Putin gaining upper hand in drawn-out war in Ukraine

TV address by President Putin, March 2024 (Photo: Government of Russia)

It is now over two years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the start of the war between the two countries, with Ukraine receiving essential Nato backing. The battlefront has been in a relative stalemate for months, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has gained the upper hand. It is estimated that Russia has five times the firepower advantage of the Ukrainian army. 

The Ukraine military is carrying out drone and missile attacks against oil refineries deep inside Russia, causing some damage, but the strikes are mainly intended to boost morale at home. Kyiv has also boasted of some military successes against Russia’s navy in the Black Sea. Yet the war is not going well for Ukraine in the eastern part of the country, the main arena of the struggle with Moscow. Furthermore the holding up of further financial packages from the US Congress to the Ukrainian military is having a significant negative effect on the ability of the Ukraine forces to wage a campaign against Russian forces. 

Long gone are the days when the Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenksy could boast that he had Russian forces on the run, after they had been forced to turn back from Kyiv. In a recent speech, Zelenksy admitted that up to 30,000 Ukraine soldiers have died in the conflict, with many more tens of thousands injured. Western sources believe this is an underestimation and the real figure of Ukraine troop deaths is probably more than double that given by Zelensky. In turn, Ukrainian and Western officials say that Russian forces have suffered much greater casualties. This may be the case but Russia currently is making more territorial gains than Ukraine, and has a much larger population from which to draw on for new soldiers.  Putin’s position appears more secure than a few months ago when the war appeared to be going awry and he faced a short lived revolt by the Wagner group mercenaries.

Military hardware

The US, France and UK, in particular,  continue to send military hardware to Ukraine, including long range missiles. But as the war has ground-on without any sight of a clear, overwhelming winner, the US Congress has shown less stomach for funding Zelensky. Republican members of the Congress have held up new financial packages going to Kyiv. With the prospect of a possible Trump victory in the presidential elections, and his publicly stated pledge “not to give a single penny” to Ukraine and to aim to bring the conflict to a swift end, the Republican members of Congress are likely to keep blocking the passage of the funds. 

This has helped Russia to develop a military dominance on the battlefield. According to the Royal United Services Institute (UK), Russia has increased production of its long range missiles from about 40 a month in 2022 to about 100 a month by the end of 2023. In effect, Russia has become a ‘war economy’, with domestic production largely tailored for the needs of the war in eastern Ukraine, while Russia has also been able to find new markers for its raw material exports.

Notwithstanding the significant ratcheting up of arms spending and militarisation by Nato and the EU in light of the ‘common’ Russian enemy, tensions amongst the European powers continue over the Ukraine conflict. After months of wrangling with the Hungarian government, a package of new aid was agreed by the EU to send to Kyiv. However it is a long way from what Zelensky claims is urgently needed. The right wing populist Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has made it clear that he will use his veto regarding future proposed financial and military aid for Kyiv. Orban’s position is echoed by some other EU states, such as Slovakia. Although Turkey’s President Erdogan eventually relinquished his opposition to Sweden joining NATO, the Western allies are far from united. In a sign of frustration with the US Congress, French President Macron called for NATO troops to be put on Ukraine soil (unofficial and ‘non combatant’ Nato forces are reportedly already present in Ukraine). This was quickly rejected by other NATO powers and the EU. They fear that any openly direct NATO involvement in Ukraine could lead to a widening of the conflict across the region. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is refusing Ukrainian pleas for stocks of the German-made Taurus missile systems, saying German troops would have to be sent to Ukraine to programme the missiles, dragging Berlin further into conflict with Russia. 

President Putin responded to Macron’s calls with his own threats, once again stating that Russia would be prepared to use ‘strategic nuclear weapons’ if Russian national sovereignty was imperilled. Putin cites the encroachment of Nato countries on the borders of Russia and the possible Ukraine membership of the military alliance as a major reason for his 2022 invasion. Although Putin’s nuclear threats are largely sabre-rattling rhetoric, it does indicate how the conflict could begin to spiral further out of control, with the deployment of ever more devastating conventional weapons. 

Initially following the Russian invasion there was widespread sympathy and support for the plight of Ukrainians, especially in the western countries. However in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America there was often sympathy for Russia due to the legacy of the former Stalinist USSR, prior to the restoration of oligarchical capitalism, and the perception that Russia was fighting western imperialism and Nato. Today the mood of working people across the world is increasingly sceptical and cynical about the motivations of the Western powers and the Zelensky regime. This is especially the case since the cruel bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli state, which has led to the deaths of over 30,000 people, mass starvation and the destruction of most of the buildings and infrastructure of the Strip. Many people ask, why is it that the human rights of Ukrainians, who faced Russian invasion, must be respected but not the human rights of the occupied Palestinians? 

These sentiments have been exploited by the Putin regime, which has sought to widen its authority and influence in the so-called ‘global South’. As part of its new alignment with China, which is now tacitly supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing project themselves as being on the side of the oppressed everywhere, including the Palestinians. 

Russian elections

As Russia heads to the polls for the presidential elections, Putin’s position appears more secure than for several years. The war is largely going in Putin’s favour  – Russian forces recently captured the town of Avdiivka (albeit reportedly at a huge cost in casualties). Any oppositional voices at home are quickly branded as traitorous. The protests following the death in prison of the anti-Kremlin figure, Alexi Navalny, were smaller in comparison to previous opposition movements. With the commencement of the war, many opposition figures have been imprisoned or fled Russia. The anti-war movement remains relatively small and suppressed (it is estimated that almost 20,000 people have been detained for protesting against the war). The Russian economy has managed to emerge from the Western-imposed sanctions marking some growth and with new trading arrangements with China and Gulf States and other parts of the world. 

Yet below the surface, opposition to Putin’s regime is developing. It remains to be seen what the response is this weekend to opposition figures’ call for voters to show up and cast their ballots en masse, at the same time, as a show of rejection of Putin’s foregone re-election. How and when a serious, sustained struggle to Putin’s rule develops and becomes a more powerful social revolt, is unclear, at this stage. 

However, as the war drags on at a huge human and material cost, demands for peace can grow in Russia and result in divisions within the regime. Currently Putin is attempting to press his advantage on the battlefield and to capture more territory and is unlikely to engage any time soon in serious negotiations with Kyiv. Should the situation on the battlefield begin to turn against Russian forces or is bogged down still further, the mood in Russia can begin to change significantly, and Putin can be forced to cease the Russian military campaign. At a certain stage, Putin can face the prospect of being removed or overthrown. The character of the regime that would replace Putin is also uncertain and depends on how the war and events unfold.

Zelensky under pressure

Zelensky can also come under increasing pressure domestically to try and reach an agreement with Moscow. The Ukraine government is planning to put a new ‘mobilisation law’ to parliament in expectation of drafting an extra 500,000 to the armed forces (currently around 330,000 troops are estimated to be deployed on the battlefields). Rather desperately, Kyiv has also raised the prospect of using convicts as fighting fodder. As it is, Ukrainian troops are serving for long spells at the front with little rotation and respite. Morale is suffering. “A large proportion of the men of fighting age are unwilling to be deployed to the front ”, according to the Financial Times (13/03/2024).

The Kyiv government has talked about lowering the age of conscription from 27 years by two years. Exemptions will be put in place for so-called ‘critical workers’. They will have to contribute to the war effort financially, either by funnelling part of their pay or through a monthly levy. But for many working class and poor Ukrainians this is interpreted as meaning the middle class and better off can avoid conscription, as those who cannot afford the fee can be drafted. 

Polls show that the majority of people are opposed to the new conscription targets. In February a survey by Info Sapiens, a Ukrainian organisation, found 48% of men were “not prepared to fight while 34% were”. Half of the 90% of respondents said they “now think the west is tired and will push Kyiv into a compromise with Russia”. 

Working class of the region

As we enter the third year of mass slaughter in Ukraine it is clear more than ever that the working class of Ukraine and Russia and the region need their own independent voice. Zelensky and Putin both lead right-wing nationalist regimes dominated by oligarchs. Neither act in the interests of working class people yet the labouring masses are expected to be the endless cannon fodder for the war. 

From the start, the Committee for Workers’ International (CWI) has called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian military forces. We have also called for the Ukrainian working class to organise itself to remove the corrupt, pro Western-imperialist Zelensky regime. In Russia, the working class also needs its own independent organisations and socialist programme, to successfully oppose the Putin regime and its rich backers. 

While the Ukrainian masses have the right to live free from any foreign occupation it is also the case that ethnic minorities inside Ukraine have the right to be free of Ukrainian chauvinist oppression. Marxists support the right of self-determination for the Ukraine masses, but also support the right of the people of the region of Donbass and Crimea to determine their own future. It is not clear what the mood and sentiments of the people of these areas are at the present time given the war situation and Russian military occupation. But over a decade of hostility from pro-Western governments in Kyiv towards the majority Russian speaking Donbass, which included years of military assaults by Ukrainian military and far right forces before the outbreak of the 2022 war with Russia, will have hardened opinions. 

Dramatic changes on the ground have to be taken into account by Marxists when proposing a programme on the national question. The Azerbaijan regime’s ruthless removal of nearly all the ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, last year, and the Israeli state’s erasure of Palestinians from at least half of Gaza, have created new “facts on the ground” in those parts of the world. So too, ten years of conflict and discrimination and annexations have undoubtedly affected the outlook of the people in Crimea and Donbass and have to be taken into account. 

A Marxist programme on the national question and minority rights has to take such events into consideration when elaborating its position on the right of self-determination for oppressed nations and how this is to be achieved. Marxists oppose the majority ethnic Russian population in Donbass and Crimea being coerced against their will into a Ukraine state or forcibly merged into a ‘greater Russia’. They must have the right to decide their own future, in a genuinely free and democratic manner. 

This aspect of the CWI programme is inextricably linked to the need for the building of an independent mass socialist alternative in Ukraine, Russia and the region, uniting working class people across all national and ethnic lines against war, poverty, exploitation and capitalism.


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March 2024