Key issues of the war in Ukraine one year on

No war on Russia

First published at Arguments for Socialism.

Washington has an historically unprecedented world empire that it wants to maintain and expand.[1] It is never going to be reconciled to any country it does not control or dominate. The two main targets in its sights today are Russia and China, both big capitalist countries that are by no means opposed to relations with the West but want them on their own terms.

One way or another, Washington wants to dominate Russia, to subjugate and exploit it, install a client regime, or possibly even to break it up into several more pliable states, as advocated by some neocons. Right now, through the conflict in Ukraine, it seeks to move NATO bases and missiles right up to the border and to bleed Russia in an endless war (such as in Afghanistan).

Even if the Vladimir Putin regime were to fall, irrespective of whether it were replaced by a more reactionary regime or a more progressive one, Washington’s hostility would remain, although in the latter case it would probably be forced to present itself in a different way. The only regime acceptable to the US would be a subservient client outfit, such as rules in most Third World countries.

A proxy war

In Ukraine, NATO is fighting a proxy war. That is, it is fighting a war against Russia on Ukrainian territory, using NATO arms, training, intelligence, “volunteers” and advisers, with Ukrainians as expendable cannon fodder on the ground.

The US is driving relentlessly to achieve a nuclear first-strike capability against Russia. The war in Ukraine is a key part of this project.[2] Establishing US-NATO bases in Ukraine would greatly strengthen Washington’s position in this insane endeavour and place Russia (and the world) in a perilous position.

Ukraine is not fighting for self-determination

For Marxists, the right of nations to self-determination is a serious question. But while self-determination is an important principle to which we are committed, it is subordinate to the needs of the overall struggle, in this case the struggle against US-led Western imperialism. It is not some absolute right, overriding all other considerations.

On the left, Ukraine’s right to self-determination is repeatedly invoked to justify supporting the flood of NATO weaponry into the country. Marxists understand that, in principle, it is acceptable for those fighting for their national rights to take or seek arms from any quarter (as, for instance, Rojava is doing in regard to US imperialism).

But this war is not about Ukrainian self-determination. Russia is not trying to take over the country. Ukraine’s national sovereignty is not under threat. There is a war going on between Russia and Ukraine, armed and organised by Washington. But a war does not necessarily involve a struggle for self-determination. It depends on the actual situation.

To make things clearer, let us imagine, for example, that some years ago Bangladesh had invaded Myanmar and occupied Rakhine province to protect the Muslim Rohingya people there from the genocide set in motion by the country’s brutal military rulers. In such a situation, would it then make sense to say that Myanmar was fighting for its sovereignty and self-determination? Obviously not. The Bangladeshi intrusion might be judged good or bad, well conceived or foolish, but it could not realistically be seen as an attack on Myanmar’s basic sovereignty.

Limited aims of Russian invasion

To actually occupy a country of the geographical size and population of Ukraine, millions of troops would be needed. All up, Russia and its allies (including the Donbas militias) originally deployed at most 200,000 soldiers and probably far fewer.

The Russian military’s plan was never to fight its way into Kyiv and occupy the city. The forces deployed were not remotely capable of that. Perhaps initially Putin deluded himself into thinking that the Volodymyr Zelensky regime would collapse in the face of a show of force or a lightning strike aimed at beheading the government.

But while the initial thrusts towards Kyiv and Kharkov served to keep large Ukrainian forces away from the Donbas, they also supplied first-rate material to the Western media’s wall-to-wall propaganda campaign against Russia. I think this part of the Russian campaign was a big political mistake and enabled the West’s propagandists to obscure the essentially reactive and defensive nature of its intervention.

The real undermining of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty comes from the post-Maidan regimes, which have deliberately made the country a client of US imperialism and a willing tool in the Western campaign against Russia. Ukraine today is totally dependent on Western military and financial aid. Key decisions are not made in Kyiv: they are made in Washington and London.

The military struggle

It is very difficult to get a precise grip on the military situation. The mainstream media reportage and commentary is almost 100% propaganda. But a number of things do seem reasonably clear.

It is highly unlikely that Russia will be militarily defeated. The forces Russia initially committed were way too small and could not adequately defend a very long front, especially when confronted by an opponent heavily armed, trained and advised by NATO. Russia has taken steps to rectify that by calling up 300,000 reserves.

The so-called Ukrainian “victories” at Kharkov and Kherson, loudly trumpeted by the Western media, were bought at a huge cost with many thousands of Ukrainian soldiers killed and thousands more wounded. Moreover, they were not really battlefield victories; in both cases Russian forces vacated territory in a timely manner and in good order to take up far more defensible positions behind natural river barriers.

Furthermore, as Australian socialist Renfrey Clarke explained:

Ukrainian troops are being killed at 5-6 times the rate of their Russian counterparts. This is largely because Ukrainian commanders are being forced by the political leadership to send masses of troops to be butchered in ill-advised assaults, and to try to hold positions even where these have become untenable. The purpose is to achieve minor territorial gains and avoid retreats, thus allowing the politicians to convince Western backers to keep sending weapons and funding the economy.[3]

Drawing on Turkish and Israeli sources, a recent report shows the enormous and unsustainable losses incurred by the Ukrainian military to date. This report backs up Clarke’s argument about the relative casualty rates of the two protagonists.

It is also worth noting that compared to the massive US assault on Iraq in 1990-91, the Russian missile attack on Ukraine has been extremely modest and much more discriminating. The Western assault on Iraqi civilian infrastructure is described by Wikipedia:

Coalition bombing raids destroyed Iraqi civilian infrastructure. 11 of Iraq's 20 major power stations and 119 substations were totally destroyed, while a further six major power stations were damaged. At the end of the war, electricity production was at four percent of its pre-war levels. Bombs destroyed the utility of all major dams, most major pumping stations, and many sewage treatment plants, telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution, railroads and bridges were also destroyed.

Nothing like this has taken place in Ukraine. Even the heavy attacks on power infrastructure only really began in October — that is, seven months after the start of the war — following Ukrainian sabotage of the Kerch bridge linking Crimea with the rest of Russia.

Civil war

Ever since the 2014 Maidan protests and the coming to power of a far-right ethno-nationalist regime, there has been a civil war, prosecuted by the Kyiv regime against the rebel Donbas “people's republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. The population here — whether ethnic Russian or not — is deeply distrustful and fearful of the central authorities in Kyiv.

Cities and towns elsewhere in the south (like Odessa and Mariupol) also saw unrest following the Maidan events but the rightist gangs crushed it. There was also considerable unrest in the eastern city of Kharkov; this too was put down with the help of rightist militia.

The post-Maidan governments, as well as glorifying World War II Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera and tearing down Soviet-era monuments, passed a law discriminating against Russian and other non-Ukrainian languages.[4] 

On January 16 of last year a delayed provision of the law came into effect. According to Wikipedia, “It requires print media outlets registered in Ukraine to publish in Ukrainian. Publications in other languages must also be accompanied by a Ukrainian version, equivalent in content, volume, and method of printing. Additionally, places of distribution such as newsstands must have at least half their content in Ukrainian.” The law “makes exceptions for certain minority languages, English, and official EU languages but not for Russian”. Any Russian language media would find it hard to survive this nakedly discriminatory requirement.

The Donbas is fighting for self-determination. This could mean separation, joining Russia or some sort of self-government within Ukraine (as envisaged in the original Minsk accords of 2014-15, endorsed but then immediately flouted by the Kyiv regime).

Russia has intervened on the side of the rebel provinces. The odious Putin regime notwithstanding, Russia is clearly waging a defensive struggle against NATO and its Ukrainian client, not a war aimed at occupying the country. It is defending the Donbas and Crimea.[5]

Russian aggression?

What if Russia had not intervened militarily? Ukrainian forces would have invaded the Donbas and overwhelmed the Donetsk and Luhansk militias. There would have been a far-right pogrom, and millions more refugees would have poured into Russia. Crimea would have been directly threatened.

Whatever one thinks of Putin and the Russian system of oligarchic capitalism that he represents, there is no Russian aggression and to speak in these terms is completely wrong. Clearly, Russia fired the “first shot” when its forces crossed the border. But for Marxists that is not the key thing, nor is citing “international law” a convincing argument here.

The Russian action was a response to the threatened assault across the Donbas line of control by Kyiv’s forces, and the ever-increasing integration of Ukraine into NATO. Was it the best possible response? We can debate that, but talk of Russian “imperialism” or “expansionist” tendencies is completely off the mark.

A Russian defeat at the hands of the US-NATO-Ukraine forces would be a victory for imperialism. An end to the war and a withdrawal of Russian troops is obviously desirable, but only as a result of negotiations and a reasonable peace settlement.

Such a reasonable deal was tentatively agreed in March-April of last year but Britain and the US pressured Zelensky and he pulled the plug. The West wanted to keep fighting to badly weaken Russia. Washington, London and the Kyiv regime are thus responsible for the 10 months of fighting since then with all its immense destruction and loss of life.

Is Russia responsible for NATO’s expansion?

There is no doubt that the West has used Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine to expand NATO. Finland and Sweden are in the process of joining NATO. This will need the approval of NATO member Turkey and gaining that will require a dirty deal with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds. There is even talk that Finland has agreed to NATO stationing missiles there.

But Russia’s intervention is not to blame for this. It is the result of the all-out propaganda offensive waged by the West using its control of the media to demonise Russia and its leader, lie about Ukraine, and lie about the West’s involvement and war aims.

Moreover, when Moscow is having such obvious difficulty in defeating Ukrainian forces so close to the Russian border, how on earth is it supposed to threaten Finland and Sweden, let alone other countries in eastern and western Europe? But who said imperialism’s Russophobic scare propaganda had to make any logical sense?

Nearer to home, we have yet another testament to the power of the capitalist lie machine. According to a March 2022 Lowy Institute poll there has been a sharp decrease in the Australian public’s perception of China: “Most Australians continue to hold very low levels of trust in China, with 12% saying they trust China somewhat or a great deal, a 40-point decrease since 2018.”  And today, with the risible Chinese weather balloon saga, the West’s anti-China hysteria is being ratcheted up a few more notches.

Washington’s drive to war began long ago

The fundamental reason for the war in Ukraine is US imperialism’s unrelenting campaign against Russia. It wants to completely subordinate Russia to Western capitalism or crush it, one way or another.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded right up to Russia’s borders. US missile bases have moved closer and closer to Moscow. In 2019 the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Washington is striving to develop a nuclear first-strike capacity.

From the formation of an independent Ukraine in 1991, the US worked non-stop to tear the country away from its traditional links to Russia and draw it into the anti-Russia Western alliance — politically, economically and militarily.

Following the 2014 Maidan coup things escalated dramatically. A pro-US, far-right, ethno-nationalist, anti-Russia regime was installed and immediately went to war against a section of its own people, provoking a huge backlash and a civil war which has continued to this day.

Even before the Russian intervention, Ukraine was integrated de facto into NATO. Its army was rebuilt, trained and equipped with Western arms.

After the Maidan events it was clear that Ukraine and Washington were on a path to war with Russia.[6]  In a September 26, 2022 article that drew on Wilileaks’ huge dump of US diplomatic cables, Ray McGovern explained that even in 2008 the US was well aware of what Ukrainian membership of NATO would mean to Russia:

14 years ago, then U.S. Ambassador to Russia (current CIA Director) William Burns was warned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia might have to intervene in Ukraine, if it were made a member of NATO. The Subject Line of Burns’s Feb. 1, 2008 Embassy Moscow cable (#182) to Washington makes it clear that Amb. Burns did not mince Lavrov’s words; the subject line stated: “Nyet means nyet: Russia’s NATO enlargement redlines.” Thus, Washington policymakers were given forewarning, in very specific terms, of Russia’s redline regarding membership for Ukraine in NATO.

Western weapons to Ukraine

Sections of the Western left want NATO to step up the supply of high-end weapons to Ukraine so that Russia can be comprehensively defeated and Ukraine’s supposed “self-determination” supported. That’s also precisely what NATO wants. Should socialists really be pushing in the same direction? Shouldn’t that sound alarm bells and make them even just a little bit uneasy?

The weapons are there and more are coming but socialists should not give any support to Washington’s proxy war. We should oppose the Western weapons deliveries, including by Australia. We should also oppose the sending of Australian military trainers to work with Ukrainian forces, whether to the international program in the United Kingdom or anywhere else.

Nord Stream sabotage

The spectacular sabotage in late September of the Nord Stream pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany was an act of open warfare — but in the West, far away from the actual theatre of war in Ukraine. The US was always the obvious culprit.[7] The sabotage was aimed at Germany. Washington wanted to kill off any chance of a German-Russian rapprochement by ensuring that no Russian gas could make it to Germany.

If Russia or China did something similar (for example blew up dozens of trans-Atlantic internet cables near the British coast as they came ashore in Cornwall) it would likely mean World War III but on this issue the Western corporate media is astonishingly silent. (Unfortunately, it’s not really astonishing at all but in a rational world it would be.)

Germany is paying dearly for the destruction of Nord Stream. German industry is being forced to buy US fracked gas at a huge extra cost. Many big German companies are apparently considering moving to the US to get access to cheaper energy. Germany, especially the working class and the poor, is going to pay a heavy price for Washington’s ruthless realpolitik.

Peace negotiations

Apart from the heavy military casualties, thousands of civilians on both sides have died. Missiles may miss their target and hit apartment blocks and military targets may be close to civilian infrastructure. The conclusion we should draw from this is that war is truly horrible.

To end all the misery and suffering it is necessary to end the conflict as quickly as possible — and that means pushing for serious talks. As mentioned above, a quite reasonable deal had been worked out in March-April of 2022 but Zelensky, under heavy Western pressure, pulled the plug on it.

Socialists should call for serious negotiations, above all between the US and Russia. That’s the real choice and that should be our political focus. But a big section of the left in the imperialist countries appears to think that Ukraine should first comprehensively defeat Russia and then talk — but in that case talks would be largely superfluous. 

In the light of the way the battlefield situation appears to be developing, a Ukrainian victory seems highly unlikely. There are several possible alternatives.

  • The war just goes on forever. This will mean the utter destruction of Ukraine as a country (human and material devastation, population decline) — all because Western imperialism wants to bog down Russia in a never-ending conflict. A further danger here is an escalation or miscalculation that touches off nuclear armageddon.
  • A variant of the war never ending is that there is a sort of permanent stalemate or de facto ceasefire along a heavily fortified line of control (like on the Korean peninsula).
  • A more desirable outcome is that there are actual peace negotiations. But these can only get anywhere if the Ukrainian government gives up its ultimatist, intransigent positions. It needs to give up on NATO membership,  forget about Crimea, and to accept that the Donbas population wants nothing to do with Ukraine. And any peace deal will likely involve a big confrontation with the tiny minority of ultra-right ethno-nationalists who exert a big leverage on Ukraine's political and administrative processes, through their strong implantation in the “power ministries”.


[1] These notes should be read in conjunction with the document Theses on the war in Ukraine. Here I want to deal in more detail with some of the key questions.

[2] Two articles by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster explain this extremely clearly: The US Proxy War in Ukraine and ‘Notes on Exterminism’ for the 21st Century.

[3]  Personal email sent in November.

[4] There is a real element of madness here. Recently, a statue in Kiev of Fyodor Dostoyevsky was replaced by one of Andy Warhol.

[5] For a comprehensive analysis of the origins and development of the conflict in the Donbass, I urge readers to check out Renfrey Clarke’s 2016 article The Donbass in 2014: Ultra-Right Threats, Working-Class Revolt, and Russian Policy Responses.

[6] It is worth reading John Pilger’s 2014 Guardian article where he warned of what was happening.

[7] According to a recent investigative report by US journalist Seymour Hersh, the bombing was carried out by Washington with support from Norway.