National Sections of the L5I:

Half a year of war: Putin's endgame?

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The Russian army's significant losses of occupied Ukrainian territories in September has faced Putin and his regime with the possibility of defeat. Within a few weeks, they were obliged to withdraw from at least 6,000 square kilometres in the east and south of the country. The rapid advance of the Ukrainian army, the near panic stricken flight of Russian units in some places and the continued NATO support, military and financial, for the Kiev regime, have set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin - and provoked Putin and his generals into another round of escalation.

The call up of reservists has led to significant numbers of draftees fleeing across Russia’s western and southern borders. The contrast between the Ukrainians, queuing to volunteer in March, and the young Russians, queuing at the borders to escape in September, indicates the difference between a reactionary war of aggression, with its brutal expulsion of millions of people, the murder of thousands of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and its inspiration to the Ukrainian population to resist the occupiers.


It is already clear today that Putin miscalculated the invasion in several respects. The goal of bringing the country under his own control, occupying Kyiv and installing a pro-Russian regime, failed within a few weeks due to the determined resistance of the Ukrainian army, which had been restructured and massively rearmed by the West since 2014.

On the other hand, it became clear that Russia's invasion force was ill-prepared. Its supply lines were overstretched and it only made rapid progress in the southern parts of the country, while the troops blocking the route to of Kyiv were slowly worn down. Moreover, it soon became clear that the Russian soldiers in the first few weeks were often young recruits, most of whom did not know what they were being deployed for and where. In short, the Russian leadership had underestimated the Ukrainian army and overestimated its own troops.

Moreover, it miscalculated the reaction of the West. For years, the Russian government had been accusing the USA and other Western imperialist powers and their Eastern European vassals of expanding NATO and its sphere of influence ever further against Russia and of having brought Ukraine into their orbit with the 2014 Maidan coup. Russian imperialism had good cause to accuse the West of encroaching on its semi-colonial spheres of influence in Georgia and Ukraine.

Not unlike other imperialist powers in "their own backyard" – most obviously the United States, this is no justification for Russia's actions. Putin miscalculated that only a pre-emptive military strike, that is, an invasion, could avert the otherwise economically and politically inevitable, namely Ukraine's integration into the West, via the European Union and NATO. Quite wrongly, the Russian regime also speculated that the "declining" USA and EU would not provide significant assistance.

Ironically, Putin's war of aggression, which was initially played down as a "special anti-fascist operation", accelerated all these undesirable outcomes. In any case, he underestimated that the West would come to Ukraine's aid with massive economic and military aid and launch an economic war with drastic sanctions against Russia. If the Russian army had won a quick victory, as its political leadership had hoped, Putin's cynical calculation might have worked.

He should not have been surprised at how strongly the Western imperialist powers took up the gauntlet. Ever since the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and especially since the Maidan coup in 2014, Ukraine had been the main theatre of the struggle for the redivision of the world between the USA, the EU and Russia.

Russia's reactionary war opened up the possibility for the US an EU imperialists to disguise their own power politics, such as the eastward expansion of NATO, the huge expansion of their arms budgets and economic sanctions against Russia, with democratic legitimacy. These were dressed up as altruistic acts of support for democracy and self-determination.

Above all, however, Ukraine's resilience offered the chance to inflict a heavy defeat on its Russian rival - be it militarily in Ukraine, but above all politically and economically.

In return for this, the Western powers – especially the USA and Britain, accepted and still accept heavy costs to themselves and a worsening of the global economic crisis, inflation, bottlenecks in energy and food supplies for numerous countries. For the USA, it was also an opportunity to re-establish its own leadership role in the Western NATO camp, which had been massively called into question under Trump. The EU and its dominant powers, Germany and France, will be obliged to play a subordinate role in global politics for some time to come. Moreover, they also bear the brunt of the economic break with Russia and the sanctions.

Under the leadership of the USA, the West was counting on a lasting weakening of Russia - and, mediated by this, also on a geostrategic weakening of China. The cost of war may be enormous, but a delayed confrontation would be much more costly given the steady decline of US hegemony for more than a decade and the permanent crisis of the EU.

Ukraine was and is therefore being propped up and militarily armed with billions because it is waging a proxy war for the West, which ultimately shapes the character of the conflict, overriding the fight for the country's self-defence. The extent to which it can ultimately go militarily, depends not so much on its own regime, as on the West, more precisely on the USA.

The defeats of the Russian army in September have also raised the possibility, or at least the threat, of a military victory for Ukraine.

The logic behind the escalation

In any case, they have alarmed the Kremlin. Putin and his closest followers have long since stopped talking about a "special operation". On the contrary: the war is now being named as one with the West, over the world order. Foreign Minister Lavrov sees the country surrounded by enemies who want to destroy Russia, its nation, its culture, but above all its position in the world. The existence of a Ukrainian nation and its right to self-determination are denied and "exposed" by Putin as a Bolshevik construction. If we leave aside the Russian nationalist and folkish rubbish, what emerges behind it is that it is about the redivision of the world. And Russia wants to change this in its favour, even if it is holding rather bad cards at the moment.

The invasion of Ukraine is already proving to be a political adventure in which the Kremlin only threatens to become more deeply entangled. In order to turn the situation around, it is being exacerbated.

In the four Russian-controlled Ukrainian administrative districts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson, referendums on joining Russia were held at the end of September. In the country itself, the regime is ordering a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists.

The referenda in the Donbass (Donets Basin) and in the south-east of the country are a crude mixture of symbolic politics and annexation. The symbolic politics is that the Russian state wants to buy some legitimacy for its conquests from the Russian public with a pseudo-democratic farce. The staged 90-100% approval rating, which is enforced at machine gunpoint, after the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from Zaporizhzhya and Kherson in particular, may be a makeshift way of presenting a national success in Russia. Whether this will meet with much approval beyond the nationalist fan community may be doubted in view of the massive resentment over the partial mobilisation to defend the new state territory.

Even if many want Russia to win and be strong, they do not want to pay for it with their lives. The partial mobilisation has led to tens of thousands fleeing the country for Georgia, Kazakhstan or the West, because they understandably do not want to die for Putin's war. Despite the massive repression, despite the police beatings and thousands of arrests, the announcement of the partial mobilisation alone has sparked the largest opposition movement since the attack.

The power of the seemingly all-powerful Putin is faltering. The reactionary war may be popular or at least tolerated as long as it promises victory. But what is victory supposed to be, especially for the Russian population? Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died for the sake of the nation and world power, and tens of thousands of reservists face the same threat in the event of a protracted war of position against a strengthening Ukrainian army.

Militarily, the Russian army can at best hold on to what it conquered at the beginning of the invasion. The faked referendums allow at best the legitimisation of the war as a defence of the extended "fatherland" and all the more drastic threatening gestures towards Ukraine and the world, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons for national defence.

Economically, Russia is in a deep recession. The country has already lost ground to its imperialist competitors in the last ten years. High oil and gas prices are keeping the state budget afloat, but significant parts of industrial production are at a standstill or operating at low capacity utilisation. GDP has been shrinking massively since the second quarter of 2022 and is expected to slump by at least 6% on average for the year. At least in this respect, the Western sanctions are having an effect, which the population has to bear with income losses and shortages of consumer goods. In addition, even an end to the war would by no means mean a halt to the sanctions and economic isolation.

Geostrategically, Russia will also be weakened even if it were to hold on to all four annexed administrative districts and Crimea and incorporate them into the Russian Federation, which is itself highly questionable. Russia has already proved incapable of imposing its order in the semi-colonial environment it controls. Not only in Ukraine, but also in the Caucasus, as the recent outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows, Russia is in danger of losing its grip. Of course, Russia is trying to maintain its positions in Syria or Mali, but a defeat in Ukraine would weaken Russian imperialism worldwide, precisely because it does not have much to offer in the economic field.

While Russia has completely lost its influence in Western Ukraine and Eastern Europe to the West, its ally, China, due to its enormous economic superiority, is expanding its influence in the Asian former Soviet republics still controlled by Russia, such as Kazakhstan. But the Kremlin can do little but watch this development, because the war has made Russia much more dependent on China than before and, should the Putin regime outlast the war, this will become all the greater.

Weakest link

In the imperialist chain, Russia turns out to be not only the most aggressive link at present, but also the weakest. Like a battered boxer trying to break free, Russian imperialism is putting its reserves on the line. There is no doubt that the country has other military resources at its disposal.

But what use is a huge army, what use are huge numbers of reservists, if people do not want to go to war, if they prefer to flee the country or even to resist? Partly consciously, partly instinctively, partly out of the "selfish" motive of not wanting to die and murder, growing parts of the population are refusing to take up arms.

The "breakdowns" in the mobilisation intensify the resentment and the fear that it really can affect everyone. At the same time, the regime seems to be aware that enthusiasm for the war is limited, despite media indoctrination. For this reason, the reservists are not to be recruited from urban centres such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, but mainly from regions such as Yakutia (Sakha; north-eastern Siberia) or Dagestan (northern Caucasus). The cannon fodder for the "Russian nation" should preferably be provided by members of national minorities.

This also expresses the profoundly reactionary character of the war on the part of Russia and the war aims dictated by the interests of finance capital and the imperialist world order.

In the meantime, around 250,000 people have fled from the possible draft, mainly to Kazakhstan and Georgia, but also to Finland, with other European countries refusing entry to these people. Russia will probably react to this with exit bans and tighter border controls.

It could become even more threatening for Putin if resistance to the partial mobilisation spreads, is organised nationwide and is linked to the explosive social question. While the reservists are expected to stick their necks out as cannon fodder for a fatherland controlled by a small oligarchic and bureaucratic elite headed by the despot Putin, workers in the cities and the countryside are impoverished, losing their jobs, their income and, if things go particularly badly, their lives.

After all, it is already foreseeable that even the current partial mobilisation will not be enough. In addition, it is not exactly lifting the spirits at the front, since one effect of the partial mobilisation is that those war-weary soldiers in Ukraine whose temporary contracts are expiring will have to remain at the front.

In this situation, the international workers' movement must show solidarity with the protests in Russia without any ifs or buts and demand the release of all political prisoners. Even if we advocate that opposition members in Russia fight politically against the regime in the factories or even in the army, we demand from the Western governments the opening of the borders for all those who want to flee Tsar Putin's empire.

We categorically reject the pseudo-referenda in Ukraine, which are only meant to justify a conquest under Russian tanks and machine guns. We defend Ukraine's right to self-determination and existence as well as the right of the Donbass region and other districts to decide for themselves whether they want to form their own states, belong to Russia or Ukraine. But referendums based on expulsion and occupation can only be a farce. They discredit the right of the Russian and Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine to self-determination instead of helping it. In Ukraine, however, revolutionaries must insist that the fate of Crimea and the Donbass region be decided by neither Russia nor Ukrainian nationalists, but by the people living there.

Such a free decision, however, presupposes the end of the occupation and, at the same time, a resolute opposition to Ukrainian nationalism and its Western financiers and tacticians.

In the West, in the EU and the USA, the workers' movement must above all mobilise against the imperialist aims of "their own" imperialism. This means fighting against arms deliveries and above all sanctions, against the economic war against Russia. The US, German and other Western governments are not pursuing democratic and humanitarian interests. They do not care about Ukraine's right to self-determination, let alone its democracy, as their years of collaboration with the ultra-right prove. For them, Ukraine is above all a front line on the geostrategic battlefield and also a reservoir of cheap labour and resources.

Concretely, this struggle is taking place today on the ground of mobilisation against the price increases, costs of war and crisis.

Concretely, however, it must also put solidarity with the Russian protest movement in the foreground. A movement can emerge in Russia in the coming months that can shake, even overthrow, the Putin regime itself from below. Such a development is even becoming more likely in view of the increasingly difficult situation of Russian imperialism and a looming fiasco in Ukraine. It is quite possible that the props of the regime want to pre-empt Putin's fall and put a "moderate" Bonaparte in his place. This is another reason why it will be crucial to show solidarity with the protest movement in Russia and fight to build a political alternative, a revolutionary workers' party.