by Ashley Rogers
April 6 2022: Ukrainian National Guardsman, taken in 2022 during the Russian-Ukrainian War. (Wikimedia)
It’s been over three months since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After a push to capture key Ukrainian cities in the first few weeks of the war, stronger resistance than expected forced Russian military leaders to refocus on capturing the Donbas region in the east. This scaling back of military objectives has been euphemistically called the “second phase” of the invasion by Putin, who is desperate to hide the weaknesses of the Russian military and his regime.
Yet the current situation is not a decisive victory for Ukraine. While the Ukrainian military has retaken many areas in the north of the country, Russia has all but succeeded in its objective to seize a “land bridge” connecting its territory in the east with the Crimean Peninsula.
The siege of Mariupol, a city of over 400,000 on the Black Sea in eastern Ukraine, ended with a Russian military victory in late April, with over 95% of the city destroyed in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of residents from the city have joined the over 12 million people displaced due to this war, while those who remain in the rubble face water and food shortages.
The Russian tactic has changed from that of a “blitzkrieg”, attempting to capture key areas quickly, into a long, drawn-out war of attrition where the Russian military aims to use its superior numbers and resources to outlast the Ukrainian military. In early May, a top American military intelligence official testified before a Senate committee that, “The Russians aren’t winning and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here.” Soldiers and civilians on both sides experience heavy casualties as the fighting continues.
War of Attrition
The capture of Mariupol, along with other key ports in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, has assisted the Russian blockade of Ukraine in the Black Sea. This not only allows Russia to slowly chip away at the Ukrainian economy, which is forecasted to shrink by 30% this year, but it gives Russia control of much of Ukraine’s food exports as well.
Ukraine makes up 11.5% of world grain exports and 17% of world corn exports. Control over this supply gives Putin political and economic weight at a time when rising inflation and collapsing supply chains put capitalist-based food production in a deepening global crisis.
Spurred by predictions of emerging or worsening food shortages in some countries, there are corporate media commentators who are pushing for Western forces to “call Putin’s bluff” by using “limited” military intervention to break Russia’s blockade. Yet “limiting” any such intervention may be an impossible goal for NATO powers to achieve.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s survival in a war of attrition relies primarily on Western aid, both military and humanitarian. A $39.8 billion aid package to Ukraine from the U.S. government was approved in early May on top of the $13.6 billion already allocated back in March. Of this amount, over $30 billion has been allocated towards so-called “lethal aid,” a euphemism for military equipment, intelligence, training, and support.
Both pieces of legislation passed quickly through Congress with bipartisan support—including support from every single Democrat in the Senate—though fears of a drawn-out quagmire in Ukraine have pushed some politicians in an isolationist direction.
While the Democrats like to posture as doves in contrast to war-hawkish Republicans, the Democratic Party has always enthusiastically supported U.S. imperialism at the cost of social programs and policies which could aid working-class people both in the U.S. and abroad. Biden is pushing to increase the $782 billion defense budget for 2022—already higher than at any point under Trump—up to $813 billion for 2023, a budget that was reportedly drawn up before the Ukraine conflict began.
No matter which party is in power, the U.S. military budget continues to grow, despite already being the largest in the world. It is three times larger than China’s, and ten times larger than Russia’s. At the same time, desperately needed policies that would help working people are shot down as “too expensive” while cuts are continuously made to budgets for the few existing healthcare, education, and welfare programs. Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which promised to provide desperately needed (though still inadequate) pandemic relief, has been dead in the water thanks to Democratic Party infighting.
NATO Hopes to Replace Overstretched Russian Influence
While the funding package was sold as aid for Ukraine, $6.9 billion of the “lethal aid” is allocated toward strengthening the NATO European Command and U.S. military presence in Europe. With Russia’s weaknesses on display during the initial stages of its invasion, many top U.S. officials see this as an opportunity to replace Russia as the dominant power in Eastern Europe.
The leaders of Sweden and Finland announced in May that they support their countries joining NATO, a major change in alignment for two countries that have remained “neutral” since the end of the Second World War. In April, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the goal in supporting Ukraine is “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” More directly, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, was quoted in April as stating the U.S. objective in Ukraine is “finally breaking the back of Russia’s ability to project power outside of Russia.”
The chances of Russian success in any direct confrontation with NATO are low, a fact that Russian leaders seem acutely aware of. Russian leaders have raised the possibility of nuclear retaliation if NATO intervenes—something neither imperialist bloc wants to happen—as a deterrent.
It’s unlikely that NATO’s ambitious goal of ending Russian influence abroad will be achieved. The tensions within NATO, briefly put aside in the name of unity against Russia, are beginning to show once again.
The NATO bid from Sweden and Finland was opposed by Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who demanded Sweden and Finland extradite Kurdish political refugees who oppose his brutal authoritarian rule at home and regionally. Croatian president Zoran Milanović similarly refuses to support the bid until NATO members support election law changes demanded by ethnic Croats in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina—a sign that the frozen conflicts of the Balkan Wars are heating up again.
In the U.S., sections of the ruling class and its corporate politicians and media are beginning to fear the possibility of another drawn-out overseas conflict like that of Iraq, Afghanistan, or so many others. The stage is set for the possibility that an isolationist wing of the Republican Party might see great success in 2022 and 2024, bolstered by a growing quagmire in Ukraine.
Defense Industry Wins Amid Conflict
Some of the biggest war hawks, on the other hand, have come from the finance and defense industries and the corporate politicians they back. While the war in Ukraine has caused massive amounts of suffering and grief for those caught in the crossfire, it’s made significant profits for some investors.
Lockheed Martin’s stock rose from $388 a share on the day before the invasion to $456 a share only a few days later. BAE Systems, the largest defense contractor in Europe, saw an increase from $32 to $39 a share over the same period. Similar increases were seen across the board for weapons contractors. At least 20 members of Congress or their spouses stand to profit from the stocks they personally hold in these companies.
Every one of the missiles sent to Ukraine means profits for a private arms manufacturer. The U.S. is the world’s largest arms dealer, accounting for 39% of major arms sales worldwide, more than double that of Russia. Arms are either purchased directly by countries or donated, as in the case for Ukraine, by U.S. tax-payer-funded “aid” packages.
The war in Ukraine has meant short-term losses for some companies, like Raytheon, which cut its 2022 sales forecasts in response to sanctions preventing them from trading with Russian customers and suppliers. However, industry executives are confident that a continuing conflict in Ukraine will mean huge profits in the medium term. Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet said that “renewed great power competition” could prompt more military spending in the coming years.
The war in Ukraine prompted Germany to cast off the last of its post-WWII disarmament by committing to a permanent increase in arms spending to over 2% of its GDP. Germany has decided to arm itself with F-35 fighter jets, netting Lockheed Martin nearly $80 million per plane.
A representative of the trade association for French weapons manufacturers said in response to the war that “the invasion of Ukraine is a game-changer. It shows that war is still on the agenda, on our doorsteps, and that the defense industry is very useful.” The Pentagon’s request in April for defense contractors to supply the war in Ukraine was met with hundreds of responses. A defense industry that’s rapidly expanding to meet the large military contracts it expects will be coming will see a quick resolution with Russia as a huge threat to their return on investment.
No Faith in Capitalist Solutions, Workers’ Solidarity Needed
Capitalist powers have no solutions for Ukraine. Both Russia and NATO see this conflict only in terms of what they can get out of it—furthering their geopolitical goals, increasing their economic influence, and making huge profits for private contractors.
Compared to other recent conflicts, such as the brutal Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemeni Civil War, Western politicians and the media have paid a huge amount of attention to refugees from the war in Ukraine. They use the suffering of Ukrainian workers to justify arms deals but do little to alleviate it otherwise. Many working people across the world have offered their money, food, and housing to refugees fleeing the brutal conflict. But for many refugees, the brutality doesn’t end upon leaving the war zone.
Various governments have stated support for refugees but fail to fund refugee services, causing local support for resettlement to sour. American families hosting Ukrainian refugees are forced to shoulder much of the burden themselves, with little to no government assistance.
Warsaw’s mayor announced in April that the city was “at capacity” and couldn’t accept any more refugees without assistance from the Polish government and the EU. The pre-existing lack of housing and jobs for Polish workers has only been exacerbated by the failed handling of the influx of refugees, opening the door for racist, far-right organizations to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. Working women’s rights are being rolled back across the region, as people can no longer travel to Ukraine to get abortion services from countries with tight restrictions or outright bans, like Poland. Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland are now denied vital reproductive care they could previously access back home. This is especially cruel for wartime rape victims.
While Russia may be more equipped for a war of attrition than Ukraine, this current outcome puts Putin in hot water as the failure of the initial invasion becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. The protests of thousands across Russia in opposition to the invasion have dwindled for now under harsh repression from Putin. Over 15,000 have been arrested for opposing the invasion since it began, showing both the scale of the opposition and how the Russian ruling class fears potential mass opposition.
Putin’s attempted “blitzkrieg” of Kyiv was hampered in part by Belarusian railway workers, who sabotaged railway lines Russia’s military needed for supply, limiting the extent of the Russian advance. Putin is beginning to lose support from sections of Russia’s ruling class who have been pushed by public opposition to see other sides in this conflict as more favorable for their profits. Several oligarchs have publicly denounced the war, while a recently leaked recording between a Russian oligarch and a Western venture capitalist suggests that doubts about Putin’s health and his ability to rule may be intensifying among the elite who keep Putin in power—whether or not rumors of his ill health are true.
But a hypothetical “palace coup” to replace Putin would only put another capitalist figurehead in power who would continue to fight for the interests of Russia’s capitalist class, including further conflicts like Ukraine. Solidarity between Russian and Ukrainian workers against the rich men’s wars they’re forced to fight can bring an end to this brutal conflict. Capitalist competition for resources and profits will give rise to the same conflicts again and again, as resurging tensions in the Balkans remind us. An alternative to the brutal wars of capitalism can be built only by the struggle of working people, standing in solidarity across national borders, fighting for socialism, and against the violence of the global capitalist system.