The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been the cake walk that Vladimir Putin seems to have expected. Putin appears to have believed that Ukrainian resistance would quickly collapse; that he could simply roll his tanks in, seize Kyiv and install a puppet government. Indeed he seems to have believed many Ukrainians would welcome the Russian forces as liberators.
However there has been a sharp shift in the Ukrainian popular mood compared to 2014 when Russia invaded and seized Crimea. Even if some reports in the Western press are exaggerated, it is clear that there is widespread active opposition to the invasion by the Ukrainian population with large numbers of civilians taking up arms.
There are also reports of desertions and refusals to obey orders by Russian troops. The Ukrainian fighters need to attempt to fraternise with these soldiers and not adopt a narrow nationalist approach. The young Russian conscripts are not responsible for the actions of the Russian rulers. They are potential allies.
It is of course early days yet. However the Ukrainian government shows no sign of capitulation and the talks in Belarus unsurprisingly failed to bring about a ceasefire.
Putin is likely to respond to the initial Russian setbacks by upping the military assault with even more ferocious air and missile attacks that will inevitably kill many more people, destroy vast swathes of vital infrastructure, devastate the Ukrainian economy, and massively swell the growing flood of refugees.
Putin will hope that these attacks and food shortages in a besieged Kyiv will demoralise the population and lead them to come begging for an end to the fighting. Popular moods can swing swiftly in wars and we can’t totally rule out a sudden collapse in popular morale. But that does not seem the most likely scenario for the moment.
At least among a section of the Ukrainian population a more brutal Russian assault is likely to stiffen resolve and even if the conservative government were to capitulate or is brought down by the Russians, ongoing mass popular resistance is very likely.
There is a real danger that more countries can be drawn into the war, with reports already that the Belarus army is set to invade Ukraine to back up the Russians.
The US and its Western allies have declared time and time again that they will not engage in direct combat in this war. However that can never be entirely guaranteed. Wars can develop a logic of their own and can get out of control of the cabinet ministers and generals and spread well beyond the initial arena of combat.
What for example would happen if Putin—facing the prospect of a long drawn out war and growing opposition at home—lashes out against the supply lines that are funnelling Western military aid to Ukraine? Would NATO troops just stand by?
And remember we are talking about nuclear armed powers. Indeed Putin has already upped his extravagant rhetoric by declaring that he is putting his nuclear weapons system on alert. Belarus has now stated it will allow nuclear weapons to be based on its soil.
In the West the rhetoric is also becoming more and more bellicose. Government after government is talking about massively increasing military spending and strengthening NATO.
Germany’s Social Democrat Prime Minister has announced that it will spend an extra 100 billion euro to modernise its armed forces and boost military spending above two percent of GDP; something that the US had long been demanding.
In Britain Labour leader Keir Stammer is attacking Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson for not backing up his bellicose anti-Russian rhetoric with sufficient action. A group of left Labour MPs were threatened with immediate expulsion from the party for signing a fairly innocuous statement by the Stop the War Coalition. Reflecting the increasing rightward shift in official politics and the mainstream media, these MPs rapidly capitulated and withdrew their signatures.
But it is not just Russia that the US, Australian and other Western leaders are railing against. They fully recognise that their major imperialist rival is China not Putin. They are determined to exploit the Russian invasion to bolster support among the mass of their populations for a long drawn out conflict with their arch enemy in Beijing. The message is being drummed into us that it is a war to defend Western civilisation against authoritarianism.
Here in Australia Morrison is also trying to gain short term advantage for his government that is facing the prospect of a crushing defeat in the upcoming elections. He is aided by a Labor Party (supposed) opposition that is fully committed to the defence of the Australian capitalist class’s imperialist interests and backs Morrison’s bellicose anti-Chinese stance right down the line.
New rounds of Western sanctions are being imposed including the impounding of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves held in Western banks and the cutting off a series of Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial transaction system. These latest measures go well beyond the initial relatively token sanctions.
If the claims of Biden and co are to be believed, these increased sanctions have the potential to devastate the Russian economy and impoverish the Russian population. The aim is to destroy the Putin regime.
Such savage sanctions are a direct attack by one imperial power against another. There is nothing supportable about these measures, or about Western powers imposing mass misery—hyper-inflation, skyrocketing unemployment and the collapse of basic services—on the Russian working class. And there is no guarantee that these sanctions will turn the mass of the population against Putin’s regime.
A more hopeful development has been the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia with mass arrests day after day as people heroically put their bodies on the line defying Putin’s police state. Already by the end of Sunday 27 February there had been a reported 5,794 arrests of protestors.
There is little evidence of enthusiasm for this war in Russia with large numbers of people signing online anti-war petitions. If the war drags on week after week and more young conscripts die there is the potential for the opposition to grow.
At the moment the protests seem largely to consist of young people and more middle-class professionals influenced by liberal politics plus the small forces of the various Russian socialist and anarchist groups. For this to become a movement that can genuinely threaten Putin it will need to draw in working-class forces—both on the streets and in the workplaces—and lead to strike action and a generalised revolt.
If there is to be any hope of a positive outcome to this terrible war the Ukrainian popular resistance to Putin’s invasion will need to link up with the anti-war movement in Russia. That will be no easy task but nonetheless it remains the case that the Russian invasion is utterly counterposed to the interests of workers in both Ukraine and Russia.
The left in Australia and the West undoubtedly should politically support Ukrainian resistance to the invasion and the popular anti-war movement in Russia. But we also need to firmly stand against our own reactionary governments’ concerted attempts to exploit this terrible crisis to advance their own imperialist interests, build up their war machines and any moves to expand this war.
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