By Walter Chambers, based on discussions with Russian socialists
Military fatalities are already in excess of ten thousand, civilian deaths number in the thousands. Homes, schools, hospitals, theatres have been destroyed. Five million have fled from their homes. Russian troops should be immediately withdrawn from Ukraine. NATO should be disbanded.
It is now a month since the start of military operations in Ukraine. The original aims of the Kremlin — which included the speedy seizure of cities such as Mariupol, and of course Kyiv — have not been achieved. The army expected it would be met with the support of at least a section of the Ukrainian population, but after 8 years of war in East Ukraine, even most ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living outside of the Donetsk/Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ (DNR/LNR) have been consolidated into the Ukrainian nation.
The human cost is unacceptable. The siege and bombing of cities like Mariupol are designed to terrorise the civilian population, their use ensures that when military forces clash directly, they do so with brutality. This is made worse by the use of foreign legionnaires — usually far-right or hardened mercenaries from western countries to support Ukraine, or those mobilised by the Kremlin from Syria, or from its own notorious “Wagner group”.
Military fatalities already exceed ten thousand, civilian deaths number in the thousands. Homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces, theatres have been destroyed. Five million have fled from their homes, mostly into Poland, Romania, Hungary and elsewhere, but also with tens of thousands into Russia.
Negotiations in Turkey
A gleam of light at the far end of a long tunnel seemed to appear at the end of the first day of negotiations held in Turkey on Tuesday this week. The heads of the negotiating teams both gave positive assessments of progress. Turkish President Erdogan opened the session, but left immediately to fly to Uzbekistan, indicating how inter-imperialist relations are being realigned by the war — Tashkent has not supported the Russian intervention, nor does it recognise the independence of the DNR/LNR.
After the session, the Russian military announced a “cardinal reduction in military activity in the Kyiv and Chernigov directions”. Vladimir Medinsky, Head of the Russian delegation said that Kyiv had agreed to reject NATO membership, remain outside any blocks, refuse nuclear arms, and become a ‘neutral state’. This meant, according to Kyiv that its security should be guaranteed by other countries. This could be UN Security Council members, for example US, China and Russia, or countries such as Turkey, Israel or Poland. Kyiv also agreed to conduct negotiations on the status of Crimea over the next 15 years — no mention was made of the status of DNR/LNR. The Ukrainian delegation confirmed these claims, adding the territorial integrity of the country was not negotiable.
Russian troops regroup
Later reports indicate that missiles are still being fired at Kyiv and some fighting continues, however some Russian troops have been moved from the north of Kyiv, including from Chernobyl, according to the Russian military to concentrate on fighting in the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
This may well be because, although Belarusian President Lukashenko promised to send troops into Ukraine by 21 March, he has still not done so. There is strong opposition in Belarus to intervention. The Chief of General Staff resigned his post, soldiers have declared that if they are sent, they will immediately surrender. Instead, there are reports of significant numbers of Belarusians volunteering to support Ukraine, by organising rail blockades and so on.
The fighting morale of the Russian troops appears to be very low. Whole groups reportedly refuse to go to Ukraine, and others, once there refuse to obey orders. Troops have been poorly fed, and without diesel to fuel the tanks. Many vehicles and aircraft have been destroyed or captured. Units withdrawing from the north of Kyiv into Belarus are not capable of being sent directly to East Ukraine, and need significant re-equipping with, it seems, old equipment, often not properly maintained, which is being taken out of storage. In yet another example of peaceful resistance, Russian troops were persuaded to leave the town of Slavutich, near to Chernobyl after residents organised a demonstration against them earlier this week.
Missing Minister of Defence
Significantly Sergey Shoigu, Russian Defence Minister has returned to the TV screens after two weeks of unexplained absence. He announced that the aims of the first month had been achieved — now the main aim was to “liberate” Donbas. The war in Donbas has been continuing now for eight years — that part under the control of the pro-Russian regimes has only been partially extended after the last month of intense fighting.
This declaration, on top of the positive signals that came out of Turkey, were met with a howl of anger in Russia. State TV talk shows that have spent the month talking about nazis in Ukraine and all the vile crimes that they have been committing suddenly found that the patriotic war-mongering mood they had created could not be simply switched off — commentators spoke of betrayal, and asked why if securing DNR/LNR had always been the main aim, why were they going to leave Kyiv “under nazi control”! Typical of the reaction was that of Alexandr Prokhanov, editor of the far-right anti-semitic pro-government paper “Zavtra”, who said:
“I myself was in a state of panic yesterday. Today I feel better. The night was accompanied by heavy bombardment of Ukrainian targets throughout the country, from Lviv to Donetsk”.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal dictatorial head of the Chechen republic who was yesterday promoted by Putin to Lieutenant General, announced that he was going to Ukraine with his troops to finally take Mariupol, and go “to the end by taking Kyiv”. Although his soldiers have a reputation as shock troops, those that have already been sent to Ukraine have reportedly suffered serious losses.
Echoes of the war elsewhere
Less than three months ago, Russian troops arrived in Kazakhstan to save the government from a popular uprising. However officially the Kazakhstan government is remaining neutral, at least in the Russian language media in the country — in the Kazakh speaking media there is much sympathy for Ukraine and the government, under pressure, has been forced to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
After Russia removed some of its ‘peacekeeping’ troops from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to send to Ukraine over the week-end, Azerbaijan troops using Turkish supplied drones captured a village in Nagorno-Karabakh killing three. Erdogan now says the Azeris were provoked, but it cannot be excluded that this was an attempt by Erdogan to pressurize Russia before the start of negotiations.
Meanwhile troops from the pro-Russian undeclared republic of South Ossetia in Georgia [left after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war] have been sent to Ukraine and this week, the republic’s head has said he is starting the process of seceding from Georgia to join the Russian Federation. Japan has expressed its anger after Russia last week withdrew from peace negotiations over the disputed Kuril islands off Japan’s coast.
Proxy war as part of cold war
This war has dramatically speeded up the processes previously analysed by ISA, a key point of which was the development of the new cold war, mainly between US and Chinese imperialism. We did not, at this stage, expect the ‘cold’ war to turn ‘hot’ directly between the two powers, but we expected an increase in ‘proxy’ wars. Now Ukraine is being sacrificed in this conflict between imperialist forces. Russian troops should be withdrawn immediately from Ukraine. NATO should be disbanded.
The western side, led by the Biden government has used the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine to step up its warmongering. Frantic diplomacy has been used to ensure all the western powers are lined up against Russia, and implementing sanctions. Nearly 6,000 different measures have been taken, more than against any other country. 330 companies employing in total hundreds of thousands mainly young and female workers have withdrawn from Russia. These sanctions are harming ordinary Russians while the oligarchs have all been given time to rearrange their assets.
The seizure of a few luxury yachts does not disguise the fact that since the start of the war, the EU has quadrupled the money it pays to Russia for oil and gas to reach 800 million euros daily. The total of over 200 billion euros helps compensate the oligarchs for their loses and finances the military budget. Meanwhile, daily life for ordinary Russians is described by Marina Ovsyannikova, who displayed the anti-war placard during Russian TV news:
“My invalid mother can not buy the medicines she needs. My daughter can no longer use her virtual card to pay for her school dinner. There is no sugar, cooking oil or personal hygiene items on the supermarket shelves”.
What western sources do not report is that Marina has also called for an end to sanctions.
The sanctions that are currently implemented are an act of brutal economic warfare, which not only harm first and foremost the Russian working class and youth, but they allow the regime to present the situation as the west waging war on Russia. The communist party, as always at the forefront of warmongering, is organising car parades in support of the army in, as they say, the conditions of “a fortress under siege”. We support any actions by the working class, including in Russia, aimed at stopping arms shipments and military conflict based on international workers solidarity, while opposing the destructive and vindictive sanctions used by the imperialist powers as weapons in their economic war.
Processes speeding up
It was particularly noticeable that while the Russian and Ukrainian negotiating teams were sending positive signals about this week’s talks, it was Biden who first denied progress had been made.
The most enduring consequence of the war is the dramatic increase in militarisation. The US, UK and Russia, always at the forefront of military spending, are pushing to spend even more. Countries closer to Russia — Poland, Romania, the Baltics are all increasing their budgets. Germany, Japan, Austria, Sweden which have all promoted themselves as having purely defensive or neutral military policies are implementing new record high military budgets. In Japan, using the excuse of increased Russian aggression, pressure is growing to develop a nuclear potential, inevitably aimed at warning China.
NATO — an imperialist aggressor
The strong illusions in Ukraine that the West/NATO would defend the country from Russian aggression have lessened as it has refused to intervene directly. Since the collapse of the USSR, NATO has not only expanded across Eastern Europe, it has initiated aggressive actions during the ‘war on terror’, wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the brutal bombardment of Belgrade amongst others. Ignoring the suffering of civilian populations, NATO’s job is to further the interests of US/Western imperialism and has so far refused to defend Ukraine militarily to avoid a direct conflict between NATO and Russia, becoming an all-European conflict.
It is in this context that NATO is currently refusing to consider a ‘no-fly zone” over Ukraine. The ‘no fly zones’ over Iraq cost $1 billion a year to maintain, involving 300,000 flights by NATO aircraft. Such a cover for Ukraine would be much more complex, with the involvement of several hundred aircraft and would lead to a direct confrontation with Russian aircraft. If it does eventually happen, it would lead to an expansion of the war to become ‘European’.
So, what about Ukrainian ‘neutrality’? David Arakhamiya, head of the Ukraine negotiating team has spelt out what he means by ‘neutrality’. He speaks of a “Ukrainian NATO”, which would use NATO’s own ‘Article 5’, which states that if any one member is attacked, that will be considered an attack on all members. NATO members, such as Britain, one of the most hawkish supporters of Ukraine, are reluctant to make such a commitment, as it will in turn commit other NATO members to act too. Only Germany has so far suggested any agreement, but has restricted it to non-military guarantees.
Russian moves following the negotiations seem to confirm it is now launching an all-out campaign to capture the whole of Donbas, and the south coast along the Black Sea. In Kherson, the only significant town it has occupied, it is forcing people to use the ruble, and proposing a referendum to set up a “Kherson People’s Republic”. Whatever is currently discussed during negotiations, and whatever may eventually be agreed, it is clear the Russian army will use the time to capture what it can, and then when the conflict ends, freeze the situation so it can pressurise the Kyiv regime further. In this way, any agreement reached now will only be putting off the conflict until another war breaks out.
The Ukrainian government claim that previous agreements to ensure its security did not work because they were poorly formulated. Maybe now an agreement will be written that ensures in proper legal form Ukraine’s neutrality. But Ukraine’s independence will still be discarded, whatever it says in any agreement, at any critical moment depending on the relationship between different imperialist forces and what serves their interests at that time. In other words, there should be no reliance on the promises of any imperialist state that they will in the future protect Ukraine. The only guarantee of peace and the independence of Ukraine will be based on the readiness of Ukrainian workers to resist imperialist aggression and get rid of their own warmongers, a movement of the Russian working class to end the Putin regime and capitalism in Russia, linked together with international working-class solidarity.
Avoiding direct military conflict with Russia, the Western imperialism’s “economic war” is a rapid escalation of the process of decoupling of the world economy that we have analysed. The eleventh largest economy in the world, the third largest oil producer, second largest gas producer and the largest wheat producer is being kicked out of the global economy. This will not happen without major disruption of world markets, requiring the rapid restructuring of supply chains. Escalating energy costs driving inflation will ensure that the major economies could return to recession, whilst it should be remembered that one of the main causes of the Arab spring was the rapid increase in bread prices.
This situation has put China in the hot spot. Only weeks before Putin launched his war, he met with Xi Jinping and reached a “no limits” agreement, described by some commentators as the strongest partnership between the two countries since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. Now Xi Jinping claims that Putin did not reveal his full plans, and other members of the Chinese ruling circle claim that Xi in turn did not share the full details of the agreement with them.
If the intervention in Ukraine had gone to plan, with a speedy victory for Russia, this would have encouraged China to push its claims on Taiwan. Indeed, as a result Australia, South Korea and Japan are all stepping up their military budgets in preparation. And indeed, the forcible use of sanctions against Russia is intended just as much as a warning to China of what it would face if attacking US interests. This in part why China has presented itself as a neutral force, calling for negotiations and a winding down of tensions in Ukraine.
Current Russian appeals to China for military and financial help appear to be being ignored. It is even suggested that in the first days of sanctions as the ruble was tumbling in value, the Chinese Central Bank widened its exchange corridor intentionally to increase pressure on the ruble, and consequently to try and pressurise the Kremlin not to go too far. Now that the war is dragging out, doubts are growing in China about the viability of a similar attack on Taiwan — an island, which would be more difficult to invade. Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has called on China to play an “important role” in efforts to resolve the conflict.
The war is also speeding up the rearrangement of other imperialist alliances. In its search for alternative energy supplies, the US has opened negotiations with Venezuela. The release of the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after the UK paid off a long-standing debt clearly eases the renewal of negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. In the European Union, not only has there been a drive for non-NATO members such as Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Moldova to join, the decision to establish an EU rapid reaction force has been pushed through.
The Ukrainian economy, already one of the weakest in Europe, had in 2021 a GDP that had not been restored to its peak from before the 2008 crisis. The IMF estimates that there will a 35% drop in GDP this year. According to the Ukrainian government it will take years and cost at least half a trillion dollars just to repair the damage that has already been done, money it is demanding in reparations from Russia.
The long-term economic consequences in Russia will depend on the outcome of the war itself. The immediate consequences include a predicted 6–20% fall in GDP, a drop in incomes by 7% and a growth in registered unemployed to 7/8%. This last figure is very significant as in 2019, before the pandemic hit, the unemployment rate was less than 1%, and at the end of 2021 less than 4%. These are official figures — reality is worse. Inflation is expected to be 18–20% over the year. Hundreds of thousands of people — mainly young and female — will have lost their jobs as western companies withdraw from the Russian market.
The crisis has also hit the more traditional industrial sectors such as car-making and aviation. In mid-March only 4 of the 14 largest car-manufacturers were still producing — either the western company had withdrawn, or as in the case of the Russian Kamaz and AvtoVaz, production was suspended due to the inability to buy semiconductors from the Taiwan producer. A similar situation faces the airline industry — flights have been dramatically reduced. Sheremetevo airport has laid off 40% of its staff. The decision by Airbus/Boeing not to service Russian aircraft, and China’s inability to produce the needed spare parts mean that this sector will be in a serious crisis for some time. “Pobeda” [meaning victory] — the budget airline wing of Aeroflot, set up to mark the takeover of Crimea — has now cut its fleet of aircraft by 40%.
Of special importance is the cutting-off of internet — social media resources. This modern form of communications is used not just for personal and social interactions, it is an essential business tool for the exchange of information, making and delivering orders etc. Increased censorship of the internet in Russia has already cost the economy $861 million since January 2022.
The government says this situation is “an opportunity” to strengthen its ‘import-substitution’ programme. This is a defensive policy based on the isolation of the Russian economy from the global market. In other countries, particularly Latin America and South Asia in the pre-neoliberal era, “import substitution” led to highly protected and inefficient industries. Stagnation has already been the dominant feature of the Russian economy since 2014. It has only been prevented from falling further by its reliance on the export of energy and other commodities. As Western countries attempt to reduce their energy imports from Russia, the costs of such policies will be reflected in further decreases in living standards and budget cuts.
The same applies to the proposal to “nationalise” foreign assets and supply them using domestically produced products. “Nationalisation” in this case means simply a transfer from foreign owners into the hands of domestic capital. It does not mean what we call for — the public ownership under democratic workers control as part of a democratic planned economy. The government’s nationalisation plan is unworkable, because Russian management skills are not suited to companies such as MacDonalds. But there are more deep-seated problems linked to the low technological levels of Russian industry — it will not be possible to simply copy and manufacture high-tech chips currently produced in Taiwan or aircraft parts as needed for Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Even the Russian produced Sukhoi ‘Superjet’ will face difficulties as the French manufacturer of its engines says it will not service them.
The reality is demonstrated by discussions reported by the opposition “Meduza.io” paper. One government source “close to a federal minister” said that:
“[In the government] there are meetings with every sector, they all say the same thing: we can carry on using old stores for a few months. What will happen then, if at least some sanctions are not lifted, is not clear. There will be problems with the infrastructure, problems with transport”.
We describe the Russian regime as ‘Bonapartist’, by which we mean a state in which capitalism [the oligarchs] cannot rule society in a harmonious way through parliamentary democracy. It raises itself above society, barely dependent on elections and parliamentary votes, instead relying on the “sabre” of the bureaucracy, the police, and the military to act as the “judge arbiter” between the classes, and different sections of the capitalist class itself. But as Trotsky commented in 1934:
“The vast practical importance of a correct theoretical orientation is most strikingly manifested in a period of acute social conflict of rapid political shifts, of abrupt changes in the situation. In such periods, political conceptions and generalizations are rapidly used up and require either a complete replacement (which is easier) or their concretization, precision or partial rectification (which is harder).” (Bonapartism and fascism)
Putin’s first decade of rule was one of economic growth and the consolidation of the new Russian capitalist state. Its first task was to reduce the influence of the “family”, including the mainly western orientated oligarchs associated with Yeltsin. Oligarchs such as Berezhovsky, Khodorkovsky and others found themselves in prison, or exiled. Elements of parliamentary democracy still existed — in the 2003 Duma election 23 parties, including several pro-western liberal parties, participated. It was still relatively easy to organize protests. In our analysis made during that period we said:
“Putin’s Bonapartism leans not just on the ruling class. It uses the large incomes from oil to expand and support the state bureaucracy at all levels, the scale of which today in Russia is unprecedented. Aggressive nationalism and a course set on developing state corporations is supported by fascists, nationalists, statists, and the communist party, who form the main prop of Putin at this stage in his career. It is also used to support workers in the defence industry. The average growth of incomes of the population by 10–15% a year with low inflation has won him the support of public opinion”.
The global crisis of 2008 was a blow to Russian growth. Combined with the after-effects of the Russo-Georgian war, Western-Russian cooperation began to slow down. NATO continued its expansion into 12 countries of Eastern Europe. At that time even Putin was not completely opposed. Ulyanovsk, the city on the Volga where Lenin was born was a NATO transit base until 2014. And the Russian National Security Strategy still spoke of partnership with the West and NATO.
But the process of the retrenchment of the Russian economy from the global market had already begun — maybe as early as 2000 when the first State Corporations were formed. December 2011 saw the fraudulent election, which led to the Bolotny protests. Mainly in Moscow, they mobilized a section of the urban middle class, but with a significant section of the young proletariat and state employed workers in the education column. Led by the remnants of neo-liberal forces from the 1990s and the non-parliamentary Stalinists in alliance with the far right, they culminated in the harshest repression till then met in the new capitalist Russia.
Following this, the liberal capitalist forces who had led the Bolotny protests down the road to nowhere, combined with repression, including the 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, lost influence. Gradually far-right forces, much more radical and violent than in other countries were sidelined by a combination of repression and integration into the institutions of the ruling regime. Most graphically this is demonstrated by figures such as the fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who is now an advisor to leading government figures, and the far-right writer and mercenary Zakhar Prilepin, who boasted his mercenary group killed more Ukrainians than any other in DNR, who is now a leading member of the pro-Kremlin “Just Russia” party.
This period coincided with Ukraine’s EuroMaidan which began in 2013, in which the conflict between Western and Russian interests broke out onto the streets and culminated with the right wing pro-western government coming to power in Kyiv, the Russian takeover of Crimea, and start of the war in East Ukraine. The patriotic wave that followed in Russia helped to bury the remaining liberal opposition, and saw many of the far-right flooding to East Ukraine to fight. The regime leant on the working class for support in opposition to the Moscow liberals, who it blamed for the chaos that had accompanied the first years of the restoration of capitalism.
Western sanctions against Russia were started, and the regime’s reaction was increased economic protectionism, import-substitution, new measures to restrict opposition to ensure that the ‘vertical power structure’ was homogenous — in other words by neutering the official parliamentary parties and pushing out oligarchs and other figures, who were in opposition. Elections became formalities, pressure was kept up on Ukraine, the rift between Russian and western capitalism was widening, as many companies scaled down operations. The highest peak reached by the Russian economy was in 2013, since then it has been stagnant, or barely growing.
Bonapartism in the epoch of decline
Trotsky spoke of different phases of Bonapartism — that of the epoch of bourgeois rise, and that of imperialist decline. The first decade of Putin’s rule, during which the Russian capitalist class with its corruption, oligarchs and reliance on the sale of natural resources was not itself strong enough to consolidate Russian capitalism delegated that task to Bonapart. Although this decade saw some progress, it ground to a halt in the second decade. The third decade has turned into Bonapartism in the epoch of decline. The start of the decade coincided with a new, even worse global economic crisis and the start of the pandemic, which in turn speeded up the polarization of the world into the different imperialist camps, primarily US and China. This has particularly affected capitalism at its weakest link — the Russian regime.
It is almost five years since the first protests called by Navalny mobilized up to 100,000 mainly youth across Russia. Since then, several processes have deepened. The economy has continued to stagnate — real living standards will soon have declined every year for a decade. Repressive laws have been gradually tightened. The start of the pandemic saw this process increase rapidly. No real measures were taken by the regime to protect those whose incomes suffered due to COVID. It sat quietly by while a million Russians more than would normally die in that period lost their lives.
Having dispensed in various ways with opposition parties, and pressured any independent media, the circle around Bonaparte narrowed to a small number of sycophants, who were not prepared to, and of course not allowed to criticize his actions. His isolation was graphically demonstrated by his series of meetings with foreign dignitaries and his own ministers in the lead up to the war from whom he was separated by a long table.
The already restrictive laws on protests, which barely tolerated even single-person pickets at the start of the pandemic have tightened to such an extent that now signing petitions, calling for protests, or expressing an alternative position, even in the form of “*** *****” [the words ‘no war’ in Russian contain 3 and 5 letters] can lead to sackings, fines or imprisonment. Face recognition technology is widely used to identify opposition.
Even before the war this is a regime in crisis — shaken by the protests against corruption and authoritarianism in Russia. The Belarusian and Kazakhstan uprisings were dramatic examples of how quickly apparently authoritarian regimes can be shaken to the core. Perhaps as significant is that the attack on Ukraine has exposed the extent of the supposed “No limits” alliance with China. The war has succeeded in consolidating western imperialism — US and EU, as well increasingly Japan in opposition to Russia — undermining China’s recent efforts to divide them. Within the Chinese regime tensions between Xi Jinping and his “wolf warriors” and those who want a more cautious approach have become more open, and China has been very reluctant to give Putin any open support in this conflict, for fear that western sanctions will be stepped up against Beijing too.
Perspectives for the war
Before the war we identified the growing discontent in society, the stagnation in the economy, and the potential, despite increased repression, for anger to continue to simmer and grow, before breaking out in different ways in new waves of protest. This, of course remains the general perspective, how long it will take to unfold is more difficult to predict. But it should be remembered that since the start of the pandemic we have seen the Belarus, Kazakhstan, Khabarovsk events.
But in the short term, the next few months, the dominant determinant of perspectives is likely to be the course of the war.
The first possible outcome, on which the Kremlin was banking, was a quick intervention, the take-over of Kyiv and the Zelensky government replaced by a puppet. LNR/DNR, or more likely the whole of Donbas would have been integrated into Russia. That would have created a very difficult situation for socialists — there would have been victory parades, a wave of patriotism and anyone who spoke out would suffer repression and far-right attacks.
A quick victory has, of course, now been ruled out. If we view the war as a purely military conflict, the new Russian tactics of siege and the bombing of cities would eventually overcome Ukrainian forces. But of course, Ukrainians are defending their homes and country. Even if Russian forces eventually manage to take Kharkiv, Kyiv and other cities, it will have to maintain a long term and major military presence and will face a prolonged resistance from the population. The Vietnam war, the Soviet occupation and then the US imperialist occupation of Afghanistan have all been similar, and all wore done the occupation forces over years eventually forcing humiliating withdrawal. In fact, Russian forces are already approaching the number of fatalities that they suffered during the whole decade long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During a long drawn-out war the increase in military expenditure, the continued decline of the economy and rotting of the political system would feed into growing discontent amongst the masses, which at some stage would break out into active opposition.
A major disaster for the Kremlin of course, would be a serious counter offensive by Ukrainian forces, which succeeds in forcing Russian forces, already ill-equipped and demoralized, to retreat. That of course would lead, in one way or another, to a major political crisis in Russia. It is therefore more likely, that if this was seen as possible, the Russian regime would step up negotiations in an attempt to reach a compromise to avoid losing face. Such a compromise could be the withdrawal to LNR/DNR, an agreement that external forces could act to guarantee Ukrainian neutrality, but with Zelensky still in power with strengthened support. This too, would be presented as a partial victory in Russia, but would, particularly as the real destruction of Ukraine becomes known, combined with the effects of isolation from the global market, serve as a further factor undermining support for the regime.
These options point to the further development of moves in the direction of political revolution, at this stage in the form of colored revolution, in which one section of the ruling elite exploits mass discontent to overthrow another section. The timescale will depend on events, either delayed by a patriotic wave after ‘victory’, speeded up by defeat, or protracted by a drawn-out war or negotiated settlement. If this was to happen socialist forces need to be ready to intervene energetically to present a genuine alternative to the ruling elite.
Crisis of Bonapartism
Bonapartism by its nature is a regime of crisis — it exists precisely because the capitalist class is not strong and consolidated enough to maintain a bourgeois democracy. It exerts its power essentially by force, it is a gendarme that relies on controlling the sabre!
The key question now is can the regime stay in power if there is a defeat, or if the war gets prolonged, or the compromises reached during negotiations are seen as unacceptable? Can there be a move to remove Bonaparte from office, and if so, who will replace him? Here, of course, there is no clear information, but many rumors indicate there are real problems developing.
Ruling elite unhappy
There has been an unprecedented wave of resignations and departures from Russia by high profile media personalities, journalists, business people including the Director of Aeroflot, and now even Kremlin advisor and architect of Russian capitalism Anatoly Chubais. The Head of the Central Bank offered her resignation at the start of the month. This is the top of the iceberg of significant opposition to the war by the urban middle class and even a section of the ruling elite, many of whom feel the direct consequences of the war of sanctions launched against Russia.
Unlike in 2014, however the Kremlin cannot rely on a wave of patriotic support amongst the working class. The first to suffer from sanctions has been the urban proletariat, overwhelmingly young and largely female — those working in IT, in fast food, in retail and joined by students. Hundreds of thousands of these have lost their jobs, many faced sacking or repression for speaking out against the war. It is this layer that drove the spontaneous protests against the war in the first weeks.
But we can expect however that the more ‘traditional’ working class, those from the car factories, working at airports and other companies that rely on global supply chains and trade will now be questioning the wisdom of war as they find themselves laid off, or even without work as a consequence of sanctions. Their anger and discontent will be fueled by escalating prices.
Now the coffins are coming back. Independent media sources in Buriyatia, the million strong Buddhist republic on the edge of Lake Bakhail have already identified 45 soldiers from the region who have been killed, they think there are many more. As the sister of one of them commented:
“We are distraught. This bloodshed needs to stop. Our boys are dying. He just didn’t want to let his team down. He felt it was his duty to go. Our family opinion on this differs from the one held by authorities, but what can we do?”
So, is there a layer that does support the war? Of course. State run opinion polls indicate that at least the majority currently support the war. In the last couple of weeks that has grown. The recent pro-government concert showed a much less convincing level of support than was seen in 2014. It was attended by those who genuinely support the war including of course the far right. But there were also many state employees, students and so on who have either been forced or even paid to attend, others who claimed they were only there for the free concert, claiming to not even know it was to support the war. Support for the war is higher amongst middle and higher levels of management in state and commercial structures, amongst the older population and of course amongst the security services, and in rural areas. This is not a stable layer of support however that could quickly dissipate if events mark a sudden change.
Meduza’s sources reveal more interesting details. The President’s office do their own opinion surveys which show that support for the war is very shallow — divided in their words between “divan patriots” who shout about the war but are not even prepared to go out onto the streets in support and then those, who the Kremlin describes as “women 40+”, but as soon as it affects them, in particular their sons, they withdraw their support.
In reaction to this the Kremlin’s spin doctors held a meeting to decide how to manage the news. They came up with no solution — the problem as they see it is that war propaganda has been whipped up so far, any backing off leads to a loss of face — as one participant said: “the boiler on the train has been so stacked up with coal that stopping the train quickly is impossible”. The danger is, as they see it, the compromise proposed in Turkey, or any end to the war that is not seen as a victory together with the deepening economic crisis will see a dramatic drop in the government’s ratings. They are particularly concerned about the situation in the big cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where, according to their polls already a majority do not support the war.
Even as the decision to launch the attack was being made, there was clearly a lack of confidence in some ruling circles, even the suggestion that the Foreign Ministry thought the decision to recognize the two republics was premature. The FSB is reportedly in disarray as they have taken the blame for misinformation about the mood of the Ukrainian population, with the reported house arrest of two generals. There are continuing suggestions of tensions growing between Putin and Shoigu, the Minister of Defence, the Director of the FSB and the Chief of General Staff. This is a very dangerous situation for Putin to be in, when he is coming into conflict with the sabre he needs to rule. Reportedly a significant number of senior officers, including Generals have been killed in Ukraine, others in the National Guard have been arrested.
The mood amongst the oligarchs is more difficult to judge. There are suggestions that a layer of oligarchs and bankers around Bonaparte understand fully that if he goes, their own positions will be questioned, and so therefore don’t want him to back down. After being closed for a month, the Moscow stock exchange reopened this week, and although stocks initially fell by 2–3% no desperate collapse was seen. At the same time the ruble has restored its initial value, undoubtedly pumped up by oil and gas revenues. This will encourage those who support the war.
There is however a layer of oligarchs who are concerned. Abramovich has inserted himself into the negotiations in Turkey and appears to have acted as mediator. Other reports suggest that Peter Aven, President of Russia’s largest private bank ‘AlfaBank’ and the mining magnate Alexander Mashkevich met last week to express the opinion that Russian oligarchs are extremely annoyed at Putin’s policies. According to Ukrainian sources that report this meeting, representatives of Russian business are seeking ways to influence the President, or the military figures around him:
“But this is made difficult, because Putin is in strict isolation and lets practically no-one in to see him. Particularly those oligarchs he sees as unreliable. In fact, Russian big business is already prepared for radical action. Some oligarchs are even considering paying for the physical removal of Putin”.
But these reports all have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Neither the FSB/military nor the oligarchs are concerned about the fate of Ukraine, the people suffering under Russian bombs, or the Russian parents mourning their dead offspring. They only worry about their position in the ruling elite, their own wealth and, on their own, will do nothing to put that under risk. Only if there are significant set-backs for the Russian intervention in Ukraine, or if they feel a growing opposition to the war from below will they begin to prepare to save their own skins. But if they are forced to act, the question that we do not yet have an answer to is what exactly will be the nature of such as attempt — by hardliners within the security services, which would probably mean the continuation of harsh repression, or by a more liberal section, which could mean a certain relaxation.
Perspectives for the anti-war movement, perspectives for protest.
What then are the prospects for an anti-war movement. The initial, mainly spontaneous reaction to the war, although by a minority was nevertheless inspiring. The fact that so many were prepared to speak out, knowing the cost was to be detained, imprisoned, sacked demonstrates the anger that exists below the surface. At the same time the irresponsible approach of the democratic and liberal opposition, including Navalny to call people out on protest without any preparation and organization is not just irresponsible in the sense that it opens many to repression, but after a period, when the most active have been taken out by repression, it leads to a downturn and even demoralization of the movement. From the very beginning Socialists insisted that it was necessary to build a mass, organized protests, and the anti-war movement should be built based around the workplaces and universities.
At the current time, the anti-war movement has retreated. This is inevitable, given the lack of organization and the widespread repression in the first stage, and the current phase of the war, in which it is not clear how things will develop. Added to this is that sanctions have hit hardest that layer of youth with lost jobs, incomes, inflation that would be most active in the protests, which means that they have to deal with immediate problems. For many it has become clear that simply coming out in spontaneous protest on the streets where you can be beaten, fined and potentially imprisoned will not stop the war.
This does not mean at a later stage that there will not develop a wider, better organized anti-war movement. If, of course, the Kremlin can claim a victory, or even during negotiations a compromise that “saves face” it makes it less likely that such a movement will develop. But if the war becomes a prolonged struggle, with defeats for Russian troops particularly when combined with economic difficulties, we could see the development of a more sustainable movement. Likewise, if there is a palace coup, that too could see a movement develop very quickly.
But we also have to learn the lessons of previous anti-war and anti-regime movements, such as those in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Movements that are built on a cross-class basis are bound to fail. Not only do liberal oppositions lack any understanding of collective organization, their belief in the capitalist system means they cannot provide any answers to end the causes of war and dictatorship. They are unable to understand that the only way to end war is using working class methods and with a socialist programme.