Ukraine war two years on  – who are the winners and losers?

This article is based on Will McMahon’s introduction to the 19 February Talking About Socialism event which you can watch here.

Between the last quarter of 2022 and March 2023 over 60,000 Ukrainian troops were given training in NATO countries, and accompanying military supplies, in preparation for the Spring Offensive in the hope that it would push the Russian Army back. The aim was to split the Russian front in two in order to cut the land bridge to Crimea.

 In February 2023, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was signalling his determination to defend Bhakmut, a city with a pre-war population of 70,000 of both military and symbolic significance.  Almost a year on it is generally agreed that strategy has failed.  Bhakmut fell in May before what turned into a Summer Ukrainian offensive got under way in June 2023.

By December 2023 there was a barely any movement in the front line partly due to the delayed offensive allowing Russian forces time to build substantial defensive lines.  Only on the Zaporizhzhia front did the Ukrainians gain some ground, taking the village of Robotyne and crossing the Dnipro to occupy a small village of 1,000 called Krynky.

Despite 2023 being the year of the Ukrainian counter offensive, with the Russian forces ostensibly in active defence, estimates suggest that Russia actually gained more land in 2023 than the Ukrainian forces. The main aim of the Russian strategy was not to gain land but to destroy military equipment and kill troops deployed for the NATO backed Ukrainian Summer offensive by using battles for villages, towns and cities as, in the argot, ‘meat grinders’. The grim result being tens of thousands killed as cannon fodder on both sides, but that is to Putin’s advantage as the Russian population outnumbers the Ukrainian by four to one.

As the second anniversary of the invasion approached, Avdivka, a town once home to 30,000 people and strategically important to the Russians as it was the base for Ukrianian attacks on the city of Donetsk, fell with Ukrainian forces being routed and retreating in disarray. Since January 2024 there have been over 300 Russian advances across the whole of the front with some striking advances made after the fall of Avdivka.

Since the launch of the Sumer Offensive there has been a noticeable shift in western media reporting from ‘the Ukrainian offensive is gaining ground’ to, ‘it is a stalemate’, and more recently, in covering the second anniversary, ‘the Ukrainians will lose if further arms are not supplied’ by NATO powers.

With hundreds of thousands dead over the last two years it needs to be remembered that NATO leaders did not seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Instead, as Angela Merkel publicly explained, they used extended delays over the implementation of the Minsk agreements to prepare Ukraine for war, with Boris Johnson intervening to sabotage promising negotiations shortly after the war started.

Who, then, are the losers and who are the winners from two years of pointless carnage? 

The losers

According to the  United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, at least 10,000 civilians have been killed with twice that number injured. These are likely to be low-end estimates given the difficultly of data gathering in such a maelstrom.   Then there are the several hundred thousand equally important lives lost of conscript soldiers and many more injured on both sides.  There are empty seats at dinner tables across both Ukraine and Russia.

The war has forfeited the possibility of self-determination for everyone who survives on both sides of the front line. It is very unlikely that the forced annexations of the Russian state will be tested by genuinely democratic ballots or that Ukraine will return to its 2022 borders unless NATO decides on a decade long war of attrition and a much deeper intervention.

Democracy has been sacrificed in other ways. In Russia, it is being further weakened under the cover of the war drive. February was a particularly bad month for opposition figures of all stripes. On 8 February this year Russia’s Supreme Court rejected two legal challenges by anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin, who challenged his disqualification from the March 2024 presidential election. On 13 February, Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky, a critique of the war, was sentenced to five years in prison. On 16 February, Alexei Navalny died at the Polar Wolf Arctic penal colony where he was serving a three-decade jail term. On 27 February Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov, a leader of the disbanded human rights centre Memorial, was sentenced to at least two years for ‘discrediting the armed forces’.

While neither Nadezhdin or Navalny were friends of the working class (Ed Potts discusses Navalny’s politics here), their fates alongside that of Kagarlitsky and Orlov signal a final transition to a managed democracy in Russia.

In Ukraine, under the cover of war, there is significant repression against anti-war voices. One example is the case of Gonzalo Lira a US-Chilean joint national, no friend of the working class and a misogynist to boot, who delivered weekly Youtube videos critiquing the NATO view of the war and Zelensky’s role in it from his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Lira was harassed, arrested, released and allowed to make his way to the Hungarian border, while being followed, then re-arrested and imprisoned under war time laws, where he was allowed to die in his prison cell from oedema and pneumonia. Unsurprisingly,  the US has not raised this matter with Ukraine, despite his father pressing for an explanation. Instead, in a propaganda coup, the case was raised by Russian foreign minister Lavrov at the UN Security Council on 22 January.

There have been attacks on working class living standards in Ukraine and any notion of social solidarity and welfare provision. Oksana Zholnovych, head of the Ministry of Social Policy said in a statement at the recent International Forum for Sustainable Development ‘We need to break everything that is social today and simply create a new social contract on social policy in our country from scratch. Many citizens are, in a sense, teenagers, they say The state owes us a duty of care and assistance, but I will not take part in my personal development and personal life, I am not ready to take responsibility.” And this is the philosophy that we must definitely break.’. The Ukrainian ruling class is fighting NATO’s proxy war on the one hand and, on the other, a class war of neo-liberal privatisation and suppression of working class organisations.  

Winners

As was noted on the TAS website a year ago, global military spending has accelerated as inter-imperialist rivalries have sharpened.

Russian spending grew by an estimated 9.2 per cent in 2022, to around $86.4 bn. This was equivalent to 4.1 per cent of Russias gross domestic product, up from 3.7 per cent in 2021.

As a result, the Russian military industrial complex has also made massive gains – military spending has doubled and the role of the military in Russian life has been reinforced.

Military expenditure now tales up a 37% share of Ukraines GDP, the big winner being the United States’s military industrial complex which has made billions from the war and has had the rare opportunity to test military equipment without the loss of US military and the domestic attention that brings.

Also winners are the advocates of an ever closer integration of European Union’s various military forces to partner the European single market and Central Bank. A combined military structure is something Europhiles in France and Germany have striven for over three decades with an eye on armed self sufficiency free of US hegemony. For some, the US sabotage of the NordStream pipeline has given further impetus to the need for a sovereign Europe imperialist power that is not tied to a waning US global power.

Putin strengthened

Vladimir Putin has come out of this hugely strengthened as has Russia in terms of global power politics with Russia seen by many as a bulwark against NATO expansionism. Putin, who is 71, may now be in power until 2030 at least. The class Putin represents, the Russian ruling class, is also a big winner. The 500 richest people who own two-fifths of financial assets in Russia have benefitted from the evacuation of much of western capital opening up new areas of investment and profitability.

In addition, Ukraine ranks in the top 10 globally for its stores of iron, manganese, titanium, graphite, and uranium. It also has some of the largest coal, oil, and gas reserves in the world. These regions—including Ukraines section of the Black Sea, is now mainly controlled by Russia and account for about half of Ukraines conventional oil, 72 percent of its natural gas, and almost its entire coal production and reserves. These cannot be seen as small matters in Putin’s calculations. It represents a huge annexation of natural resources by the Russian state.

The rebuilding of  what remains of Ukraine will provide a bonanza for western multi-nationals. Paying for the war has cost the Ukrainians any meaningful sovereignty as they will be locked into debt repayment to their notional allies for decades and will be subject to asset stripping by NATO powers. Most estimate the rebuilding of Ukraine costing between the 400 to 500 billion dollars.  As Marxist economist Michael Roberts notes :

‘the sale of land to foreigners was approved in 2021 under IMF pressure and now the food monopolies Cargill, Monsanto and Dupont own 40% of Ukraines arable land.  GMA-Monsanto Corporation owns 78% of the land fund of Sumy region, 56% of Chernihiv, 59% of Kherson and 47% of Mykolaiv region.’

While Ukrainian soldiers duck and dive in trenches in what must be a terrifying effort to avoid FPV drones, there are people employed by multi-nationals in Western capitals eyeing-up even more investment opportunities that will appear as an eventual ceasefire and peace treaty appears on the horizon.

Washington and the rise of China

No one should rush to call the outcome of this conflict a defeat for NATO or the United States. Of course, Washington was never particularly interested in Ukrainian self-determination, so the failure to secure it is really neither here nor there for the imperial thinkers. Those who backed supplies of arms from NATO to Ukraine have been duped by a rhetoric of self-determination from NATO capitals. The addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO and the creation of a client state in what remains of Ukraine is a real strategic win – Moscow now faces 833 miles of additional Finnish NATO borders.

While the United States is an empire in decline and the talk of a multi-polar world does have material foundation, irrespective of any ambitions for a separate EU military presence the war has strengthened the US’s role as the leader of one set of imperialist nations stretching from Europe through to its Global NATO project in combination with the development of the AUKUS alliance.

The growing alliance with Taiwan and south east asian nations, in response to the resugence of China, is another demonstration of the United State’s global reach. China, with its claim to the majority of the South China Sea and huge overseas investment programme in both Latin America, Africa and through the Belt and Road initiative presages a fundamental shift in the hierarchy of global powers. Many US strategic thinkers, led by John Mearsheimer, of the Realist school of international studies, regard the attempt to suborn Russia via the extension of NATO to Ukraine as a fundamental strategic error. China has exploited this error and developed huge amounts of trade with Russia in dual-use military/civil technology;  an almost formal alliance is in the making as China emerges as the leader of another imperialist bloc confronting NATO.  In this context, another winner is Donald Trump, who is able to pose as the Ukrainian ‘peace’ candidate with his real objective of breaking the Russia-China alliance.

The outcome of the Ukraine war thus far is that is it has strengthened militarism, inter-imperialist competition and forces of nationalism, authoritarianism and reaction in general. There have been no gains for the working class. Sadly, the Ukraine war represents a defeat for the working class across the globe. Attempts to prettify NATO expansionism through talk of Ukrainian ‘self-determination’ or to call for a victory for Russia over NATO as part of an ‘anti-imperialist’ strategy, is leading some socialists to mistakenly take one side or another.

What should socialists argue for?

Humanity faces two existential crises produced by capitalism. A cursory review of the latest peer-reviewed scientific data on the climate crisis makes for a very disturbing read. It is only by replacing capitalist accumulation and the profit motive, with a democratic global economy focused on a needs-led economic strategy – socialism – that the climate crisis can be reversed.

Equally disturbing are the accelerating steps the world is taking towards a global inter-imperialist war. A ceasefire in Ukraine would unquestionably be in the interests of the global working class. Wherever they live, socialist should campaign for an end to the war, to force back their own ruling class militarism. In Ukraine, soldier should stop killing soldier and instead turn their guns on their own ruling class. Russian forces should leave Ukraine – there should be no forced annexations – only genuine self-determination on both sides of the front line.  Socialists call for the end of NATO arms supplies to its ruling class allies in Kiev. Socialists should also support a campaign for all of the debts that the Ukraine notionally owes its ‘allies to be cancelled.  This would quickly reveal who are the real allies of Ukrainian self-determination. A neutral Ukraine, with guaranteed borders, neither in the camp of Moscow nor Washington, would help open up a different path to the ongoing war drive.  An end to the war would also open a space for socialists to campaign for an immediate return to democratic norms in both countries starting with the release of all political prisoners in both countries.

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3 thoughts on “Ukraine war two years on  – who are the winners and losers?

  1. I would like to raise some points I might have made had I been present at the Zoom meeting. I agree with Chris that our starting point is the independence of the working class and I would add in the context of Socialism from below.

    We should not be looking for other classes or forces to substitute for the working class. Working class self emancipation is the only road to Socialism. Dan said China is not Capitalist because the Communist party is in charge of the state not capitalists. But as Soraya implied, when Mao’s declassed peasant nationalist army took over the Chinese cities from the outside they substituted for the bourgeoisie in modernising China. The workers remained separated from the means of production and did not have any political power or democratic rights. The Chinese Communist Party ceased to be a workers party in 1927 when the bourgeois party, the Kuomintang destroyed the working class base of the party. The Kuomintang was armed by the Soviet Union. It was regarded as a nationalist ally by the early Bolshevik regime. The Bolshevik leadership thought that the Chinese Bourgeoisie could be pressured into a democratic revolution. That is why the CCP deferred to the Kuomintang and did not pursue an independent working class policy.

    Dan said China helps economic development in some countries. But British imperialism built railways in India.

    Sandy said Russia was not imperialist according to Lenin’s definition of Imperialism. But as far as I remember Lenin’s pamphlet did not offer a clear definition of imperialism and relied on the research of others. Lenin described the main features of imperialism. Lenin emphasised the role of finance capital or the export of Capital. But this pure economic factor could not explain colonialism. Geo-political Capitalist /imperialist political rivalries also come into play. The fact that Russia does not have a financial sector to match the west doesn’t make it non-imperialist. As Will pointed out, apart from the project of pushing back NATO expansion, the area annexed and occupied by Russia has enormous reserves of Iron Manganese, Titanium, Uranian Coal and gas to be exploited by the Putin regime.

    Ed raised the most difficult question. The issue of self-determination and the possibility of the Balkanization of Ukraine on nationalist and ethnic lines. Will said the war has forfeited the possibility of Self-determination in the context of the horrific results of the war. I take this to mean the principle of self-determination is not viable or relevant given the power of NATO, and the US on the one side and the power of Russia on the other. The principle of-self determination is not an absolute and if we support it or not depends on the context and whether it advances working class interests. Because of the power of big imperialist states independence for lesser powers is often nominal. I think Will went on to mention genuine self-determination so I am not clear what this would mean in the conflict.

    A final point: we don’t have to take sides. Neither Washington nor Moscow (or China) but international Socialism.

  2. Tough question. If we are for the right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves against the Russian invasion and indeed to defeat the Russian forces, what position do we take on the Ukrainian people arming themselves? Currently the bulk of their arms are coming from NATO countries, much of which donated. Consequently are we for or against this provision from NATO cum imperialism? Strictly speaking it doesn’t matter where they get their arms from — providing their are no political strings attached. So, what should be our position?

    1. I think you answer your own question Howard when you state “providing there are no political strings attached.” There used to be a saying that you don’t get McDonalds without McDonald Douglas – I think the Ukraine war has reversed it – the Ukrainian’s only get US arms if they hand over economic and political sovereignty via the agency of their own ruling class – the strings are multiple and very strong. The Ukrainian ruling class are in effect the local agents of one imperialist bloc – what we used to term a ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ – in a global struggle with another imperialist bloc. At one level, we are witnessing a local bourgeois war fought between two ruling classes (Ukrainian and Russian) with larger powers, the United States and China, attempting to ensure that their strategic interests are not compromised by the outcome. For a genuine struggle for self-determination to appear the organisations of the Ukrainian working class would have to break with their own bourgeoisie who are using the language of self-determination to cloak their class interests. Such a break would present the question of civil war and arming the working class to get rid of Zelenky’s class, but it seems to me such a scenario is much more than dim and distant in the present circumstances.

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