Vladimir Unkovski-Korica analyses the current direction of the Ukraine war.
The Ukraine war in the last few weeks has entered a new, third phase. The first phase was characterised chiefly by Russia’s initial lightning attempt at taking Kyiv, while the second saw Russia inch forward slowly in the east and south over the summer.
But the new, third phase saw Ukraine launch a counter-offensive. Aided by unprecedented levels of Western military, economic and diplomatic backing, stiff and motivated Ukrainian resistance has clearly stopped Russian advances and Ukraine now holds tactical momentum.
The counter-offensive has seen the Ukrainian army clear the northern Kharkiv region of Russian troops in a matter of days, and continue to strike at Russian positions across several fronts in the east and south.
It is apparent that Russia has exhausted the possibilities that it had with the initial invasion force that it launched in February, and badly lacks manpower and material. But does this mean we are entering the end game?
The military front
The rapid advance of Ukrainian forces in early September in the Kharkiv region represented a major propaganda coup for Kyiv, but it has not yet been matched by similar breakthroughs elsewhere on the front, though these cannot be excluded.
Military analysts anticipate that autumn will bring rains and mud, which will make offensive movement by either army difficult. So the pressure will be on Kyiv to advance now.
At the moment, the Ukrainian army is pressing along several points across the north and east in an attempt at stretching Russian forces and maintaining a level of unpredictability.
The key southern front of Kherson is an obvious target. Kherson supplies Russia’s prized holding, the Crimea, with fresh water. But it also represents a potential staging ground for more offensive action by Moscow’s troops on Ukraine’s coast later down the line. Moscow has made no secret of its desire to capture Odesa, link up with Moldova’s Russian-backed separatist region Transnistria, and cut Ukraine off from the sea.
Recapturing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant ahead of the winter may also be a most desired goal for Kyiv, as it may alleviate the country’s electricity crisis ahead of the winter.
Still, much of the fighting remains across the north-east of the frontline, towards the Donbas. Indeed, Lyman is currently a major front, with Lysychansk a potential propaganda prize, since it damages in a big way Russia’s control of an entire Ukrainian region, Luhansk.
How serious have Russia’s losses been? On the one hand, Russia is clearly militarily on the back foot, after losing more than 8,000 square kilometres in just a few days in early September and probably more since.
But the scale of its retreat overall is not as dramatic. Russia still controls around a fifth of Ukraine and, as of just over two weeks ago, that amounted to roughly 116,000 sq km of territory.
What is perhaps more worrying for Russian generals is that the manpower (170,000-190,000 men) and materiel involved at the start of the invasion have been depleted and are no longer enough to prosecute the war effectively.
The level of political miscalculation of the initial military strategy has now been seriously exposed: it is evident that Russia’s war was calculated as a fast war, and it has become a war of attrition, as the West decided to use Ukrainian resistance to hurt its rival imperial power, Russia.
Moreover, more military defeats and losses for Russia will make it difficult for its army to hold on to all the territory it occupies, as its troops are clearly exhausted and morale has progressively been dropping.
Putin has responded to Ukrainian advances not by giving up, but by significantly escalating the war: with partial mobilisation at home (setting a target of 300,000), referendums in the four occupied regions (Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Lukhansk and Donetsk) ahead of possible annexation, and the threat of nuclear weapons.
Putin put an emphasis on the message that he was fighting the West in Ukraine. This should be no surprise, as all the indications are that Ukraine’s war effort is ever more deeply embedded in Western military structures.
As revealed by an article in the New York Times, the Ukrainian counter-offensive was planned by Ukrainian, US and UK military officials. The plan ‘according to an officer on the general staff in Kyiv, depended entirely on the size and pace of additional military aid from the United States.’
By escalating, Putin is effectively saying to the West that Russia’s initial plan might have failed, but the West should not confuse tactical advances with strategic victory.
In the Kremlin’s view, in absence of Western aid to Ukraine, the war is fundamentally asymmetrical in Russia’s favour – Russia being richer, bigger, more powerful, and fighting a war on Ukraine’s territory.
Talking up the nuclear option may be disparaging of Russian conventional capability, but it was intended as a message to the West that continued support for Ukraine risks nuclear war. It is evident that the Putin regime is rattled, but also that it is unwilling to give up.
Ukraine is central to Russian imperial ambitions, as a gateway to a warm sea port, a breadbasket for the world, a mineral-rich country, and a critical geopolitical space. It would be to misunderstand the nature of imperialism as such to expect that Russia would give up on Ukraine. For the Kremlin, this is an existential fight to maintain Russia as a great power.
Moment of truth
As the much more powerful imperialist bloc, the West is conscious of the stakes but willing to press ahead despite the risks. It has more resources to bring to bear on the conflict, and it is still facing comparatively fewer losses compared with Russia. After all, it’s Ukrainians dying fighting the Russians, not Western troops.
In this proxy war, the Ukrainian army and the West will in the short term ignore Putin’s threats. They are pressing home a temporary advantage on the battlefield and looking to see if Russia is capable of mobilising forces it has long been reluctant to mobilise.
Should the Ukrainian army have some breakthroughs ahead of the autumn rains, Kyiv would get a bigger bargaining chip at the negotiating table if it chooses to negotiate with Moscow. Should Kyiv see that Russia is failing to mobilise, it will press on for more gains on the battlefield, hope to survive winter, and pray for the tyrant to be overthrown in Moscow.
And indeed military conscription will prove politically tricky for the Kremlin. The Putin regime has in part maintained itself by presenting itself as the opposite of the chaos of the 1990s. So, call-ups will upset the fragile stability of the regime.
Resistance to mobilisation
There have been anti-war protests across Russia again, for the first time since the early days of the invasion, with thousands being arrested.
Some protests have taken on a mass character, as in Dagestan, or a violent one, with a recruiting officer being shot, which shows that the Kremlin’s strategy of targeting national minorities, provincial peripheries and poorer folk is not as safe a bet as it thought.
Reports from crossing points in Georgia and Kazakhstan claim that tens of thousands are leaving Russia, and the prices of flights abroad have increased. There is visible disquiet about pursuing a war in a neighbouring country that the Kremlin has claimed for years is a fraternal country.
But, for the Kremlin, the risk will be one it is willing to take. The fear of losing the war in Ukraine is far too great. And the political calculus at home is that there will be disquiet, but that it will be manageable.
After all, 300,000 is not an insignificant number politically, but it represents less than 1% of Russia’s population of over 140 million. Sure enough, we are talking about a larger section of the population, as families, communities and those fearing the draft will be a much bigger number. But, for the Russian army, getting bodies into Ukraine fast is critical, and the state will do all it can to provide them.
The dangers ahead
Whether or not the Putin regime succeeds in this mobilisation, it is difficult to envisage that either side will be able to finish the war quickly and achieve all its aims.
If Kyiv really fantasises about ultimately re-taking the Crimea, that goal is thinkable only with still more decisive Western assistance, and Putin has made the threat of nuclear war very clear. Moreover, the further Kyiv presses on into the Donbas and towards Crimea, the more it would face the same problem Russia has faced in Ukraine more generally: a hostile population.
As the war drags on into the winter, will Kyiv’s Western backers still be able to sell more support for Ukraine to their cold and hungry populations by next spring?
There will be major problems for Russia too. The Kremlin’s apparent dream of decapitating Ukraine’s political leadership, and seeing adoring crowds welcome Russian troops as liberators, is getting dimmer than the autumnal sunlight.
The Russian army depends critically on artillery barrages, which may serve it well when the rains and mud trap the Ukrainian advance. But how many shells and other equipment will the 300,000 (if they arrive) be able to count on and for how long? What about food, supplies, medicine?
Russia has faced great logistical problems supplying its much smaller army in Ukraine so far, so it is difficult to see how things can swiftly improve now that resources have been depleted and the proposed size of the force is going to be increased.
The need for diplomacy
No wonder, then, that Putin mentioned Ukraine’s March peace plan while talking about annexations, mobilisation and nuclear war. On the back foot, he seems ready to go back to the negotiating table, with Ukraine’s neutrality a much desired goal.
There is building pressure internationally for some kind of diplomatic solution, as the economic costs of the war start to be clear to actors across the globe, and as various proxy conflicts start heating up, mirroring the intensifying West-East cold war.
China and India have in recent weeks been vocally calling for a peace deal, after effectively distancing themselves from Putin in the last few weeks. Make no mistake, though. China in particular does not have an interest in seeing Putin fall. So Beijing is not exactly washing its hands of Putin.
But Bejing is also keen to look after its own interests. It is a rising economic power that does not wish to enter military competition with a still strong West, and benefits more from economic competition.
So, a peace deal, a less harsh winter for the global economy, and a weakened and more dependent Russia as part of China's emerging, loose bloc in the new cold war with a weakened West are all in China’s interests.
The rhetoric coming from Kyiv and Washington currently goes in the opposite direction as the military front looks good for the West, but the dangers in the situation are also creating major pressures for a deal to be done with Moscow.
There have been serious demonstrations in Europe, like a crowd of 70,000 in the Czech Republic, calling for a diplomatic solution. The European Union continues to be visibly divided over how harshly the West should respond to Russia.
From the question of gas and heating, through food prices, to the threat of nuclear war, the threat of the Ukraine war escalating to unmanageable proportions is increasingly evident.
This is why anti-war movements everywhere have a special case to make in the coming period, especially as the labour movement raises issues around the cost of living. To combat the cost of living crisis, we need peace: this is an increasingly obvious and tenable argument.
We need to create the pressure now, or else darker forces will exploit these arguments for their own ends, or we may live to see an even more serious military conflict emerge, with consequences few would wish to contemplate.
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