The Russian army is deploying what Putin’s government has defined as the “second phase” of the “special military operation.” Let us recall that Putin still refuses to call this a war, despite the tons of bombs; thousands of dead — Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and above all civilians; millions of refugees; and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure in the tens of billions of dollars. Many speculate that he will finally do so on May 9, when he presides over the annual Victory Day commemoration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
But the most significant development comes not on the battlefield, strictly speaking, but from the greater level of involvement on the Ukrainian side by NATO powers, in particular the United States, which could redefine the course of the war.
Let’s look first at the big picture.
The second phase of the Russian offensive, which began in late March, largely represented Russia’s adoption of a more modest strategy. It went from the failed blitzkrieg that targeted big cities, aimed at quickly toppling the government of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to reconcentrating on the Donbas region and, from there, eventually winning Russian control of eastern and southern Ukraine. The fact that the theater of operations is now centered on the Donbas does not mean that Russia has ceased its shelling of the Ukrainian cities from which it withdrew; that still happens sporadically. Without going any further, Russia launched a volley of missiles into Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, just as UN secretary-general António Guterres was visiting. There is no way to read that act other than as a thunderous political message addressed to the Western powers.
The Kremlin’s strategy has become cautious, given the vulnerabilities exposed in the war’s first phase and the military and economic exhaustion already being felt from the effect of the sanctions. But it remains an offensive strategy, showing that the Putin government aims to keep improving its position for when the time comes, if ever, to negotiate. Formal negotiations have been on hold since the last failed attempt in Turkey, although alternative channels remain open. This war, though, will not necessarily end with a diplomatic agreement.
Maps of the war show that the Russian advance continues on course — even if slowly and with difficulties. After nearly a two-month siege, Russian forces finally took control of the port city of Mariupol, except for the Azovstal steelworks, where an undetermined number of people have been trapped — including both civilians and members of the Azov regiment (the renowned “Azov battalion” composed of Ukrainian far right-wing militias).
The Russian generals calculated that an all-out attack on the steelworks would have meant a bloody battle with many casualties of their own, so they simply opted for an air bombardment, sealing off any exit from the site and waiting for the resisters to run out of ammunition and food. So, the end of the siege is only a matter of time.
Mariupol is, thus far, the position of greatest strategic value that the Russian army has taken in Ukraine. This is not because of the city itself, which has been reduced to rubble (aptly described by Zelenskyy as a “Russian concentration camp in the middle of ruins”). It is, rather, because Ukraine has lost its outlet to the Sea of Azov and Russia has gained a land bridge linking the Crimean peninsula with the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. On top of that, the obscene “scorched earth” spectacle serves as an example to discourage further resistance.
From the military point of view, the fall of Mariupol has freed a number of Russian troops to be redeployed in the east, where Russia has not yet been able to secure the control of Donetsk.
This situation opens up different scenarios. According to the most conservative estimates, Putin could claim that control of the Donbas region — and the corridor linking it to Crimea — is the triumph of his “special operation” to “denazify” Ukraine, although that in itself does not mean the end of the war, which could continue in other forms, such as counterinsurgency operations.
But there is another, bolder hypothesis: that Putin may announce an escalation, extending his territorial objectives toward Transnistria, a small separatist region of Moldova. That would take the Russian offensive westward, to the border with Romania — that is, to the very gates of the European Union.
Although repeated references to Moldova by the Russian command is fueling speculation of such an escalation, it seems doubtful that Russia could carry it out. There are two reasons. First, Putin’s military has failed to establish control over the areas it already occupies and where it faces Ukrainian resistance. Second, any expansion fo the war into Transnistria would require — among other things — the conquering of the port city of Odessa, which could expose Russia to an unsustainable military overextension. While there are no accurate figures or independent methods to corroborate the information that both the “West” and Russia employ as part of their war arsenals, some military agencies estimate that the Russian army lost 25 percent of its operational capacity in the first eight weeks of the war.
As former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitted in an interview, the Western powers had made a double mistake: “to underestimate the ambitions of Vladimir Putin” and “overestimate the strength of the Russian military.”
It seems likely that this exposure of the strategic weaknesses of the Russian army — and the greater-than-expected Ukrainian resistance — have influenced the imperialist powers, the United States in particular, to perceive a strategic opportunity within this Russian invasion of Ukraine. This change of perception partly explains the Western powers’ escalation.
U.S. president Joe Biden announced the political shift in Poland at the end of March, when he implied that the U.S. strategy was “regime change” in Russia. It became official policy with the visit of U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin to Kyiv. After meeting with Zelenskyy, they revealed an open secret: that the real driving force of U.S. imperialism is not the “sovereignty of Ukraine” but a “weakened” Russia in the long term.
In an interview with CBS News, Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, was even more explicit. Not only did he say, “We want to win,” but he explained that this means “finally breaking the back of Russia’s ability to project power outside of Russia.”
The Biden administration continues to maintain its “red lines” of not entering directly into a military (nuclear?) conflict with Russia — meaning no “boots on the ground” or engaging in combat by, for example, imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But despite these limits, the United States and NATO have escalated their intervention and broadened their objectives, now openly standing behind Zelenskyy and acting as the military-political command of the Ukrainian side.
This “command” took on organizational status with the establishment of the so-called Contact Group for Ukraine, which had its first meeting, chaired by Austin, at Ramstein Air Base, the main U.S. military base in Germany. This war council includes 43 countries — not only NATO members but also countries “friendly” to the United States, such as Japan, Israel, and Qatar — and will meet monthly to assess Ukraine’s military needs to “win” the war.
Among the group’s main decisions is that Western powers will increase the provision of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, as well as training. Particularly significant is that NATO will now be providing the Ukrainian army with heavy offensive weapons. This arsenal includes Gepard anti-aircraft tanks from Germany and Howitzer guns from the United States and Canada.
In keeping with this more offensive orientation, Biden asked Congress to approve an additional $33 billion for military and economic assistance to Ukraine — a nearly tenfold increase of the $3.5 billion that U.S. imperialism had already invested in the two months of the war in Ukraine. This is a clear sign that the United States is preparing for a prolonged conflict.
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused Washington and NATO of entering into a “proxy war” (typical of the Cold War) and raised the specter of a World War III that could turn nuclear. Putin summarily did the same and then quickly retracted it and clarified that Russia is not at war with NATO — especially after China, Russia’s main ally, disassociated itself from the threat of a new world war. Nevertheless, it is an indicator of the dangerous course events could take if U.S. policy leaves Putin faced with the choice of surrendering or escalating the war beyond Ukraine.
This is why the conservative “realist wing” of the U.S. foreign policy establishment insists that, faced with the possibility of dangerous escalation, imperialism’s national interests are in openly negotiating with Putin to end the conflict. Richard Haass, one of the wing’s main spokesmen, and who was an official in the George W. Bush administration’s State Department, writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine that the United States must get out of the tactical discussion (quantity and quality of the armaments sent to Ukraine) and define its strategy before it is too late. To this end, he advises following the lessons of the Cold War: avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia and accept limited results. In short, it would be a mistake to insist on “regime change in Moscow as a condition of stopping the war” — as the hawks are demanding.
In the immediate term, the Biden administration is capitalizing on the war in Ukraine to advance its efforts to rebuild U.S. hegemony. It is targeting Russia to weaken China, which today maintains an uneasy alliance with Putin, and it is heralding a “new world order” under U.S. leadership. But far from reestablishing “neoliberal globalization,” what has opened up strategically is a period of tremendous economic, political, social, and military upheavals — of which the war in Ukraine is only a symptom.
First published in Spanish on May 1 in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation by Scott Cooper