Notes on the war in Ukraine

Andrew Burgin writes: 1) We are now well into the third month of the war. In my initial piece on the war written several weeks ago I outlined the origins of the war and assessed the situation regarding sanctions and the increasing involvement of the US in the war. I also looked at some of the economic and political implications of the war. Where are we now?

2) The war is a disaster for the people of Ukraine. Many millions of Ukrainians have been displaced and millions more made refugees. Much of the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed and thousands have died. There are accounts of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Bucha which have to be investigated. It is estimated that the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The economy will decline by as much as 40% this year. Ukraine was already a poor country and the war has destroyed much of its economy.

3) The war shows no sign of ending and may continue for many months if not years. From the perspective of the military and political situation Ukraine has achieved considerable success. Russia has been forced to abandon its initial military strategy and relocate the bulk of its forces to the Eastern front. The Russian army is suffering heavy losses. As I write this there are reports that a whole Russian battalion has been wiped out attempting to cross a river with the loss of a 1,000 troops and much equipment. The Ukrainian army is now being supplied with the most advanced Western weaponry. The US has agreed a new $40bn budget for Ukraine, most of which will be devoted to supplying weapons. This is a massive windfall for the arms manufacturers. A huge arms race is now in progress and the beneficiaries will be Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics. These are the prime contractors for the US Department of Defence. This new money is on top of the billions of dollars of weapons already supplied which includes thousands of shoulder-fired Javelins and Stinger missiles which have been particularly effective against the Russian army. The Ukrainian army defending Kharkiv has now pushed the Russian army back to the Russian border.

4) The United States is deeply embedded in the war in Ukraine. Since 2014 the US has helped rebuild the Ukrainian army with trainers coming from the US, Canada and the UK and while Ukraine may not be in NATO, NATO is certainly in Ukraine. The Ukrainian armed forces are better trained, better funded and better armed than in 2014 and this has been an important reason for its success.

The US is providing military and battlefield intelligence. The Washington Post claimed that US spy agencies had provided the co-ordinates that enabled the Ukrainians to destroy Russia’s flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, the Moskva. The US understands that the war is further weakening Russia as a great power. The US will not let Ukraine lose the war but may not be unhappy to see the war prolonged. A historical analogy would be with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan where US arms enabled the Afghan mujahideen to defeat the Soviet forces. The US supported by Boris Johnson will take every opportunity to continue and escalate the war. The UK, Germany and the EU are collectively providing several billion dollars of military support for Ukraine. The British government has already given Ukraine £1.6 billion in military support and Boris Johnson has met with the arms companies asking them to increase production. The Ukrainian state is fully mobilised against the invasion, with the support of the majority of the population. Ukraine has the right to self-defence and self-determination, but to portray the war as primarily a ‘people’s war’ akin to the Spanish civil war, as some on the left do, is incorrect. The Spanish republic was born out of a socialist revolution, whereas the current government in Ukraine is one of corrupt and oligarchic capitalism deeply tied to US imperialism, overseeing a deeply unequal society with large scale impoverishment.

5) The war is a disaster for the people of Russia. Putin’s reckless decision to invade Ukraine has been calamitous for his own country. Its economy will decline by close to 10% in 2022 and inflation will rise to over 20%. Russia is not a great economic power and ceased to be so following the deindustrialisation introduced by the IMF reforms of 1992; its economy is based on export of natural resources which are subject to market fluctuations and vulnerable to sanctions. It has a poorly developed technological base and relies on the West for its more advanced products such as those needed for its aerospace industry. It does not produce high end semi-conductors. Western sanctions will lead to years of reverse industrialisation for the country. And even though medical goods are not meant to be included in the sanctions Russia is already running short of insulin. 90% of its pharmaceutical goods are imported from the EU. The expansion of NATO from the 1990s, up to and including former Soviet republics has underscored Russia’s weakness. Rather than the war being driven by a strong Russia with imperialist expansionist aims, on the contrary, the war results from Russia’s weakness and decline which has allowed its increasing encirclement over the last two decades. Sections of the US ruling class see this war as an opportunity for regime change and to further reduce Russia to semi-colonial status, neutralising it as a military opponent and opening the path for the US confrontation with China. The sanctions being imposed on Russia will likely remain in place for many years and, like those imposed on Iran, will have a serious deleterious effect on the working class in Russia.

6) The war is a disaster for hundreds of millions of people in the Global South. The war is accelerating an already existing economic crisis in developing countries. The war has increased the price of basic commodities such as food and fuel which are essential for existence. And many poorer countries source these from Russia and Ukraine. The war comes on top of the Covid pandemic which destroyed the tourist industry which many of these countries relied on. The war has had a massive disproportionate impact on these countries; for example Tunisia used import almost 50% of its wheat from Ukraine. Ukraine has stopped all wheat exports. The poor in Tunisia spend 80% of their income on food. The country already had a negative balance of trade holding little foreign currency, with high rates of unemployment. Tunisia was already in financial difficulty but has now been tipped over the edge by the war in Ukraine. It is much the same story in Sri Lanka, Peru, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere. Where is the international support for these countries? We are now seeing huge struggles in Sri Lanka against the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the people face huge increases in food and fuel costs. On May 16th the government revealed that the country only had enough petrol for one more day. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister has already resigned and a united mass opposition is emerging on the streets. In Iran the government has, from the first of May, removed food subsidies and the price of bread has thus risen by 500%. This is a direct consequence of the war and the increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. There are now protests taking place against the price increases in Iran and these will probably develop very quickly across the country. Ukraine and Russia provided 30% of global wheat exports. The war has stopped these exports and increased the price of wheat by at least 50%. It had been expected that India would continue to export some of its wheat surplus in order to fill demand but this week India banned all wheat exports citing its own food security and amid concerns that the recent heatwave will lower its harvest. Wheat is the most basic food substance in the world producing bread, pasta, noodles and couscous. The supply of wheat is already at its lowest point for 15 years as harvests in the US, Canada, France and India have also been hit by drought and the climate crisis.

The price of wheat is likely to rise as other countries follow India and ban its export in order to protect their own populations. The United Nations has warned that the price rises sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will worsen the food crisis in Africa and that more than 2 million children in the horn of Africa are at risk of starving to death. The UN World Food Programme has warned that the number of people teetering on the edge of famine in 43 countries, has risen to 45 million as acute hunger spikes around the world. The world is facing a global recession in 2023. The food crisis will begin in Africa but will spread to many other countries. There are 109 countries that face food and energy shortages and debt problems that pose the possibility of financial collapse. This crisis covers 1.7 billion people, one fifth of humanity.

As the war continues in Ukraine, exacerbating these crises and unleashing mass protests in countries around the world, we have a tremendous responsibility to work to forge links with the struggles that emerge. The war is triggering an unstoppable chain reaction and this comes on top of the pandemic and the environmental crisis.

7) The war has strengthened NATO. There is every possibility that Ukraine will join NATO over the longer term and it will certainly join the EU. In the immediate period Finland has applied to join NATO and Sweden has also just decided to join the military alliance too. Sweden is abandoning 200 years of neutrality which it maintained throughout the Second World War and throughout the Cold War, There will be more Western troops stationed on Russia’s borders together with an increased deployment of nuclear weapons. The US is moving nuclear weapons back to Britain. Military bunkers in the UK are being upgraded so they can be used for US nuclear weapons. The US is developing “special weapons” storage sites not only in Britain but also in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – these countries will store B61 nuclear bombs.

The enlargement of NATO can only further destabilise the political situation and create the conditions for further war. This week 15,000 NATO troops have begun battlefield training in the Baltic states.

8) We have now entered as Kissinger said last week a ‘totally new era’. The invasion of Ukraine has the potential to be a world-changing historical event. Concerns are rising about the potential use of nuclear weapons. Russia may be a declining power but it has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons. The situation, whatever the immediate outcome of the war, is deeply unstable. Putin has talked about the possibility of using so-called tactical nuclear weapons and the US is increasing its nuclear capability in Europe. There is a challenge to the theory of deterrence – the so-called balance of terror where nuclear weapons will never be used because they will result in mutually assured destruction – and an increasing likelihood that nuclear weapons will again be used. What makes Russia different from most other states that US imperialism sees as a threat is that it does have nuclear weapons. To pursue and escalate a war with Russia risks nuclear annihilation, certainly in Europe. It is deeply irresponsible, in my view, for some on the left who consider a Russian military defeat to be progressive, to argue for the unconditional arming of Ukraine by the West. Firstly, it makes nuclear war possible, or even probable, and that cannot be ignored. Secondly a massive increase in military spending and further expansion of NATO inevitably leads to a strengthening of NATO and thus US imperialism. Yet even some within the revolutionary left such as Murray Smith from Dei Lenk in Luxembourg argue that talk of disbanding NATO is ‘irresponsible’. The demand for an end to the Russian invasion and the support for Ukrainian self-determination does not oblige us to accept every demand of the Ukrainian government nor to support the war aims of the United States and NATO.

9) Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not only a localised war between two neighbouring countries. It is a war that signifies a geopolitical shift of massive proportions that poses an existential threat to humanity. The dynamic of US and allied imperialisms since the end of the cold war, to isolate, circumscribe and potentially fragment Russia through a process of NATO expansion and intensive militarisation, has now led to a war which has been seized on as opportunity to advance this agenda, adding the possibility of regime change. Simultaneously, the United States is pursuing a similar process of military encirclement with China, as recent developments around AUKUS and other military alliances have clearly shown. But the consequences of the war are truly global in their impact and not only on the military and strategic front. The economic crisis, together with the crisis of food production, is throwing hundreds of millions into poverty, with many millions facing starvation. Social unrest and protest resulting from the desperation of those with literally no alternative is unfolding in increasing numbers of countries. It is incumbent upon us to understand these global dynamics, to do what we can in solidarity with these forces of resistance.

The world is facing catastrophic developments, and many countries of the Global South are also now confronting a debt crisis, and we need to work alongside and as part of the European left and others to ensure that there can be transformative possibilities for the people globally as part of a programme of social change and debt cancellation. This war is part of the structural crisis of the entire capitalist system. The crisis is universal and global in that its impact unites all the problems facing humanity for which capitalism has no answer: war, food and health poverty, environmental and climatic degradation. The ruling class propose the systematic devastation of nature while continuing to accumulate the weaponry necessary to destroy the planet several times over.

Nothing more clearly illustrates the need to end this system than the trillions of dollars that will now be spent on military expenditure to fuel war while hundreds of millions face hunger and poverty.

May 16th 2022

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1 comment

One response to “Notes on the war in Ukraine”

  1. Nick Wright says:

    This is a very perceptive analysis which deals, unlike most commentary, with the global impact of the war.
    Possibly the military situation is more complex than most accounts in the west allow.
    A negotiated end to the can only stick if Ukraine’s neutrality is guaranteed

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