Ukraine: US proxy war in crisis

Ukraine map

First published at Arguing for Socialism.

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, NATO has been calling the shots, fighting a proxy war against Russia on Ukrainian territory, using NATO arms, training, intelligence, “volunteers” and advisers, with Ukrainians as expendable cannon fodder on the ground. 

This campaign is now in a deep crisis on all levels.

In early June Ukraine began its much-vaunted counteroffensive. It has been a complete and total failure. Human and material losses have been enormous and Ukrainian forces have made no significant advances.

The recent attacks on Crimea and other targets inside Russia are simply for show and distraction. They cannot alter the hard facts on the main battlefields. Also, the results and claims have been hyped up: Ukraine claimed, for instance, to have killed Russia’s top naval commander in a drone and missile strike on Sevastopol; subsequent videos showed him still very much alive. (As if, in the 19th month of an exceptionally bloody war marked by deadly drone and missile strikes, key Russian military leaders would meet anywhere other than in a highly protected underground bunker!)

Western weapons and training were meant to be the magic bullets that would make the decisive difference and turn the tide in Ukraine’s favour. But the US-NATO bloc has not been able to supply them in the required quantities, many of the weapons are inferior to Russian equivalents, and the training has been criticised as largely inappropriate to the actual situation on the Ukrainian battlefields.

Despite public rhetoric from leaders, there is declining support in the West for the war. On his recent visit to New York for the UN General Assembly, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky got a definite cold shoulder. His subsequent Canada visit was a disaster with the Canadian parliament giving repeated standing ovations to a 98-year-old veteran of Ukraine’s “struggle for independence” from Russia during World War II. Not surprisingly he turned out to be a Nazi Waffen SS veteran. The speaker of the parliament was forced to resign and Canada’s policy of deliberately welcoming Ukrainian Nazis after the war is now in the spotlight.

Poland has stopped military aid to Ukraine due to the wheat crisis. Ukrainian grain is flooding into the country and undercutting Polish farmers. An election is coming up and the ruling party has had to pull back.

According to commentator Alexander Mercouris, the US is very unhappy with Zelensky and is looking to replace him via elections in the new year.

Washington wants to avoid a bloody situation, such as the November 2, 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm when he would not heed Washington’s insistent directions and change course or step down. So he and his brother were killed in a CIA-backed military coup.

Washington and its allies have to make some big decisions. What will they do?

Failure on the battlefield

Russia’s formidable Surovikin fortified belt running for 130 kilometre along the line of contact — three successive sets of lines each comprising extensive, deep and dense minefields, rows of concrete dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles, big anti-tank ditches, fortified strongpoints and artillery emplacements — has so far proven absolutely impassable for Ukraine’s depleted and battered forces. They have not even made it to the first line anywhere, let alone got through all three.

The human cost of the war to Ukraine has been enormous. How many soldiers have been killed? In a July 17 post, Ukrainian dissident journalist Roman Revedzhuk (cited in Simplicius) gives 310,000 from sources in the SBU, Ukraine’s security police. US military specialist Scott Ritter gives a figure of 400,000.

In the first 18 months of the war the number of Ukrainians with disabilities increased by 300,000. Some 50,000 people have lost arms and/or legs.

The regime is resorting to desperate recruitment measures but is encountering increasing resistance. People are avoiding certain jobs because going to work can lead straight to the battlefield and disfigurement and death. Even registering for unemployment benefits (a pittance anyway) can lead straight to the front.

Failure of Western aid & arms production

Western aid built the Ukrainian army (and not just once but several times) but this is not enough.

The Western military aid has been shown to be no panacea and many weapons have proven to be deficient and susceptible to Soviet countermeasures. The training has largely proven to be inappropriate to the actual conditions faced in Ukraine (which is not urban warfare but is more akin to trench warfare under conditions of near total electronic transparency).

With Russia, the US-NATO-Ukraine bloc is not facing an opponent like Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is “peer-to-peer” conflict, something the US has not had to face since the end of World War II. The US has its massive nuclear club and the ability to destroy the world many times over but that is not any help here.

The US and its allies simply cannot produce enough weapons and ammunition. They are now supplying Ukraine by running down their own stocks. If aliens attacked Earth now we wouldn’t have a shot!! “Just in time”, outsourcing and offshoring, is fine for running Walmart and Amazon and manufacturing vehicles, but it was already shown to be a big problem in the COVID pandemic and it is now a huge problem for the West’s war campaign in Ukraine. Modern industrial warfare such as this needs big stockpiles right at hand and massive production of key weapons and ammunition.

Today’s Russia is not the old Soviet Union with its centrally planned economy. Nevertheless, Russia has massively ramped up its arms production and is out-producing the West in the crucial 152 mm artillery shell (Russia’s equivalent of the US 155 mm shell). According to a September 13 New York Times report:

As a result of the push, Russia is now producing more ammunition than the United States and Europe. Overall, Kusti Salm, a senior Estonian defense ministry official, estimated that Russia’s current ammunition production is seven times greater than that of the West.

Failure of sanctions to cripple Russia

Western sanctions were supposed to be the killer weapon that would quickly bring Russia to its knees. Whatever problems they may have caused, it is clear that overall they have not worked. For every sanction there is a workaround. Russia still sells its oil and at a good price, it still manages to get the electronic chips it needs for military production, and so on.

Furthermore, Russia is a key supplier of a number of vital metals on which the West is crucially dependent. On that ground alone, sanctions would not seem to be a good idea.

According to an August 7 report by Ben Aris in bne IntelliNews:

The late US Senator John McCain once called Russia a “gas station masquerading as a country” and the fact that Russia’s nominal GDP is about the same as Italy’s has long been used to dismiss it as unimportant.

However, economists have long argued that considering only Russia’s nominal GDP of around $2 trillion is to underestimate its economic strength. Arguably, the belittling of Russia over the last decade has led Western leaders to badly miscalculate how vulnerable the Kremlin is to sanctions.

Looking at GDP in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms removes price level differences and allows a better comparison, especially of living standards, between countries.

In these terms Russia has just overtaken Germany to become the fifth wealthiest economy in the world and the largest in Europe, worth $5.3 trillion.

The article continues:

Sanctions were supposed to crush the Russian economy. Instead, it's now bigger than Germany's (and when you cut out services, and focus only on industry and manufacturing, which is what counts in war, probably bigger than that.) The cost to Europe? Deindustrialisation, inflation,” D.M. Collingwood, the editor of BritanniQ, said in a tweet.

However, some academics say even the PPP assessment underestimates the power of Russia’s economy. In the last decades Western economies have seen services rapidly grow in importance, but Russia’s economy remains heavily weighted towards the manufacturing and industrial end of the spectrum. In a war, having a large industrial base is a big advantage, as the rate a country can produce arms is a key factor in the fight. In these terms Russia is even bigger than Germany, itself no mean industrial country, according to research by Jacques Sapir.

Failure in holding Western public support

As the populations in the West grapple with intensifying challenges over the cost of living, housing and climate change, sending expensive military aid to Ukraine does not seem like a rational or attractive proposition for more and more people.

The situation in Germany is especially acute. Gradually, voices are starting to be raised calling for an end to German weapons shipments to Ukraine and an end to sanctions against Russia. A big problem is that the main left party, Die Linke (The Left), is divided on the war and has been unable to give the political lead required. Speculation abounds as to whether one of the party’s most prominent figures, Sahra Wagenknecht, will leave to form a new party, which will be against the war and sanctions.

In the meantime, it is the right-wing AFD (Alternative for Germany) that is gaining the most from opposition to the ruling-class consensus on the war. A new Wagenknecht-led party could attract many AFD voters.

One staunch oppositional voice is German-Kurdish Die Linke MP Sevim Dagdelen. According to a September 15 Sputnik report:

Sevim Dagdelen, a member of Germany's Bundestag lower house of parliament from the Left party, has called for the lifting of sanctions against Moscow, as they cause damage to Berlin.

“It is high time we put an end to the self-destructive sanctions which do not hit Russia rather than boomerang on Germany, devastating citizens and companies,” Dagdelen said in social media on Thursday.

The consequences of the “economic war”, which Berlin has been waging against Moscow, are deteriorating the situation in Germany, resulting in an increased number of bankruptcies. Around one in 10 companies in the food service industry is at risk of going bankrupt.

Russia’s economy is growing, the proceeds from the sale of oil are high, and Russia’s military capacity, the main target of the economic war, has not been affected at all, Dagdelen said.

In August, Dagdelen compared the German government’s policy to suicide bombers, highlighting that despite the sanctions, Russia’s economy was growing, while Germany’s economy contracted by 0.3%.

After the start of Russia's military operation in Ukraine, the West, including the EU, rolled out a massive sanctions campaign against Moscow. To date, the bloc has already adopted 11 sanctions packages. The last package was introduced in June and expanded export, import and personal restrictions.

60% blame Washington & allies for the war

A recent poll conducted in Germany and France by an anti-Putin group has produced some rather stunning results. Despite the wall-to-wall anti-Russia, pro-Ukraine propaganda in the West, the poll found that in Germany some 60% of people believe that the US-NATO-Ukraine are responsible for starting the war while only 29% blamed Putin and Russia. Similar results applied to France. It seems that the people are far wiser than their leaders and many of them can see what Washington and its allies are doing.

Changed nature of warfare

The conflict in Ukraine is somewhat like World War I with its frozen frontlines. But this is combined with high-tech weaponry and transparency of the battlefield due to advanced surveillance.

The war is marked by the predominance of missiles, drones (including drone swarms and decoys), loitering munitions (“suicide drones”), the acute importance of counter-battery systems, electronic warfare (especially signal jamming of a whole zone of the battlefield, affecting deployment of drones and missiles), intense ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) — and especially artillery, the main killer of soldiers.

In this situation, neither side can concentrate their forces for an attack in the old way ­— in the highly transparent battlefield that would immediately expose them to attack and destruction. Tanks, for example, have to play a different role and be deployed differently.

Scott Ritter: Before Ukraine & after

In a very hard-hitting and insightful September 1 talk, Scott Ritter highlights a stark new global reality.

The world that exists today is a fundamentally different world than existed before the conflict in Ukraine began … the conflict that has transpired since the decision by Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into Ukraine on February 24, 2022 …

But those who have memories that can go back simply two years remember, in the leadup to the conflict, how the United States said over and over and over again, “We will bring Russia to its knees.” That, “Together with the West, we will sanction Russia, we will break the will of Russia. Russia will fold. Even if Russia were to go into Ukraine militarily they could not sustain this attack because their economy will fail.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the Russian economy today is stronger than it has ever been largely because of the economic sanctions: “before Ukraine,” “after Ukraine.” But it’s more than simply the empowerment of the Russian economy. It’s how the world thinks about America: The American singularity is over …

Everything we do has backfired. And it’s not just economically. Militarily: Prior to Ukraine, before Ukraine, BU — I’m trying to inject this concept into people’s minds — before Ukraine, people did fear the American military. With good cause. We go to war a lot. There is lethality associated with what we do. In Europe, NATO believed that it was a powerful military alliance. NATO believed that when NATO flexed its muscle people listened — before Ukraine. After Ukraine, NATO has been exposed as a paper tiger. A paper tiger.

There is no military strength in NATO. NATO has no capacity to project meaningful military power beyond the borders of Europe. NATO cannot fight a war along the lines of the war that’s being fought in Ukraine today. Don’t believe me, believe General Christopher Cavoli, four-star American general, commander of US forces, supreme allied commander. He said in a Swedish defense forum last January, that NATO could not imagine the scope and scale of the violence taking place in Ukraine today …

NATO is a paper tiger. The world knows it’s a paper tiger. They know the United States cannot meet its stated desire to reinforce Europe in a fashion. Ukraine has lost 400,000 men in battle, 40,000 to 50,000 in the last several weeks. It took America ten years to lose 58,000 in Vietnam and that broke our back. Can you imagine a situation where the United States military was asked to sacrifice 40,000 men in two weeks? Can you imagine a situation when any European army was asked to sacrifice 40,000 men in two weeks? The fact of the matter is: We can’t win a war today in Europe. We’re not number one anymore. We’re not number two anymore. We might be number three …

But before Ukraine nobody understood that. Nobody believed that. Everybody believed that America was the supreme military power in the world. Today, the blinders have come off. Economically, we’re number two. Maybe we can maintain that position, maybe not. Militarily, we’re number three. And who knows where we’ll go with that. Because our military is a broken system. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a system that produces nothing beneficial to the defence of the United State. Let alone the defence of its allies. How can you spend $900 billion a year and say we can’t fight and prevail in a land war in Europe against the Russian army that spends $68 billion a year? It’s because our system is broken. But that’s another question.

Ukraine has changed everything. Before Ukraine, America was number one, at least perception-wise. After Ukraine, America is number two economically, number three militarily, and this is a reality that the world is accepting … Russia knows this. Russia no longer fears the American military. It’s not that they want to go to war against the American military, but Russia knows its capabilities. It’s been tested. China knows this, as well.

Desperate need for peace

Obviously, there is a desperate need for peace. A deal was tentatively worked out in March-April 2022 during talks in Istanbul. Ukraine would not join NATO but would declare its neutrality. Russia would withdraw its forces to where they were before February 24. The two sides were haggling over the exact size and armament of Ukraine’s forces. For instance, Ukraine wanted around 1000 tanks, Russia wanted the number set at just over 300. Ukraine was ready to sign but Washington and London killed the deal; Russia had to be further damaged.

Today, Russia is not interested in any negotiations that do not recognise its key demands: Ukrainian neutrality and disarmament, and recognition of its annexations in the south. The Ukrainian army would become a sort of internally-focused gendarmerie force only.

A ceasefire alone and a Korean-style demilitarised zone will not cut it for Russia. That would simply give time for the West to rearm Ukraine and prepare for round two. Russia understandably does not trust either Ukraine or the West. It was deceived before over the Minsk accords for the autonomy of the Donbass. Russia wants firm guarantees that Ukraine simply cannot ever again be used as NATO’s bludgeon.

‘Capitulate on Russia’s terms or cease to exist’

According to a September 25 TASS report:

Ukraine is fated either to capitulate on Moscow’s terms or cease to exist as a state, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament), said.

“When speaking about the conflict in Ukraine, [US President Joe] Biden, [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg and other Western officials have started calling it 'a war of attrition.' They have put huge amounts of money into militarizing the Kiev regime. Where has it gotten them? The simple facts are these: the West is experiencing weapons and ammunition shortages, people in Europe and the US have lost trust in politicians, and the Kiev regime’s counteroffensive has failed,” Volodin stated.

According to him, the outcome of the “war of attrition” also includes economic problems in Europe and the US, a lack of manpower for the Ukrainian armed forces, and ultimately bankruptcy and demographic disaster for Ukraine. “These seven facts speak for themselves: Ukraine will cease to exist as a state unless the Kiev regime capitulates on Russia’s terms,” Volodin stressed.

“More than 10.5 million people have fled Ukraine. Another 11.2 million residents of Crimea, Sevastopol, the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions decided to join Russia. Ukraine has lost 53.7% of its population since 2014,” the State Duma speaker highlighted.

Some key political questions

Ukrainian self-determination is not the issue

Much of the Western left is blinded by the deeply mistaken idea that Ukraine is fighting for self-determination against an attempted Russian takeover. I have taken up this question in a previous article (see Key issues of the war in Ukraine).

Russia is not seeking to take over Ukraine; it wants to secure its neutrality and demilitarisation. After eight fruitless years trying to achieve the implementation of the Minsk accords giving autonomy to the Donbass, Russia intervened in the already existing civil war between Kyiv and the Russia-oriented provinces in the south.

With the 2014 Maidan coup, Ukraine’s ruling circles sold the country to Washington to use as a bludgeon in its unrelenting campaign against Russia. That was the country’s basic surrender of sovereignty and independence and it is due to Kyiv, not Russia.

‘International law’

Russia’s is often condemned as a violation of “international law”. If this phrase means anything in a world riven by sharp divisions between countries and class divisions within countries, it is a set of expectations. In general, we can agree that a country invading another or sending its forces across a state border is a bad thing.

But it is like the Ten Commandments in the Bible. In general, killing is bad but is justified, for example, in self-defence or to defend the helpless. Invading another country is in general bad but is justified in cases of legitimate self-defence. That is the case here: Russia is most decidedly defending itself from an existential threat from the US-NATO bloc.

An example from recent history

It is instructive to look at an example from recent history. In December 1978, after years of provocation and cross-border massacres by the murderous Pol Pot regime, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to remove the threat once and for all. The Vietnamese forces were accompanied by a small number of Cambodian defectors from the Pol Pot gang (including Hun Sen, later the longtime Cambodian ruler).

Pol Pot’s forces were comprehensively defeated and pushed back to the southern border where the Thai regime sheltered them for many years (in return for US military aid). The Western “international community” continued to recognise the Pol Pot gang as the legitimate rulers of the country. Vietnam endured 10 years of harsh sanctions; eventually it pulled out of Cambodia and tried to restore its economy and relations with the West.

Was the Vietnamese invasion a violation of “international law” and an encroachment on Cambodian sovereignty? I think that would be a very hard argument to make. In my opinion, the Vietnamese intervention was entirely justified and saved both the Cambodian and Vietnamese peoples from a murderous regime and its inhuman terror.

Spurious arguments

Some leftists argue that Russia is imperialist. Thus the war in Ukraine is an “inter-imperialist war”. Renfrey Clarke has dealt with this question in detail in his 2016 article The myth of ‘Russian imperialism’: In defence of Lenin’s analyses. Associated with this is the assertion that Russia is “expansionist” and seeks to take over Ukraine and exploit its resources.

This is very thin gruel indeed. Before the February 2022 invasion, Russia had coexisted with Ukraine for 31 years. The two countries may have argued about energy supplies or whatever but Russia evinced zero tendency to seek any territorial changes. With the rebel Donbass provinces, Russia sought to have Ukraine take responsibility for them via provision for a wide self-government.

Then there is the charge that Putin seeks to recreate the old Soviet Union. He has said that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe, but there is no evidence that he is trying to undo the whole thing.

The Russian ‘antiwar movement’

Whatever its justified opposition to Putin and his oligarchic capitalist regime, in regard to the war in Ukraine the Russian left and liberal opposition is politically disoriented. It ignores, discounts or denies the US-NATO threat. Most Russians may not be keen on the war but they accept their country is seriously threatened by Washington. The “antiwar movement” does not. Support for the government remains very high.

Recently Dimitri Medvedev, Russia's former president and Security Council Chairman, said so far this year 280,000 people had enlisted in the armed forces. No doubt the recently increased salaries and benefits paid helps a lot, but there is clearly more in play here.