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Russia-Ukraine War. Photo: Vadim Ghirda on Flickr/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

Russia-Ukraine War. Photo: Vadim Ghirda on Flickr/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

To understand the direction of the war, we need to see beyond the battlefield in Ukraine, explains Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has visibly stalled in the last month and a half. With its capture of Lysychansk in early July, the Russian army took control of the whole Luhansk region.

It seemed close to fulfilling the scaled-down objectives of the Kremlin in Ukraine, after its initial failure to take the capital Kyiv in the initial months of the war.

But since then, the Russian army has made little progress. It still looks likely to take the neighbouring Donetsk region, which, together with Luhansk, makes up the Donbas.

This is the territory that most commentators expected to be Russia’s main goal in any war with Ukraine. The Donbas has many historic links to Russia, is part of establishing and maintaining a land link with occupied Crimea, and is mineral rich.

The Russian invaders seemed so confident that Sergei Lavrov publicly stated that Russia intends not just to capture Ukraine’s east but also to take all of the southern coast, including the port of Odesa, cutting Ukraine off from the sea.

Stalemate

Since then, however, Russia has found itself battling to defend the southern town of Kherson from a much-trumpeted Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Kherson was an early and major gain for Russia in the war, a gateway to the south – and the only pocket of territory held on the Ukrainian side of the Dnieper River.

As such, it remained potentially vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. Indeed, Ukraine, armed by state of the art artillery from the West, has been able to knock out some bridges and supply routes to Kherson.

It has also recently struck some high-profile targets deep in nearby Crimea, sowing confusion in the Russian military machine.

But the reality is that the Ukrainian army has not moved far forward towards Kherson.

A recent New York Times article explained it’s tricky for Ukraine to mount an offensive. In a nutshell, according to Ukrainian military high brass, Russia still has more artillery locally.

Put differently, Ukraine does not have enough manpower or firepower to push the Russian army back across the river. This may change over time but is time on Ukraine’s side?

Nuclear power

To answer that, let’s pause and focus for a moment on the situation surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

We’ve been reading rather confusing news headlines about this for weeks in the Western press. Basically, Ukraine has been accusing Russia of shelling the nuclear plant which it occupied some months ago.

This seemed hard to believe or understand. But in recent days, a possible explanation for what’s been happening has started to emerge.

The Ukrainian government in Kyiv is fearful that Russian control of the nuclear plant, which supplies a fifth of Ukraine with electricity, gives Moscow the upper hand as summer turns to autumn, and autumn turns to winter.

As we know, Moscow is not afraid of terrorising civilian populations.  It is after all switching off the gas to Central Europe in a clear bid to divide the West and weaken support for Ukraine. Such calculations could backfire of course as civilian resolve against the invaders may harden.

But that does not take away from Kyiv’s nervousness about what will happen to Ukraine’s population. Winter is coming and the economy is predicted to contract up to 40% this year. Now we are learning that Russia is threatening to take Zaporizhzhia off grid.

So frantic claims that Russia was shelling the nuclear station it controls might have been propaganda designed to draw attention to Russian intentions, and even get diplomatic support to stop Russia cutting Ukraine off.

Certainly, there are dangers with taking Zaporizhzhia off grid, in that cooling the nuclear reactors requires alternative fuel. And there is of course the danger that military fighting surrounding the plant may lead to a nuclear accident, although we have also learned in recent days that the plant was built with the ability to take the impact of an airliner crashing into it.

So the reality at the moment seems to be that the main threat to Ukraine is not military in the immediate sense, but rather linked to Ukraine’s economic and energy vulnerability in the face of the Russian invasion.

Western Europe

Despite this, Western countries have so far been reticent to encourage a diplomatic end to the war. Rather, announcements have continued to be made about more support for Ukraine. Just this week, the US promised $775 million in additional military aid.

While Western aid has clearly helped Ukraine to slow the Russian military advance, the human cost of the war is rising and not just for Ukraine.

As winter approaches, it is not just the Ukrainian government that is going to be worried. There is visible nervousness in Western Europe too.

This is because much of Western Europe has depended on Russian fuel not just to keep war but to keep the wheels of industry turning.

The EU imports more than half its energy needs. Russian gas accounted for 40% of gas used in the EU. A quarter of oil imports and almost half of coal imports. Around 40% of uranium in the EU comes from Russia or Russia’s ally Kazakhstan.

These statistics expose how much talk of a green transition has been hollow. Indeed, according to a recent BP report, renewables accounted for, well, less than 15% of energy fuel consumption in the EU in 2017. Oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear led the way.

This is corroborated by an article this week in the Financial Times by Helen Thompson entitled ‘A winter of energy reckoning looms for the West’. She writes that ‘unpalatable as this reality is for climate and ecological reasons, world economic growth still requires fossil fuel production’.

Rising demand for fossil fuels might have led to much higher energy prices over the last decade, but cheap American shale proved just enough to prevent that eventuality. No more. Gas prices have been rising because of rising Chinese demand in the last year. But the next shale boom could come not from the US but, if it comes, most likely – from Siberia.

So, Helen Thompson concludes, in hard analytical fashion, ‘Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.’

Tectonic shifts

The West has been keen to encourage Ukraine to fight what amounts to a Nato proxy war with Russia. The West not only armed Ukraine, but helped it with intelligence. It also imposed heavy sanctions on Russia in the belief that the economic cost of the war would prove too much for Moscow.

Six months on, the West may see the boomerang effects of this policy. The truth is that it is not just Russia but Washington and its allies that are bogged down in Ukraine in terms of pouring in money and wasting war materiel.

Indeed, the immediate economic and social cost for Western Europe may lead to major political unrest.  Moreover, the US risks losing allies in several countries where far right governments may come to power, as in Italy next month.

Even more worryingly for Washington, Russia is being pushed and pushed into the hands of America’s main rival and the world’s rising economic superpower, China.

The situation is some ways reminiscent of the effects of the First World War on the balance of global forces between the main capitalist powers. At the end of the war, Europe was a devastated continent.

But the US, which had stood on the side for most of the war, had become the economic superpower which could slowly take over leadership from the world’s declining hegemon, Britain.

What about now? Russia is certainly an energy superpower but it cannot claim leadership in world affairs. That role may pass from the US to China, however. And any Russia-China axis is clearly feared in the West.

In this combination, Russia offers energy. China offers the often authoritarian ruling classes in the Global South the allure of being a partner for national economic growth with apparently fewer economic or political strings attached than the US. The world is once again changing, as in 1914.

The danger of war

As the world moves away from unipolarity towards multipolarity, the danger of more proxy wars between the imperialist powers, like the one in Ukraine, mount. Moreover, the threat of such conflicts escalating to a direct clash between the great imperialist powers also increases.

Each power will of course weave stories of why its population and those of other countries should prefer it over the others. Notice how we are watching the re-kindling of the story of Western democracies fighting the Eastern autocracies, who in turn talk up sovereignty and development against foreign meddling.

But the reality behind the rhetoric is that states are protecting a system that is ever more exploitative and destructive. Look at Liz Truss’s or Rishi Sunak’s pathetic run for leadership of the Tory party.

They offer no real help for energy consumers, but they do tell stories of standing up to Putin or admonishment of the G20 for inviting Putin, the tyrant, while at the same time promising to deepen democracy in Britain by curtailing further the right to strike.

In this new Cold War, the liberal West looks ever less democratic, and the Eastern ‘Other’ looks even less communist than the USSR looked back then.

As back then, hope comes not from the establishment, but from the working people who have to endure this nightmare across the globe. It is up to us to raise the anti-war case, it is up to us to fight for the rich to pay for the cost of living crisis, it is up to us to fight for liberty, peace and justice.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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