but relentlessly. Ukrainian losses are mounting. Russia has maintained its income from oil and gas, despite the West’s sanctions, the knock-on effects of which threaten to push the world economy into a new and damaging recession.

The war has been through two distinct phases. In the first, Russia launched a combined operation on several fronts, North, South and East, with the rapid deployment of forces and the surrounding of key Ukrainian cities. The aim of this shock tactic was not so much to actually take the capital, but rather to trigger the collapse of the command chain and force the surrender of the Ukrainian government. That failed.

Ukrainian resistance was stiffer than expected, and access to western intelligence allowed the Ukrainian forces to prepare for and defend against some of the Russian strikes, for instance at Hostomel airport. Russian forces, whose supply lines were overstretched, became bogged down by the small unit guerrilla tactics that the Ukrainian army had been training for.

At the end of March and beginning of April, that led to a change of tactics on the part of the Russian army. They withdrew from the areas they had taken in the north and relocated their forces to the east, although they left a small presence in the border region north of Kharkiv. The aim now was to take over the Donbas (up to the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts) and consolidate their gains in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

US imperialism’s proxy war

The Ukrainian government and the West cried victory. “The Russians have been defeated,” they said. Having also expected that Ukraine would collapse in the first days of the war, concrete plans were drawn up by British and French special forces to extract Zelensky, as Washington had advised him to do themselves. Now US imperialism has redefined its aims in the war. It was, they now said openly, a proxy war being waged in order to decisively weaken Russia. The US started pouring billions of dollars of equipment and aid into it, and it mobilized its allies to match the effort.

But things did not go according to plan. It is now over a month since the US passed a $40 billion bill to arm Ukraine. US-made M777 155mm howitzers have been deployed on the battlefield for a month, together with other pieces of artillery, unmanned aircraft, etc., and yet they have had no significant impact on the course of the war. Russian superiority in artillery is still overwhelming. The war in the Donbas is not going well. Russia is winning.

Azovstal Ukraine image Chad NagleThe fall of Azovstal was a huge psychological blow for the Ukrainian military. / Image: Chad Nagle

First we saw the surrender of Azovstal—the huge steel works where the remainder of the neo-Nazi Azov regiment (part of the Ukrainian National Guard) had holed up together with a number of troops from the Ukrainian marines. For all their statements about not surrendering, after several weeks of siege, and with no access to fresh supplies, they did indeed surrender, although the western and Ukrainian media attempted to present it as an “evacuation.” An “evacuation” right into Russian prisoner of war camps! Over two thousand battle hardened and fanatical troops were taken out of the equation. That was a psychological blow, which is what the media campaign of camouflage surrounding the surrender attempted to soften.

The fall of Azovstal freed Russian troops to reinforce the push in the Donbas. The Russians took two key points. One was the small town of Popasna, in Luhansk, which is on high ground, giving them a point from which to advance towards the crucial Bakhmut-Lysychansk road. The aim was to encircle the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk conurbation, which if taken would give them complete control over the administrative borders of Luhansk. The other was Izyum, a crucial communications point on the road towards Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, two crucial urban centers in Donetsk.

An attempt at complete encirclement by crossing the river Siverskyi Donetsk was defeated however, with the Ukrainian army destroying large numbers of armored vehicles and pontoons. But that did not stop the Russian advance. The battle for Severodonetsk continues, but the Russians have control over most of the city.

Having been stopped in their advance south of Izyum, the Russian forces concentrated their efforts on taking Lyman, another important communications centre north east of Slavyansk (which, incidentally, was the first city to be taken over by pro-Russian rebels back in 2014).

Meanwhile, attempts by the Ukrainian army to counterattack, north of Kharkiv (Ternova, Rubizhne, Staryi Saltiv), at the frontline in Kherson (Davydiv Brid), and more recently in the forest west of Izyum, seem to have been repelled by the Russians. The aim of these attacks seems to have been to pin the Russian troops away from the main theatre of operations, rather than to push them back decisively.

Map ukraine war Image Twitter Ukraine War MapHaving been stopped in their advance south of Izyum, the Russian forces concentrated their efforts on taking Lyman, another important communications centre north east of Slavyansk. / Image: Twitter, Ukraine War Map

“We are just pawns”

The tone of the Ukrainian leadership and the western imperialists has changed markedly. There have been reports about the low morale of the Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian territorial defense forces—those who joined in the first days of the invasion to defend their country, but above all their homes and their families—are particularly affected. They feel they are being sent to the front as cannon fodder, with neither proper training nor equipment, to die in a war they cannot win. Several platoons have recorded and broadcast videos of protests. Some have left the front altogether.

The Economist
describes the situation thus: “If the news appears grim for both sides, it is worse for Ukraine. Returning soldiers talk of chaotic command and depleted ammunition. Inexperienced, young soldiers from volunteer units are sent to the front lines to replace fallen comrades.”

The Independent quoted from a Western-Ukrainian intelligence report which painted a bleak picture:

Ukrainian troops are suffering massive losses as they are outgunned 20 to one in artillery and 40 to one in ammunition by Russian forces … A report by Ukrainian and Western intelligence officials also reveals that the Ukrainians are facing huge difficulties responding to Russians shelling with their artillery restricted to a range of 25 kilometers, while the enemy can strike from 12 times that distance. For the first time since the war began, there is now concern over desertion. The report, seen by The Independent, says the worsening situation in the Donbas, with up to a hundred soldiers being killed a day, is having “a seriously demoralizing effect on Ukrainian forces as well as a very real material effect; cases of desertion are growing every week.”

The latest figures given by presidential advisor Podolyak are 200 Ukrainian soldiers killed a day. Nikita, a Ukrainian soldier, was quoted in an article in CBC railing against his superiors:

“You have to understand that there are two castes in this country,” he said. “There’s the upper caste, and then there’s us: the lower caste. We are just pawns. Nothing more. The upper caste gets the money, and we get the command: ‘Forward!’ That’s how it’s always worked here [in Ukraine],” he said, before emphasizing that he doesn’t expect anyone to believe him.

“No one here wants to hear the truth,” said Nikita. “They just want the beautiful story of how Ukraine is united. But here, we’re f–ked.”

The contrast with the official propaganda has been noted, even by some Ukrainian journalists who cannot be accused of having pro-Russian sympathies. Commenting on the triumphalist statements by Luhansk governor Haidai, journalist Yuiy Butusov exploded:

In war, you have to deceive the enemy, not your citizens. In this case, Ukrainian society must receive information close to reality, we need real victories, not fictional ones. The risk of self-deception in war is that false fabrications and unjustified optimistic statements drive units, people, and make decisions in a way that do not fit the situation. Stop these puns, you don’t have to do this… The regular messages made up of wishes instead of reality, causes concern. To receive real victories, you should not create castles in the air.

Ukraine is therefore demanding more from its western allies: more tanks, more ammunition. Adviser to the head of the President’s Office. Mykhailo Podolyak issued a tweet—on the eve of a new meeting of NATO ministers on June 15 in Brussels—with very specific demands

  • 1,000 howitzers 155 mm;
  • 300 MLRS;
  • 500 tanks;
  • 2,000 armored vehicles;
  • 1,000 drones.

He is unlikely to get even a fraction of what he is asking for. Many European countries only have a fraction of the amount of MLRS asked for (Germany 38, France 13, UK 44), and if the US were to send 300 to Ukraine, that would be one quarter of its total supply! As for tanks, for instance, the UK Army has 227, in total, Germany has 226, and so on. In addition, many of these advanced weapons systems require weeks if not months of training, not only for the artillery operators themselves, but for the whole army to be able to operate in conjunction with them.

The mood in Washington is increasingly pessimistic. US imperialism’s mouthpiece, the Washington Post, ran the headline: “Ukraine is running out of ammunition as prospects dim on the battlefield. Hopes that Ukraine will be able to reverse Russian gains are fading in the face of superior firepower.” Of course, we must take some of these statements with caution as they are also designed to put pressure on the governments to deliver more weapons, but generally they correspond with the situation on the ground. Russia is advancing and Western supplies of artillery and other weapons are not having a decisive impact. At this point, even some Western imperialist strategists might be wondering whether it is worth continuing to sink billions of dollars in equipment into a war which they do not think can be won.

An increasingly costly war

As the war drags on with steady Russian advances, the impact on the world economy is weighing heavily in the calculations of US imperialism and driving a growing wedge between Washington and some of its European allies (France and Germany, but also Italy). The pressure to find a way out of this increasingly costly war is growing. Italy has suggested a peace plan. Macron has repeated his assertion that “Putin cannot be humiliated.” Misgivings amongst the German ruling class about the whole situation are very serious, despite the gung ho attitude of the Green Foreign Affairs Minister.

According to Reuters: “German government sources also said they were worried that some in the West could be egging on Ukraine to unrealistic military goals, including the recapture of the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, that could prolong the conflict.”

The US is caught between different pressures. On the one hand, it sees an opportunity to deal a blow to Russia, using Ukrainian soldiers as cannon fodder for its aims. But on the other hand, it is constrained in the type and range of artillery it can supply Kiev by the fear of provoking retaliation from Russia (which is, after all, a nuclear power). Thus we witnessed weeks of vacillations over the delivery of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. First they were promised, then they were not, finally they are going to be delivered, but only four of them, and only with ammunition of a certain limited range. Russia has threatened that if its territory is hit, it will consider that as a direct act of aggression and will retaliate “against the decision centers which are not in Kiev.”

Zelensky Trench Image Flickr manhhaiZelensky hopes to get more artillery and weaponry from the West, but is unlikely to get even a fraction of what he asks for. / Image: Flickr, manhhai

Meanwhile, sanctions have not had the desired effect and certainly have not made Putin change course over Ukraine. “Russia is winning the economic war,” said Larry Elliot in The Guardian. The campaign of western sanctions on Russia has definitely had a negative effect on its economy, which is forecast to decline by 8.5% this year. But as the price of oil and gas has gone up as a result, Russia’s income from energy exports has actually increased!

Reuters reported: “Russia may be getting more revenue from its fossil fuels now than shortly before its invasion of Ukraine, as global price increases offset the impact of Western efforts to restrict its sales, U.S. energy security envoy Amos Hochstein told lawmakers.”

Even the much heralded question of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden seems to be stalling, as Turkey’s Erdogan uses the leverage of veto power to get substantial concessions. He basically wants Sweden to help him prosecute his political opponents, lift the ban on weapons sales to Turkey (because yes, neutral, peace-loving Sweden is a major weapons exporter), for NATO to drop support for the Syrian Kurds, and perhaps for the US to allow him to purchase F-35 fighter jets in the bargain (which the US stopped after Turkey bought the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft defense system).

In these conditions, Russia is obviously not keen to return to the negotiating table, yet, and is taking preparatory steps to incorporate the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics (where it has imposed a change of leadership), as well as Kherson and Zhaporizhzhia, into the Russian Federation proper. That would mean that in the future, any attack on its presence there would be an attack on Russia, which should act as a powerful deterrent. The basis for any future negotiations will no longer be a return to the status quo ante of pre-February 24 borders, but rather the current situation on the ground.

Seeing the growing reluctance and difficulties of the Western intervention, this means that after the Russians complete the full take over of Donetsk and Luhansk, which can take weeks or even months, they will then be prepared to return to talks and negotiations, whether in the form of a peace agreement or a ceasefire. Zelensky is hoping that by delaying the Russians long enough, more artillery and weaponry might perhaps be delivered by the West, which would give Ukraine the basis for a counteroffensive now or in the medium term.

However, as the losses start to pile up at the front, Zelensky will face growing opposition at home, the beginning of which we can already begin to see.

War is a complicated algebraic equation. On the one hand, we have Putin and Russia’s regional imperialist ambitions. Once he has embarked in this war, he cannot leave without having achieved some or most of his aims. A weakened Ukraine outside of NATO is his main one, and he now calculates that he can achieve that by the destruction inflicted through the war and cutting the country off from the Black Sea. At the same time, this would give Russia a land corridor protecting Crimea, the seat of its Black Sea fleet. In the same vein, depending on how the current phase of the war goes, he might decide to further his aims by moving into Mykolaiv and Odessa, completing the land bridge to Transnistria and consolidating complete control over Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

On the other hand, we have US imperialism, the most powerful force on the planet, but one which has suffered a relative decline and is being challenged by the rising power of China. It cannot allow itself to be defeated by Russia. That would be a further humiliation and would weaken its global reputation.

In the middle is Ukraine, the theatre of the war, the country which is providing the civilian and military casualties, and the destruction of infrastructure in this conflict between imperialist powers. Since 2014, it has been ruled by a series of reactionary oligarchic governments which committed themselves decisively with western imperialism. That did not prevent the Russian invasion, and the West has not even offered them EU membership. Sooner or later there will be a revolt against that strategy.

Imperialist war to class war

Finally, there is another element in the equation, which is not generally factored in by military strategists or bourgeois commentators: the class struggle. The opinion of working-class people is also a factor. The economic consequences of the war and sanctions are already preparing a wave of industrial militancy in advanced capitalist countries as workers fight back to recover and maintain the purchasing power of their wages in the face of runaway inflation. That will undermine the ability of governments in Europe and the US to pursue this proxy war against Russia.

In poorer, more backward capitalist countries, the impact is even greater and is already leading to social explosions, which can acquire insurrectionary proportions. That will further destabilize world relations. In Russia itself, once the fog of war dissipates (as eventually it must) workers will settle scores with their own reactionary capitalist government, and its Tsarist imperial delusions of grandeur. This might take a bit longer. As long as Russia seems to be winning, public opinion will hold up.

War is often the midwife of revolution. In fact, the only real way to put an end to war is precisely socialist revolution. We need to understand that war is the inevitable result of capitalist imperialism and can only be ended by overthrowing the whole rotten edifice of the capitalist system.

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