First published at Counterfire.
It is a year on since Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine began. The human cost of Russia’s war of aggression has been truly horrific. Over 20,000 civilians have died, and military casualties of dead or wounded are now counting in the hundreds of thousands on both sides.
There have been numerous war crimes committed, from the Bucha massacre at the very start of the war to the wholesale destruction of settlements across the contested territories of the east of Ukraine, with Soledar and Bakhmut being the most recent and gruesome examples.
Millions are now living displaced internally or abroad, and the economic fallout across the globe will probably continue to be felt for years to come. Rising energy and food prices are the most obvious signs of the economic costs of the war, but rising military spending and its disastrous consequences will only be felt in years to come.
Worse still, the conflict has also been spiralling into an ever broader proxy war between the West and Russia. The US alone has so far sent more than $75 billion in humanitarian, financial and military support in the last year. Another 35 billion euros has come just from the EU.
This kind of help dwarfs the kind of aid any country has received in such a short period of time from any source since the Second World War. From sophisticated artillery, to hundreds of tanks and other armoured vehicles, Western supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine is set to increase. There is now discussion of the provision of fighter jets as well.
But Western aid to Ukraine does not stop there. The Western world has marshalled heavy sanctions against Russia, and anyone who is seen to aid its war in Ukraine. Besides the military and economic war against Russia, we are also witnessing the whipping up of anti-Russian sentiment in the cultural and other spheres.
The Ukrainian military effort is almost wholly dependent on Western weaponry, infrastructure (like servicing stations and satellites), intelligence and strategic coordination. The West is deeply involved in the war, with one major caveat: that it is not Western troops but Ukrainian troops dying fighting Russian troops.
At times, Western involvement may even have been more direct, as allegations have been made by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, that the blowing up of the Russian underwater gas pipeline to Europe, Nord Stream 2, was conducted by US Navy divers last September.
The sheer scale of Western involvement in the war is breath-taking, as Western ruling classes have taken the opportunity to weaken their inferior imperial rival with little direct cost to themselves. Sadly, however, the costs for ordinary Ukrainians, but also Russians, and people all over the world are mounting and unlikely to be alleviated while the war continues.
Despite the scale of Western aid to Ukraine, moreover, the situation on the battlefield has remained a stalemate, which has encouraged both sides to continue to escalate the war in an attempt at achieving a decisive, but still elusive, breakthrough.
A year on, Russia still occupies roughly a fifth of Ukrainian territory. It is seemingly too weak to decisively defeat a West-aided Ukraine, and seemingly still strong enough to continue to hang on to territory and wreak havoc on Ukrainian energy and other infrastructure.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilise 300,000 fresh troops after the success of a Ukrainian counter-offensive last autumn seems to have given Russian defensive lines more solidity, but also invited greater levels of Western support for Ukraine.
Kyiv’s hope is that Western tanks and jets will allow the Ukrainian army to withstand a mounting Russian offensive, and counter-attack to sever Russian defence lines and threaten Moscow’s control of the Crimea later this year.
As neither side seems prepared to cede ground, we are also witnessing increased anti-Chinese rhetoric in the West, as China has publicly mounted a call for peace negotiations, while being accused simultaneously of preparing to militarily aid Russia if its war effort begins to seriously falter.
The great danger, then, is of the proxy war widening to militarily include China. That would make the dynamic ever more difficult to predict, with several nuclear-armed imperialist powers edging ever closer to direct confrontation on the front in Ukraine, but also on fronts far beyond Ukraine.
Rising opposition to war
At a time when the world’s imperialist powers are intensifying their competition across all spheres, especially in Ukraine, the need for an anti-war movement to press the belligerent countries to the negotiating table could not be greater.
And there are indeed signs of polarisation around the question of what to do next. While sections of the ruling class are sounding more hawkish, as with Boris Johnson pushing for jets to be supplied to Ukraine in the UK, there are also signs that anti-war sentiment is on the rise in many countries.
Public opinion polling in both the West and Russia provides some uncomfortable reading for the ruling elites. While hostility to the other side is high on both sides, there is increasing scepticism that current war policies are working.
In fact, the Republicans in the US are showing less keenness to fund the war than the Democrats, and there is trouble on the horizon as clashes are likely over the US budget in Congress. Meanwhile, in Germany, half a million signed a petition to urge its government to stop delivering weapons and take a lead on pursuing a negotiated peace.
Moreover, a poll conducted across nine EU states showed fewer than four in ten think that the war should continue until Ukraine wins back all its territories, and almost one in three want peace as soon as possible even at the expense of Ukraine losing territory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter view is much more popular in India, Turkey and China.
The need for anti-war mobilisation
Such loaded questions are skewed against expressions of support for peace efforts, but even so they show deep reservations on the part of many towards the continuation of the proxy war. There are signs that anti-war sentiment is starting to get organised. There will be protests in many European countries against the war to mark the anniversary this weekend.
The truth is that, as the costs of the war rise in Ukraine and beyond it, pressure for a negotiated settlement is likely to mount. How this pressure is articulated, mobilised and channelled will depend on the concrete political forces willing to rise to the task. In some places, far right forces with sympathies for Putin’s Russia have been trying to harness such sentiments for their own ends, likely limiting the appeal of the anti-war mobilisations.
In other places, like Italy, pacifist and left anti-war sentiments have tended to prevail. But without raising the connection between imperialist competition and the cost of living crisis, anti-war movements are limiting their own potential.
The movement urgently needs to win the argument against war amongst trade unionists and in the wider left. As long as sections of the left and the labour movement stay passive on this issue, or even support their ruling class policies over Ukraine, they will remain weaker on the terrain of fighting against ruling class efforts to get them to pay for re-armament and the cost of living crisis. They will also see populist right wing forces bring confusion and division into the working class.
We saw the dangers of this in the UK with the passing of a re-armament motion at the TUC congress last year. The fact that some prominent trade union leaders and Labour left MPs like John McDonnell and Ian Lavery have expressed support for sending military jets to Ukraine can only help rehabilitate the political fortunes of the disgraced Boris Johnson, who is trying to resuscitate his career with the open support of Volodymyr Zelensky.
Negotiations and peace
Such moves not only hurt the left and the working class, they weaken the struggle for Ukrainian self-determination. Zelensky’s Ukraine is ever more dependent on the West. Its choice of war strategy – no negotiation until complete military victory on the battlefront – cannot be achieved without escalation of the conflict and without drawing the West further into the conflict.
Western support does not come cheap. It comes with strings attached, with Ukraine having to offer huge chunks of its economy for future auction to Western corporations by way of payment. On top of this, the Zelensky government has also been clamping down on political opposition, national minority rights, and trade union freedoms. The explicit promise is to be a client, garrison state.
That is not the route to peace and self-determination, but further war and potentially self-destruction. The left should be clear that a ceasefire and peace negotiations are in fact the best route to self-determination.
But it must also be clear that without explicit guarantees that the West’s proxy war against Russia will stop, and that Ukraine will be a neutral state, a negotiated deal will be hard. It is also highly unlikely that Russians in Crimea and the Donbas will want a settlement which deprives them of their right to exercise their own right to self-determination.
Peace and a negotiated settlement is therefore in the interest of the working class of all countries and nations. Fighting to achieve it is the duty of all trade unionists and leftists. Without peace, countless millions more will die and suffer on the altar of capitalist profit and imperialist competition. The world cannot be left to the leaders of the imperialist states. This is why this weekend’s protests are so important.
Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.