Almost three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war has entered a new and even more dangerous phase. Gone are hopes of swift victory on either side. Instead both prepare for further carnage.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin believed a devastatingly rapid offensive could seize Kiev, eliminate the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime in its place. Such bloody and repressive fantasies quickly evaporated in the face of Ukrainian resistance and the multiple failures of the Russian military.
The West, and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, then imagined there could be regime change in Moscow. This might follow a collapse of the Russian economy, international isolation and perhaps a rebellion by elements of the military. Instead, for now at least, sanctions have rallied large sections of the population behind Putin, and the regime is trading at record levels with countries outside the immediate influence of the US and Nato.
Now the war has settled into a horrific drawn-out confrontation, with generals and politicians anticipating this will be a long conflict. And more clearly than ever it is one between rival imperialisms with the threat of all-out assaults by nuclear-armed powers.
The West senses an opportunity to reverse its humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan. It plans to humble Russia and this will be a staging post to successful confrontation with China. It’s a chance to “push Russia off the world stage”, as one former US official put it. On the other side, Putin believes that the capture of the whole of the Donbas might enable him to declare victory and elevate his own role.
But neither of these aims will easily be achieved. The war could go on for many months or even years—and there’s no mention of peace talks anymore. Russian troops inch forward in parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, but then are frequently driven back by counter-attacks. Putin’s artillery and rockets pulverise cities and murder civilians but still have struggled to end all resistance in Mariupol.
Russian forces have not yet even approached Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, which are the best-defended Ukrainian-held cities in the Donbas. In an effort to accelerate its own gains, the US has qualitatively shifted its support to Ukraine. The US House of Representatives last week passed a $40 billion (£33 billion) Ukrainian aid package—most of it for weaponry.
This was even greater than the enormous £27 billion that president Joe Biden had proposed. It is more than total federal spending on housing and homelessness, more than total state and federal spending on public health. Yet all six members of the “squad” of left Democrats backed the package. And it won’t stop there. Senator Lindsey Graham, the Senate’s top Republican on the spending panel that funds foreign aid, said, “Do I think this will be the last round? No, I think we’ll be doing this again. Who knows where we’re going to be two months from now, three months from now. As long as they’re willing to fight, we need to help.”
The people of Ukraine, and the Russian conscripts, will be the cannon fodder in this contest. The new funding brings US aid for Ukraine in 2022 alone to over £44 billion. Russia’s entire military budget for 2021 was £54 billion. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US had 200,000 troops in West Germany. Today, Nato’s eastern flank, from the Baltics in the north, down to Bulgaria on the Black Sea, currently boast about 330,000 troops.
“Previously unthinkable” is how one senior alliance official describes the change in Nato’s eastern European presence. Over 40,000 troops are there now under Nato’s direct command. That’s ten times the number on the day before Putin’s invasion. This is what a proxy war looks like. The Ukrainian military acts as an extension of the US and Nato. Its ability to continue defeating Russian armies is wholly dependent on the flow of Western arms and the provision of US military intelligence.
That makes Zelensky dependent on Biden, Boris Johnson and the rest. With every day the war goes on, Ukraine becomes more a vassal of the West and less independent. In February the idea that the war was simply an example of Ukrainian national resistance to invasion seemed plausible to many people. It was not true then, but today any element of a war of liberation against Russian imperialism is wholly subsumed by, and subordinated to, Nato’s war on Russia.
The whole claimed basis of the conflict has openly changed. It has moved from repelling an invasion to launching a war of conquest.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Financial Times newspaper recently, “the picture of victory is an evolving concept”. “In the first months of the war the victory for us looked like withdrawal of Russian forces to the positions they occupied before 24 February and payment for inflicted damage.”
Now, emboldened by Western arms, “the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories.” By this Kuleba means an offensive to take back the whole of the Donbas and possibly Crimea. Either would require a murderous war against Russia on what it regards as its own territory.
Acknowledging the total incorporation of Ukraine into the Western alliance, Kuleba said it was Ukraine’s resistance that “brought the US and EU back together”. “They already feel that our victory will also be their victory and this is why I believe they will stand by us,” he said. Not content with the warmongering so far, Johnson has now hugely extended Nato’s borders. Last week he signed a security agreement with Finland and Sweden.
It offered military support to both countries in the event of an attack, even before their possible Nato membership is ratified. Finland shares an 832-mile border with Russia. It has now become a red line for Britain. Zelensky has stopped talking about the need for an air exclusion zone because increasingly he has a land zone of Nato influence stretching around Russia.
Some pundits think this will be like the Afghan war where for many years the US and its allies pumped in support to the Afghans fighting the occupying Russian army. But the US and Nato are far more directly involved this time, and can easily be drawn into the fighting which was never possible in Afghanistan.
Some Western officials even reference the trenches of 1914‑18, where two sides battled over an extended frontline for years. The Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman wrote last week, “A fight to the finish is hard to imagine in a nuclear age—when ‘the finish’ could be Armageddon.” But, he adds, neither side can compromise.
“Putin cannot yet accept a peace deal in which Russia gains absolutely nothing—in return for thousands of dead and wounded soldiers. But Zelensky cannot accept a peace settlement that involves ceding further Ukrainian territory, beyond Crimea.”
Weaknesses on both sides could upend the present stalemate. Russia’s incursions might again turn to virtual rout and the anti-war movement revive, forcing Putin into a hurried deal. Western alliances could fracture as oil and gas supplies run short, prices rise further and domestic opposition breaks through.
But for now the appalling cost of all this will be laid on working class people. The riches for the arms dealers and the generals mean poverty for the millions. The smashing of global supply networks means hunger across vast swathes of the world. At some point, the media will tire of Ukraine, though they will not grow weary of pumping out propaganda.
In 1914 the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vice. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised.”
Just like revolutionaries then, we need renewed opposition to imperialist war. As it hits a new phase we need a new phase of resistance, knitting together the opposition to imperialist slaughter and the resistance to the strangling of working class living standards.
Activists say why they're marching
Palestinian activist speaks of his experience
Starmer is learning the wrong lessons from Blair
Struggle is essential