If you were to believe Western media and the statements of officials on both sides of the Atlantic, you would get the impression that Ukraine is winning the war against Russia and that it is only a matter of time before Putin is overthrown by his own people. In order to understand what is really happening, first we must tear through the fog of propaganda which surrounds this war.
Just to give an example of the western propaganda, the head of the British intelligence organisation GCHQ Jeremy Fleming declared: “We believe that Russia is running short of munitions, it’s certainly running short of friends and we have seen, because of the declaration for mobilisation, that it is running short of troops.” Ironically, Flemming’s speech was delivered on the same day that Russia launched a massive attack, using about 100 ballistic missiles and hitting Ukraine’s electricity grid. The attack was repeated for several days, immediately giving lie to Flemming’s claims of an army running short of munitions.
Ukraine was able to achieve important gains on the battle front in September. By talking up an offensive in Kherson, they forced Russia to divert troops to that section of the front, opening the possibility for a surprise attack on the much-weaker Russian forces in the Kharkiv front, leading to a rout of Russian forces in that area.
In this region, Russia had to withdraw to new, hastily arranged defensive lines further east, and then these were also partially broken in Kupyansk, but also at Lyman. Ukrainian troops were able to advance all the way to the border of Luhansk. On the Kherson front, after weeks in which the Ukrainian offensive was unable to advance, there was a breakthrough, with the Russians forced to retreat to Dudchany, giving up important terrain on the right bank of the Dnieper river.
Chorus of propaganda intensifies
These were important advances for Ukraine, perhaps the only real victories they have achieved since the beginning of the war. Earlier Russian withdrawals from Kyiv, Sumy and Kharkiv regions were just that: Russian withdrawals, designed to concentrate their forces. The recent developments on the Kharkiv and Kherson fronts are actually Russian defeats over territory they did not want to give up.
On the back of these developments, the chorus of Western propaganda was intensified. ‘Russia has been defeated!’, was the unanimous verdict. In reality, winning a battle, or two, does not determine the course nor the outcome of the whole war.
From Putin’s point of view, this war is an existential matter. He is fully aware that if he loses this war, he will be removed from power. Therefore, in the face of these setbacks, he decided to take the necessary steps to change the balance of forces in his favour.
One of the main reasons for the Russian defeats in September was the lack of manpower, which is Ukraine’s advantage. Ukraine is believed to have more than 600,000 men under arms, whereas the Russian forces in Ukraine were believed to be between 170,000 and 200,000. Strengthening the defence in Kherson meant leaving gaps on the frontline in Kharkiv, which Ukraine was able to exploit. To reverse that, Putin decreed a partial mobilisation, to raise an additional 200,000 troops for the war in Ukraine.
The reason why he had not done so before is mainly that he thought that a smaller force, backed by overwhelming firepower superiority, would be able to do the job. And in fact, that seemed to be the case between April (after the withdrawal from the north) and August. Russian forces were holding the frontline while at the same time advancing in the Donbass.
By the end of August, however, the Russian advance seemed to have lost momentum. This was probably the result of a combination of the close coordination between NATO and Ukraine military commands, western-supplied artillery pieces, particularly the more precise and longer range HIMARs, which allowed Ukraine to hit the Russian rear, and Ukrainian troops being provided with US-supplied intelligence and satellite imagery.
The other reason why Putin was reluctant to decree mobilisation earlier was that involving large sections of the population in the war carries with it certain risks. In the long term, if the campaign does not go according to plan and the body bags start to pile up, mass mobilisation can set the stage for mass opposition to the war and general social unrest.
By the end of September, with Ukrainian troops pushing the Russians back on two fronts, Putin had no other alternative than to go for a middle of the road measure, declaring a partial mobilisation.
Partial mobilisation and Kerch bridge attack
The fact is that the anti-war movement in Russia today is negligible and completely dominated by pro-Western liberal forces which are out of touch with the general public. The increasing involvement of NATO in the war, western sanctions on Russia and very provocative statements by opinion makers in the west, to the extent that Russia should be broken up, have helped solidify public opinion support for the war. Large sections of public opinion in Russia, particularly amongst the working class, now see the war as an existential threat to the country.
The situation is not exactly the same everywhere, though. The overrepresentation of soldiers from some of the nationalities, particularly from the North Caucasus, in the Russian forces in Ukraine has the potential to create resentment. In fact, the only place where there were significant protests against mobilisation was in Dagestan. This, for now, is not the general picture.
Putin’s recent speeches, in declaring mobilisation, when signing the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions, were crafted accordingly. He barely mentioned Ukraine, but concentrated his main fire against the west, which he described as imperialist and having a history of meddling into other countries. This would resonate, not only in Russia, but across third world countries, where there is a strong anti-US imperialist feeling.
While Putin is not wrong in his criticism of the west, though even these are partially couched in terms of harping back to Russia’s Czarist past, his speech was thoroughly cynical, as he is himself at the head of a regional power with imperialist ambitions of its own.
In terms of public opinion, as a result of the Ukrainian advances in September, Putin has been under pressure, not from the anti-war camp, but rather from the pro-war Russian nationalist right, which was demanding harsher action, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons!
Of course, the use of nuclear weapons is out of the question and is used mainly for propaganda reasons and as a potential threat. Thus, Biden says we should take Putin’s threat very seriously, though Putin never actually mentioned nuclear weapons and left it at the conveniently vague “all means at our disposal”. Then Zelensky says the west should attack Russia “preemptively”, which is used by the Kremlin for propaganda purposes. Finally Lavrov re-states the Russian military doctrine regarding nuclear weapons, which is that they would be used only as a retaliatory measure “to prevent the destruction of the Russian Federation by direct nuclear strikes” or attacks by other weapons which “endanger its very existence”.
Partial mobilisation takes time and the 200,000 troops raised need to be trained and equipped before they can be deployed to Ukraine. The other card in Putin’s hand, other than increasing the number of troops involved in the war, was to ramp up the aspects in which he has superiority, in this case rocket and missile strikes. The Ukrainian terrorist attack on the Kerch bridge (for no one doubts it was Ukrainian forces that carried it out), provided him with a perfect pretext.
The attempt to cut off the Kerch bridge, connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea, did fulfil some military aims. The bridge provides the main line of supply for the Russian army in the south, particularly the Kherson front which is now under pressure. If that were to be disrupted, then Russian forces would become much more vulnerable to a Ukrainian attack in Zaporizhzhya, which if it reached the Sea of Azov would cut the Russian forces in Ukraine in two.
But of course, from a Ukrainian point of view, an attack on the Kerch bridge also had a highly symbolic meaning. The bridge was built after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was a prestige project for Putin.
In practice, the attack, planned months in advance, did not achieve its aims and Russia was able to restore traffic, both railway and vehicular, very quickly. What it did do was to provide Putin with a propaganda gift, which he used to justify a barrage of missiles, even though this attack had been planned before the attack on the bridge.
Dozens of targets across the country were hit over several days by ballistic missiles and drones, revealing the weakness of Ukraine’s air defences. The attack was mainly aimed at destroying or severely damaging Ukraine's power grid, both power plants and the distribution network. Thermal and combined power power plants as well as substations were hit all the way from Lviv to Kharkiv, leaving large parts of the country without electricity, water and communications.
These attacks were designed to show Russia’s power and cow Ukraine into submission. The message is clear: if you do not surrender to Russia’s terms, we will destroy your power supply just ahead of the winter season.
At the same time, Russia has approached Belarus to raise a joint military group, thus putting pressure on Ukraine’s northern border, with the aim of diverting troops from other scenarios.
The combination of more Russian troops, attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and the threat of a renewed invasion in the north is aimed at changing the balance of forces again and eventually create a situation in which Ukraine will be forced to the negotiating table.
There are other problems for Ukraine. The conflict is fundamentally a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Washington’s stated aim is to severely weaken Russia. Ukraine depends completely on the US and the EU to fund the war, supply it with ammunition, hardware and intelligence, train its troops, etc.
Already, there are voices warning that stockpiles of weapons on both sides of the Atlantic are being depleted. Part of that is the military industrial complex pushing for new contracts and more military spending. War is terribly profitable, as Lenin commented sarcastically.
But there is also a serious real problem. According to Dave Des Roche from the US National Defense University, in the US, normal production of artillery rounds for the 155 millimetre howitzer currently used in Ukraine is about 30,000 rounds per year. Ukraine goes through that amount every two weeks! The EU is also worried.
“The military stocks of most member states have been, I wouldn’t say exhausted, but depleted in a high proportion, because we have been providing a lot of capacity to the Ukrainians,” said the EU’s foreign affairs and security commissioner Josep Borrell.
Despite all the assurances that NATO will support Ukraine “for the long run”, this level of funding and supplies is becoming a serious burden and combined with the onset of a deep economic recession, it might become unsustainable.
Storm coming in Europe
Additionally, the war has created serious problems in Europe in terms of the energy supply, as winter approaches. Sanctions on Russia have led to higher energy prices and to Russian retaliation, by choking supply to EU countries. It is comparatively easy for the US to demand and impose sanctions on Russia, as it is not so reliant on the supply of energy from this country. Europe on the other hand is extremely dependent on Russia and as that source of energy is being cut off, it has to look for other much more expensive suppliers.
A major social, economic and political storm is being prepared in the EU and support for the war is already waning, both in public opinion and amongst politicians. This, in turn, will bring to the fore the differences between the EU and the US.
Even in the US, a victory for Trump Republicans in the midterm elections could upset the balance of power making it more difficult for Biden to continue with his seemingly unlimited support for Ukraine. Trump has made his position clear: he is for a negotiated settlement with Russia in Ukraine. From his point of view, the US should be concentrating on what he considers its main enemy: China.
If Russia regains the initiative, on the basis of an increased number of troops and destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, then the pressure in the west towards disengaging from the war will grow. At that point there will be strong pressure from the west pushing Ukraine towards a settlement, in which Russia’s gains on the ground are codified in the negotiating table. This is Putin’s calculation.
On the back of the September offensive, Kyiv became increasingly belligerent, declaring emphatically that its war aims were the full liberation of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. Zelensky has gone as far as passing a law which forbids any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is in power. These statements are mainly designed to boost morale of the public and the army.
If the situation on the front changes to Russia’s advantage and NATO’s support falters, Zelensky might well change his tune and agree to make a deal. After all, he was originally elected as the ‘peace with Russia candidate’. If he resists, he might see himself removed from power. Perhaps a proper peace agreement will not be signed, but when conditions lead to it a ceasefire might be agreed.
As we have argued from the beginning this is a reactionary imperialist war on both sides, that of Russia but also that of NATO. The role of revolutionary Marxists is first and foremost to oppose the warmongering of our own ruling class and to link the class struggle at home with the struggle against its imperialist aims abroad.