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Stalemate in Ukraine

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, but Russia cannot reverse the balance of power. Pessimism is setting in among Kyiv’s allies, who are wondering what strategy to adopt.

Philippe Alcoy

January 10, 2024
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Ukraine’s Western allies had high hopes for the country’s spring counter-offensive, or so they publicly declared. The Ukrainian army’s successes in Kharkiv and Kherson had raised hopes that it would gain ground against the Russian forces. But today, several months after the launch of the much-heralded operation, almost everyone agrees that, despite a few isolated successes, it has ended in failure. Against this backdrop, doubts and a certain pessimism have set in among Ukraine’s supporters, who are now considering an end-of-conflict strategy.

Indeed, behind the scenes, several leaders of NATO powers are seeking a change of strategy, despite what they say publicly. This is particularly the case for the U.S. government, which claims to support Kiev’s objectives of liberating all Ukrainian territory and expelling Russian forces. In an article for Politico on December 27, Michael Hirsch argues that

along with the Ukrainians themselves, U.S. and European officials are now discussing the redeployment of Kyiv’s forces away from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s mostly failed counteroffensive into a stronger defensive position against Russian forces in the east.

Hirsch quotes a White House spokesperson as saying, “The only way this war ends ultimately is through negotiation. … We want Ukraine to have the strongest hand possible when that comes.”

In other words, the imperialist rulers are likely pressuring Zelenskyy to cede territory to Russia in order to end the war, no doubt promising to do everything in their power to regain some of this territory through negotiations.

To counter this pessimistic perception of the war situation, some analysts, while acknowledging the weaknesses of the counteroffensive, point to some rare but important tactical successes achieved by the Ukrainian army, particularly in Crimea against the Russian fleet:

In September, the Ukrainians carried out a series of missile strikes against Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol, including a landing ship, a submarine and the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, while several high-ranking commanders were inside. … The Ukrainians also stepped up their strikes against Russian logistics, repair and infrastructure centers on the peninsula, with the aim of reducing Russia’s ability to support its fleet. Earlier this month, Kiev claimed responsibility for two new attacks against the Russian fleet, using a new type of maritime drone to strike the Russian cruise missile carrier Buyan and carrying out a sabotage attack against the Pavel Derzhavin, a Russian patrol vessel.

These advances, however, were not enough to change the balance of power in Kyiv’s favor or, above all, to give allies a positive impression of the counteroffensive.

Domestic Political Pressures in the U.S. and the EU

Although Zelenskyy and his government are trying to persuade imperialist leaders to continue funding and arming Ukraine “until victory,” the situation on the ground is affecting the views of his Western allies. The Economist notes,

As a former actor who managed to change how the world sees Ukraine, Mr Zelensky knows that perceptions can become reality in less helpful ways, too. In a war that has become about mobilising resources, the belief among Ukraine’s backers that victory has become impossible risks starving Ukraine of the money and arms that it needs to win. Fatalism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. … As Russia’s war effort cranks up a gear and Ukraine’s resources are depleted, the attention of America and many European countries is shifting to domestic politics in a year of elections.

For President Biden, the war in Ukraine could become an important factor in this year’s U.S. election. If the difficulties on the ground continue and the Ukrainian army cannot win decisive victories, it will be very difficult for the Biden administration to assert its leadership. The Republicans understand this and have begun to use support for Ukraine as a political weapon, recently blocking a new $60 billion aid package for Kyiv.

Meanwhile, an economic outlook of weak growth and continuing inflation is fueling the “fatigue” among the U.S. population, which is beginning to demand accountability and results after the billions of dollars in aid that have already gone to Ukraine. If that weren’t enough, Israel’s war in Gaza, which could at any moment become a regional conflict, has added to a very delicate situation for North American imperialism: Washington has had to release $14 billion in aid to assist the Zionist state in its massacre of the Palestinian people.

The EU is also coming under political pressure for its aid to Ukraine. As in the United States, 2024 is an election year; 400 million people are set to vote in the European parliamentary elections. Even if European elections have far less political significance and consequences than U.S. presidential elections, there is a risk that the Far Right will emerge stronger, giving these reactionary political parties more clout in each country. “Centrist” European politicians fear that this could weaken European support for Ukraine. Indeed, the Washington Post has just published an investigation into the links between Marine Le Pen’s Rassamblement National (RN) party and Russia, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is blocking 50 billion euros in aid for Kyiv. The Far Right also recently won elections in the Netherlands, and last year Robert Fico, a far-right politician who maintains good relations with the Kremlin, returned to power in Slovakia.

All these factors — war fatigue, hardship, dissatisfaction, and the strengthening of “Eurosceptic” political alternatives — have been part of Putin’s strategy since he launched his war in February 2022. Support for Ukraine, he wagered, would eventually weaken.

Ukraine: Dependence and Internal Fissures

This situation exposes Ukraine’s financial, military, and political dependence on Western imperialist powers. Far from struggling for independence, Zelenskyy’s bourgeois, pro-imperialist policy consists of changing one master for another: yesterday it was Russia (with many contradictions and nuances); today it’s NATO. That’s why it’s so important for the Ukrainian government to persuade its Western allies to continue assisting the country, both financially and militarily. Given Ukraine’s importance to NATO, it’s hard to imagine the imperialist powers abandoning Kyiv altogether under current circumstances, but it’s increasingly clear to everyone that without this support, Ukraine could not stand up to Putin’s aggression.

This has consequences for the strategic interests of the Ukrainian working class. Not only has Zelenskyy tied the country’s military defense to NATO interests, but he has also sold Ukraine’s national independence to the imperialists, without ensuring the country’s territorial integrity. As a result, postwar Ukraine is likely to resemble a Western protectorate rather than an independent state.

But this also has consequences for national independence in foreign policy. Zelenskyy maintains an absolute follow-the-leader policy toward the United States — his support for Israel’s criminal war against the Palestinians in Gaza is a case in point. In his pro-Zionist frenzy, Zelenskyy went so far as to compare Hamas’s attacks to Putin’s aggression.

But this situation also exposes internal fissures in Ukraine. For example, Zelenskyy has appeared to be on a collision course with his military general staff since October, after Ukrainian army commander-in-chief Valeri Zaluzhnyi told the Economist that the war had reached a “stalemate.” The tension continues, as shown by the friction that arose after the announcement of a new conscript recruitment campaign — 450,000 to 500,000 new soldiers are to be drafted from the civilian population — and the lowering of the minimum recruitment age from 27 to 25.

The Financial Times reports that

Zelenskyy stressed that this was a request from the top brass, one that he had not yet granted. Before approving it, he wanted a detailed plan from his commanders about why so many recruits were needed and what that would mean in terms of troop rotations at the front. … [His deputies] were instructed not to comment on [the bill] and instead refer journalists’ questions to military commanders.

For his part, however, General Zaluzhnyi asserted that he “did not make any request for any figures” and that revealing figures would be amount to divulging a military secret. “We are an army and we must fight, not interfere in the lives of civilians.”

Indeed, this measure is very unpopular among the Ukrainian population, which seems uncertain of the war’s direction. Yet many people have a very high opinion of General Zaluzhnyi, raising fears that he could become a rival political figure to Zelenskyy. A destabilization of the political situation seems unlikely during the war, unless there is a major debacle on the military front. But after the war, these fissures could become a more consolidated opposition to the current government. Add to this the anti-corruption campaigns against the oligarchs that Zelenskyy’s government is conducting under pressure from the West, which reinforce internal contradictions. It remains to be seen whether these frictions and breaches within the national bourgeoisie will have consequences for political stability in postwar Ukraine, or even before.

To persuade his Western partners to continue funding the war, and to convince the Ukrainian population he can capably lead the state and the war effort, Zelensky intends to step up the offensives in Crimea, where the counteroffensive’s most significant successes have been. Crimea is also a very important territory from a political, military, and symbolic point of view for the war. As noted in the Economist,

Mr Zelensky gives little away about what Ukraine can achieve in 2024, saying that leaks before last summer’s counter-offensive helped Russia prepare its defences. But if he has a message, it is that Crimea and the connected battle in the Black Sea will become the war’s centre of gravity. Isolating Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and degrading Russia’s military capability there, “is extremely important for us, because it’s the way for us to reduce the number of attacks from that region,” he says.

Is Putin Winning?

It seems pretty clear that Putin is in a stronger position now than he was last year — perhaps even the best position he’s been in since the start of the war. Last year, the Russian army made very little headway in its winter offensive, paid a heavy price in material and human terms for the capture of Bakhmut, and suffered major setbacks in Kherson and Kharkiv. What’s more, last June, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, launched a mutiny against the Kremlin. Putin not only managed to survive this rebellion, but later eliminated Prigozhin himself, who died in a “mysterious” air crash.

After these events, Putin’s authority in the Kremlin was reestablished, and he emerged stronger. This is important for Russia, because after the Wagner rebellion, there was a risk of frontline disorder and infighting, which could have plunged the Russian army into chaos. In the end, however, this was avoided, and Putin managed to hold on to most of his positions and thwart the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Since December, the Russian army has launched heavy attacks across Ukrainian territory, using drones and long-range missiles to strike both military and civilian positions. Some analysts fear that after winter, Russia will launch a new offensive. It remains to be seen what the objectives of such an offensive would be, but we can’t rule out a desire to improve the balance of power in preparation for possible negotiations.

Yet, even if the situation seems more favorable to Putin today, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t turn around and start favoring Kyiv’s position again. In other words, the outcome of the war is by no means set in stone. And this situation is unlikely to change in the short term, at least from a military point of view.

The breakdown of the agreement on the export of agricultural products across the Black Sea, from which Russia withdrew last July, shows that both sides cannot gain significant advantages to change the balance of power. The country reinstated blockades of commercial shipments to Odessa and began a series of drone and missile attacks against Ukrainian grain export facilities. As a result, prices for shipments to and from Ukraine skyrocketed while Russian grain exports grew.

Kyiv responded to these events by setting up an alternative, NATO-protected humanitarian shipping corridor along the Ukrainian cost. Since then, 32 international ships have left Ukrainian ports full of grain, bound for Africa and other countries.

Today, negotiations to end the war could appear to be a victory for Putin, and entail major risks for Zelenskyy and NATO. Internally, Zelenskyy could appear to have ceded national territory to the Russian invaders, stirring up opposition to his regime, even in the army. It wouldn’t look good for NATO either, especially if it appeared to be forcing Ukraine to negotiate and give in. This is why the imperialist rulers are trying to present the results of the war as a partial victory for Ukraine. And it could indeed be presented as such, if we take into account the fact that the Ukrainian army has so far prevented Russia from occupying all or a large part of its territory.

For Russia, a resolution of the war in which it secures control of part of Ukrainian territory would probably be presented as a form of victory. But it should not be forgotten that Putin’s main objective was to replace the Ukrainian authorities with leaders sympathetic to Moscow, and to break the momentum of rapprochement between Kyiv and NATO and the EU. Moscow has achieved none of these goals — on the contrary, it has accelerated Ukraine’s rapprochement with Western powers. From the point of view of Russia’s strategic interests, securing control of 20 percent of Ukrainian territory wouldn’t constitute failure, but it would hardly fulfill the Putin government’s objectives in terms of security and limiting NATO’s build-up on its border.

So, almost two years after the start of the war, it has reached a stalemate that seems difficult to overcome. Internal and external political factors, however, could change the situation and tip the scales one way or the other. Today, the political and social pressures beginning to emerge within the imperialist states supporting Ukraine could be decisive in moving toward a possible end to the conflict. But this is far from certain and, more importantly, would not necessarily mean progressive development.

On the contrary, a peace pact between Putin’s reactionary regime and Ukraine’s imperialist guardians could lead to the permanent militarization of the entire region, an arms race, and future wars. As we’ve been saying since the beginning of the war, we’re betting on independent working-class intervention to put a real end to the war and to find a lasting solution to the self-determination of Ukraine and all the peoples living there. From our point of view, this can happen only under a workers’ government independent of all imperialist powers, Russia, and the Ukrainian oligarchs, but in deep alliance with the Russian proletariat.

First published on January 3 in French on Revolution Pérmanente.

Translation: Otto Fors

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Philippe Alcoy

Philippe is an editor of Révolution Permanente, our sister site in France.

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