Just over a week after the tactical defeat of the Russian army on Ukraine’s northeastern front, the worst defeat in seven months of war, President Vladimir Putin finally spoke.
In a televised message addressed to both domestic and international audiences, the Russian president gave clues about the roadmap the war will follow. The timing does not seem coincidental. He chose the same day that U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy gave speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, which, according to Secretary General António Guterres, is taking place against the backdrop of the deepest geostrategic divisions since at least the Cold War. This is not only because of the war between Russia and Ukraine/NATO, but also because the erosion of the post-Cold War “neoliberal order” is giving rise to the resurgence of conflicts, regional wars (such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kosovo and Serbia, and others), and aspirations of second order powers such as Turkey.
What was new in Putin’s speech was that he announced the “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists and made further nuclear threats. In case there was any doubt, he clarified that he was not “bluffing” about nuclear escalation if the United States and NATO — which are effectively the political and military leadership of the Ukrainian side — decide to escalate their stated objective to “weaken Russia” and even strengthen their position in the region with regime change.
However, for now the most important military shift lies in the terrain of the means of conventional warfare: Russia will move from fighting with combined battalions of professional soldiers, mercenaries, and fighters to sending an army made up of primarily conscripted soldiers and reservists with little experience to the battlefield.
This decision is a costly one. Until now, the Kremlin has prevented the war from infringing on the daily lives of Russians, above all those of the middle class in the big cities, and tried to maintain a face of normalcy and cushion the impact of economic sanctions. But if Russians begin to experience the “special military operation” for what it actually is — a war — then this silent consensus will inevitably crack. It remains to be seen if the repression and countless examples of punishments of years of imprisonment will continue to enable Putin to maintain order within Russia and prevent the escalation of internal opposition.
At the same time, Putin’s announcement indicates that Russia is preparing itself for a more prolonged conflict, taking into account the time that it will take to train these new troops to be minimally fit for combat. It is no secret that Putin expects the arrival of winter to play in his favor. But the reality is that winter will hit everyone, including the Russian troops, which are engaged in a war that combines tactics and maneuvers typical of 20th century wars with the use of drones and intelligence that have been perfected with recent technological advances. And playing no small part in this dynamic is the possibility of an escalation to nuclear conflict.
Despite speculation that the Ukrainian offensive in Kharkov could mark a turning point in the invasion, it does not seem in and of itself to have the potential to seal the fate of the war. As has happened at other moments during the conflict, various pro-Western analysts maintain that the Russian army has reached its “culminating point,” at which point its capacity to attack exhausts itself and must go on the defensive.
Although categorical definitions can hardly be made, the Russian strategy seems to be consolidating the “intermediate objectives” that the Kremlin has set after its failure in the assault on Kiev at the start of the war. The Kremlin cannot expect the total escalation demanded by the most nationalist sectors of the Russian political-military caste, nor will it accept the premature defeat hoped for by the Western powers, especially the United States, which is aiding Ukraine’s military success.
In form it is an escalation of military presence, but in content the measures announced by Putin do not seem to have offensive objectives, but rather they aim at securing Russia’s position in the Donbas region against the hypothetical expansion of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The announcements of the recent referendums in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia to declare independence from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation suggest this as well. But this can change.
If this ends up being the scenario, the war will most likely continue along its three dimensions: military, economic-political, and geopolitical. Although strictly speaking the theater of military operations is still confined to Ukrainian territory, the international dimension of the conflict drives the course of events.
The success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive can only be explained by the armament and military and intelligence aid given by the United States and NATO. U.S. imperialism alone has given as much as $57 billion in funding for Ukraine, not to mention the efforts it has made since 2014 to transform Ukraine into a kind of unofficial NATO outpost. Further, the Biden administration will try to capitalize on Zelenskyy’s advances to improve its prospects for the midterm elections, which show the Republicans threatening to overtake the Democrats’ majority in Congress.
In turn, it is this same military success that Zelenskyy is using to demonstrate that “Ukraine can win.” With this argument, he is pressuring his Western sponsors for more and better arms and financial backing. From the United States, he hopes to get better heavy military equipment that, so far, Ukraine has been denied because it could fall into Russian hands. But the main target of criticism and pressure is Germany, which adds tension to the Western alliance and, in particular, is challenging the balance of power within the European Union.
One of the main mouthpieces of this tension with Germany is the Polish government. In a recent interview with the newspaper Der Spiegel, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister, accused Germany of breaching a sort of arms “swap” with his country, whereby Poland would give Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine and Germany would replace them with modern weapons. He also reproached Germany for its dependence on Russian gas and Chinese markets, demanded compensation for the grievances suffered during WWII, and denounced Berlin’s animosity towards the “illiberal” government in Warsaw.
German Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz is at the center of this criticism, despite having led the historic turn towards the remilitarization of Germany. Scholz presides over a coalition government in which his partners, in particular the Green Party, have taken an extreme warmongering stance. Scholz’s relative caution has to do exclusively with the national interest of German imperialism, which pinned its hopes of prosperity on cheap gas from Russia, and which cannot cut off this dependence overnight without paying a high cost: inflation, recession, and widespread discontent.
The arrival of winter will exacerbate these tensions. The “cold front” is one of the cards that Putin is playing to divide his European enemies and challenge their willingness to continue the war. The energy crisis is already having a direct impact on living conditions, employment, inflation, and the prospects of a recession, giving rise to a panoply of social unrest and political crises. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, where the crisis has already done away with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is now testing the current Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss, who, with Thatcherite methods of an anti-union offensive, is trying to suppress a wave of strikes and protests. The same is also true in the Czech Republic, where a protest initially made up of fringe groups — extreme right-wing, anti-vaccine, and others — changed its character and became an anti-government protest of between 70,000 and 100,000 people.
In the weak links of the European Union, such as Italy, where tendencies toward organic crisis are long-standing, the war has caused a political earthquake, deepening polarization. It ended the moderate, pro-Brussels government of banker Mario Draghi. It split the Five Star Movement and will most likely bring the Fratelli d’Italia, a far-right party heir to Mussolini, into government.
The relative strengthening of the United States’ position as leader of NATO has rekindled discussions about the viability of the European Union’s so-called “strategic sovereignty.” For sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, this was no more than an delusion nurtured by French President Emmanuel Macron, one which faded with the advent of the war in Ukraine. He adds that the current reality of the European Union is to act as a civilian auxiliary of the real power: NATO, led by the United States.
In the immediate future, the United States is capitalizing on the role it is playing in Ukraine to consolidate its hegemonic position in the “West” and use it to aid in its strategic dispute with China. This is the background of its attempts to “bring NATO” closer to the East-Asian country, to strengthen security alliances and military cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and to harden its political discourse on highly sensitive issues, such as Taiwan.
U.S. imperialism hopes that Putin’s military setback will have a negative impact on China and weaken the Eurasian alliance with Russia and China at the center.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which was the first overseas event attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping since the beginning of the pandemic, painted a complex picture. In one sense, it highlighted China and India’s undisguised discomfort with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin acknowledged Xi Jinping’s “concerns” and got a slap on the wrist from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who publicly chided him that this was no time for war.
Seen from another angle, however, the summit has shown the emergence — tortuous and contradictory, but an emergence nonetheless — of a geopolitical pole led by China which, without starting an open conflict for hegemony, counterposes itself with U.S. leadership. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization brings together eight full members — China, India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — which will be joined by Iran next April, as well as observers and “associates” including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. In short, it brings together nuclear powers (de jure and de facto) along with full members of the United Nations Security Council, and represents approximately a quarter of the world’s GDP and just under 45 percent of the world’s population.
In the short term, China has benefited economically from its partnership with Russia. Trade between the two countries grew by 31 percent in 2022 and China became the main importer of Russian crude oil at a discounted price.
However, it would be a mistake to explain these events solely in economic terms. Xi Jinping’s government has tried to toe the line between sustaining Putin, yet not taking the same gamble as the Western powers have in backing Ukraine. Although Russia and China have a fluid and informal alliance, it is based on an objective tendency to counter the U.S. drive to rebuild its hegemony in the West and expand it into the East. Although Putin is an important ally for now, for China the alliance represents the possibility of establishing an asymmetric alliance, where Russia would be the junior partner whose capacity for autonomous action would be seriously weakened.
The strategic implications of the war in Ukraine indicate that a historical period marked by imperialist disputes, crises, and wars, as well as the prospects of revolution, has been opened.
This article was originally published in Spanish on September 21 in La Izquierda Diario.
Translated by Madeleine Freeman.