It is obviously hazardous to predict the outcome of the war given the conflicting claims of both sides and the obvious propaganda character of most of what is published. The involvement of so many actors makes it difficult to have confidence. What role will Belarus play, and will a ‘coalition of the willing’ e.g. Poland etc. be the subterfuge that NATO will adopt for a more direct intervention? How much escalation will NATO go for on the basis that they argue that they will not be intimidated, Russia hasn’t reacted so far, and the threats from Russia are outrageous intimidation?
What one thinks will be the outcome very much reflects what one thinks is already happening.
A strange consensus exists in the Western media. Ukraine is winning but there are repeated entreaties for the Western powers to maintain their support, calls really directed to the populations consuming their media. The ‘between-the-lines’ message is that Ukraine will not win if the West does not continue to support it. That Ukraine can win, and claims that it is doing so, are meant to convince that the sacrifices already made have achieved results and not been wasted, although apparent setbacks also give rise to the same appeals.
What this means is that while Ukrainians are doing almost all the fighting, they cannot continue without Western support. In other words, the war must continue, and can only continue, if the West remains in the fight. Despite this repeatedly admitted dependence of Ukraine on the West, by both parties, their leftist supporters still claim to support their war based on the idea of ‘self-determination’.
In point of fact self-determination was achieved by Ukraine when it became an independent state in 1991, whereupon it suffered an economic collapse. It attempted to carry out an independent foreign policy by balancing between Russia and the West but this too failed. Its dependence now on the West is complete and all talk of self-determination and independence is so much deceitful humbug. Win or lose Ukraine–as it has existed–is not going to determine its own future, or be in any genuine way independent of imperialism: ‘self-determination’ has also failed.
Ukraine started the war with 43 million people and 5 million military-aged men, but according to the U.N.,14.3 million have fled and a further 9 million are in Russian-occupied territory. Ukraine is therefore reduced to about 20 to 27 million people and at this ratio it has less than 3 million draftable men. A million have already been drafted, and many of the rest are either not physically fit or have a vital role in the economy. The GDP of this economy has declined by an estimated 30 per cent.
It started with an army of 250,000 regular troops, together with 450,000 mobilised citizen soldiers, with 1,800 artillery pieces that allowed firing rates of 6,000 to 7,000 rounds a day, plus perhaps over 2,500 tanks. The weapons supplied by the West are needed not to add to these totals but to replace them because Ukraine does not itself have the necessary military-industrial complex to do it. If Ukraine could not defeat the invasion with these initial forces the lesser supplies from the West are not going to achieve this task despite the escalation in the power of the new weapons. Their purpose is to keep the war going, with all the horror this must necessarily entail.
Ukraine and the West have been able to present the idea that not only can it win the war, but actually is, through two arguments about how it has proceeded so far. First is the failure of the Russians to take Kyiv and its retreat from the city, and secondly the reverses and retreats in Kharkiv and Kherson, reducing Russian control to approximately 50% of the territory it had captured by the invasion on 24 February.
The Russian objective has been a neutral Ukraine if an allied one could not be attained, while Ukraine as a member of NATO is unacceptable.The initial invasion seemed to be based on the view that Russia could point the gun to the head of Ukraine’s political leadership in Kyiv and gain the concessions that it required without a full-scale war. When this leadership, with western intervention, rejected this course the only alternative was the grinding conflict that the war has become.
Since Russia has had no intention of occupying all of Ukraine the purpose of the invasion is to enlarge the buffer between it and the NATO powers and to destroy the military capacity of the country – to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘de-nazify’. A buffer, even an enlarged one through annexing Ukrainian territory, is not enough; Russia already started the invasion with a buffer but a continuing military threat in the remaining un-occupied state would be a very meagre victory.
This is why Russia invaded with only around 200,000 troops made up of regular Russian forces and soldiers from the two separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk; less than the Ukrainian armed forces when an overwhelming numerical superiority would have been required.
The primary goal of the military conflict has therefore become the destruction of the Ukrainian armed forces, and not the acquisition of territory, which can be taken after a military victory. This includes those oblasts which Russia now claims as its territory but which it currently does not completely control. The primary purpose of Ukraine has been the recapture of territory lost; together these explain the character of Russian reverses in Kharkiv and Kherson.
In the former few Russian forces were in place to defend earlier gains and most of those that existed belonged to separatist militias; Russia did not have enough soldiers to maintain its occupation of the area. It was however able, in due course, to halt the Ukrainian offensive and then consider a counter-attack. In Kherson the Russian forces were exposed and retreated before this exposure crystallised into a more pressing threat. The result was that it was able to keep its forces intact and strengthen its immediate strategic position. In both Kharkiv and Kherson the maintenance of its armed forces was more important than territorial loss. To these must now be added the partial mobilisation of a further claimed 300,000 Russian soldiers, giving its forces numerical superiority for the first time.
Pro-Russian commentators have therefore argued that the static conflict that has been in place for the last three to four months has not been a stalemate but a result of Russian strategy to engage greater and greater numbers of Ukrainian forces with the purpose of then destroying them with greater firepower. So, while we have noted that Ukraine could fire 6,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds a day, Russia has been firing 40,000 to 50,000, with some reports stating that it has a six-to-one advantage in artillery pieces. It is therefore obvious that this sort of war is to Russia’s advantage; it is also true that it is not a war that Ukraine can win.
Attempts to keep it going by Western arms do not benefit Ukraine but will only result in the death of more Ukrainians, not to mention Russians. The number of weapons, including their diversity and the logistical problems arising from this, are inadequate and cannot in themselves rebuild an army that superior Russian forces already degraded when this army had larger weapons systems on which it had already been trained.
The political leadership of Ukraine, who walked their country into this war and promised victory, will find it difficult to admit defeat and so face the wrath of its far-right supporters and the displeasure of its US backers. EU leaders may decide that sanctions have failed to impose the costs on Russia that they expected; that they themselves can’t afford, and that would not be justified by the project of incorporating Ukraine in NATO. The rest of the world outside what calls itself ‘the international community’ has not rallied to the demands of the US, and China has not decided that doing the bidding of its declared enemy is better than maintaining its alliance with its new friend.
These point to an end to the war sooner rather than later, but not until Russia has degraded the Ukrainian armed forces and occupied those parts of Ukraine it now claims as its own sovereign territory.
This, of course, will not end the hatred and division between Ukrainian and Russian, including their working classes, and will not end the mutual antagonism between the two states. The US and its NATO creation will have suffered a reverse but these have happened before; military setbacks will not destroy western imperialism, and the Russian and Chinese states certainly won’t.
A victory for Ukraine and the US would have similar reactionary consequences and would not usher in any progressive Russian regime. We will leave to left-wing bourgeois moralists any notion that a victory for Ukraine would be a victory for the working class anywhere, least of all in Ukraine itself, which would then in such an eventuality have its future celebrations consist of the triumph of western imperialism and of Ukraine’s most reactionary nationalist traditions.
A war with potentially only reactionary outcomes and consequences is not one that can be supported. Its lasting tragedy may be that any sort of democratic and progressive peace settlement is impossible. Right now it certainly looks extremely unlikely, which is unsurprising. This could only arise from a working class armed with its own political alternative, and not some second-hand programme that has already failed and which is the most impossible outcome of all.