Ukraine: Russian military setbacks indicate possible new perspectives

  • Implications of Russian military setbacks
  • More limited political goals?
  • US/NATO goals
  • Possible use of chemical or “tactical” nuclear weapons and US response
  • Can Russia become a “failed state”?
  • Role of the Ukrainian working class

It now seems that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has at least stalled. The main military goal of Russia was to seize Kyiv and until recently most military experts were predicting that they would ultimately succeed. That is now questionable. According to ABC News in the last few days, Russian troops east of Kyiv were forced to retreat nearly 35 miles, where they have dug in to develop a defensive position (v. moving onto the attack). Northeast of Kyiv, in the city of Chernihiv, it is reported that Russian forces that had surrounded that city have also been forced to retreat slightly.

Berdnyansk port on fire and two Russian warships reportedly destroyed.

An apparently serious setback for the invaders was suffered in the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk,  which had been captured early in the invasion. That port was used as a supply center for the forces moving down the Sea of Azov which were close to capturing Mariupol with the apparent goal of capturing Odessa. On March 23, Ukrainian forces apparently used a rocket to bomb Berdyansk, causing a major explosion and setting a couple of Russian ships on fire. Military experts say that port will now be inoperative for at least a couple of weeks, which could be a lifetime in this war.

These setbacks are forcing Russian forces to dig in and prepare what amounts to trench warfare. That in itself turns what would have been an advantage for Russia into its opposite. Had Russia been able to capture Kyiv in the first week or so, then because of the largely flat terrain of Ukraine, popular guerrilla-type warfare against them would have been extremely difficult. Now, though, it is exactly that flat open terrain that makes Russia’s supply lines very vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. Already there are reports of Russian troops running out of not only ammunition and fuel but even food.

Russian officers killed
Ukraine has also killed two top naval commanders for the Black Sea fleet – Navy Capt. Andrey Paliy, and the commander of the fleet’s 810th Marine Infantry Brigade, Col. Aleksey Sharov. This is on top of Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov, Gen. Andrei Kolesnikov, Gen. Oleg Mityaev and Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky. At least in the case of the army generals, Ukrainian special forces have been able to target them because the generals had been forced to use unencrypted phones, whose locations cold be traced. Their deaths also indicates the weakness in Russian military doctrine. Their method leaves the lower and mid level officers without authority to be flexible; only the generals are allowed to adapt or change commands as the situation warrants. Since the Russian advances have not gone according to plan, this adaptation has been necessary, forcing the top officers to move closer to the front lines.

Putin’s Objectives in doubt
The fact that Putin’s aim of capturing Kyiv is in doubt throws Putin’s military and political goals in doubt.

Politically, if he was unable to directly annex all of Ukraine, he planned to at least decapitate the present government and instal a puppet regime for most of Ukraine while formally annexing the Donbas region. This has forced Putin to use increasingly brutal methods – near carpet bombing of Mariupol, for one. It is just reported today (Thursday, March 24) that Zelensky has accused Russian forces of using phosphorous bombs (as have the US and Israel in the past). There are also concerns that Putin may use chemical or “tactical” nuclear weapons.

Focus on Donbass
It is also forcing Putin to adjust his military objectives. According to ABC News Russian troops [are] now prioritizing operations in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region…” Does this indicate a more limited political goal? Is Putin considering the possibility that he will be unable to install a puppet regime in the country as a whole as well as capture the entire coast line of Ukraine, all the way down to Odessa? In that case, maybe he is considering continuing on the offensive as much as possible to strengthen his bargaining position and win acceptance of annexing Luhansk and Donetsk “republics” or establishing formal “independence” for them, which would in effect mean the same thing.

What would be the position of both NATO and Zelensky, which may not be one and the same? As for Zelensky, that would partly depend on the mood of the Ukrainian population. From all reports, as well as based on the battle field results, it is still highly motivated to fight. But Zelensky will also come under pressure from NATO, first and foremost Biden.

Just this morning, a commentator on CNN posed the possibility of some sort of informal NATO presence in western Ukraine. The idea was that NATO would not have much if any firepower there and Ukraine would not become a formal NATO member, but if that part of the country came under attack, “NATO” (meaning the US) would respond. The implication of this is that the US might consider some sort of formal or informal partition of Ukraine, with at least the two breakaway “republics” if not the Donbas region as a whole falling under direct Russian influence if not formal annexation by Russia.

This would leave a festering wound and set up all sorts of future political and military struggles in the region for years to come. It would resolve absolutely nothing.

Biden and Zelensky: Their goals are not identical.

US objectives and possible role
The overall longer term goal of the US is to keep Ukraine open for US economic and political exploitation. For this, it cannot allow Russia to capture the country. Biden & Co. would prefer Zelensky to retain control over the entire country, but more immediately the US is concerned about Putin being backed into a corner and using either chemical or “tactical” nuclear weapons. This would greatly destabilize the entire world situation. They also do not want to get directly involved in fighting Russian troops, out of fear of a wider war, up to and including widespread use of nuclear weapons.

As for the interests of the masses of people in Ukraine, Biden cares no more for them than he does for the Palestinian, Afghan, Cambodian masses. Or for the masses of US workers for that matter. It’s just that the interests of US capitalism happen to partially coincide with the interests of Ukrainian people for now.

What would be the US response if Putin uses chemical or “tactical” nuclear weapons? Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, indicated on CNN that in the case of chemical weapons, the US might target the specific force that used those weapons. In the case of using nuclear weapons, then all bets are off. It seems most likely that NATO/the US would respond directly and where that could lead is anybody’s guess.

Will Putin heed these warnings?

Putin is under increasing stress

He is in an increasingly desperate situation, as indicated by his arrest of several key figures in his administration. According to The Hill  Putin ‘ordered the house arrest of two senior Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. Colonel-General Beseda, Chief of the FSB’s “Fifth Service,” reportedly was detained along with his deputy, Anatoly Bolyuk, charged with providing flawed intelligence about Ukraine and their improper use of operational funds. Separately, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security council chief, claimed that several Russian generals have been fired.’ He has also reportedly fired about eight generals.

For his very own political (as well possibly as physical) survival, it’s hard to see how Putin can afford an outright defeat, how he can allow his forces to be forced out of Ukraine entirely with the situation returning to what it had been previously. Can he accept a compromise? Nobody knows, probably not even himself. Although we must not focus on the psychology of individual leaders, since Putin has nearly sole power in Russia, his state does matter. There has been some speculation that he is dying of cancer. In that case, what does he really care if he sets off a wider nuclear conflagration, for example.

Could Russia break apart?
As far as a movement from below overthrowing him: Given the massive repression in Russia, for that to happen there would have to be a massive opposition from below. While the opposition is more widespread than in the past, it does not seem to exist to the extent of being able to overthrow him. His entire situation is very shaky, though, but it’s possible that exactly this is inhibiting any group of officers from moving against him. For one, it seems it would be difficult to even form such a core. For another, who would want to inherit what Putin has left them?

Maybe one or two could assassinate him, but what then? Would they really be able to rule, or would Russia tend to break down into different armed camps with different Russian oligarchs becoming Russian warlords, in effect retaining power over different regions of the country? Bear in mind the massive nuclear arsenal in Russia. Would that leave the different oligarchs/warlords with their individual power over nuclear weapons?

What a nightmare!

The Ukraine working class.
They may hold the key to the regional and possibly world situation.

Role of working class
The final question is what role can the Ukrainian working class play? It seems nearly certain that Zelensky would return to his previous neoliberal policies whenever the war ends. If the Russian invasion is largely defeated, then tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of Ukrainian volunteer working class fighters may feel newly empowered. Will it organize to resist neoliberalism, including building its own political party? And if so, it seems that could have a massive effect on the Russian working class, which might be the only force in Russia that could hold society together.

In that case, US capitalism will do its utmost to sidetrack or even encourage the repression of such working class movements. All the more reason why, while we must support the arms going to Ukraine, US and NATO forces should be kept out. And all the more reason while we should support the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

Berdnyansk port on fire and two Russian warships reportedly destroyed.

Categories: Europe, Uncategorized, war

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