Ukraine: a year of war and resistance

Pete Duncan surveys a year of the biggest war on mainland Europe since World War II and looks forward to the defeat of Putin’s imperialist forces

One year after Putin mounted his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, neither side is on the road to victory. Around 100,000 Russian soldiers have died, and probably a similar number of Ukrainian fighters. Tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and the physical damage to Ukraine is immense. 

In the first stage of the war, when the Russians attacked Ukraine from the north, east and south, they made considerable inroads. The Ukrainians were not fully prepared, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy played down American and British warnings of an imminent attack. But the Russians failed in their major objective, to capture Kyiv. A combination of poor planning and coordination on the Russian side and the bravery of the Ukrainian defenders forced an early Russian retreat on this front.  

Russian forces also failed to capture Kharkiv, the first capital of Soviet Ukraine and the country’s second-largest city, despite inflicting enormous damage. The Kremlin then prioritised the eastern fronts, advancing in the Donbas and the southern fronts, pushing north from Crimea through Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. Here they had more success. Under pressure, Zelenskiy offered to abandon Ukraine’s long-hoped-for aspirations to join NATO and adopt a neutral, non-aligned status. 

That was not enough for Putin, who wanted to bring Ukraine to its knees. His generals wanted to secure a land corridor from the Donbas, which borders the Russian Federation proper, along the Black Sea coast to Crimea, seeking to resolve the supply difficulties facing the peninsula since the Russian occupation in 2014. Missile attacks on the port of Odesa suggested that the Russians aimed to advance further westwards through Odesa to link up with their troops, which have been occupying Transdniestria in Moldova since 1992. 

But that was not to be. The heroic Ukrainian resistance held up the Russian advance in the Donbas. The battle for Mariupol, which had resisted incorporation into Putin’s puppet Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014, was the bloodiest and most vicious in the war so far. The Ukrainian commanders forbade their troops to surrender as from underneath the Azovstal steel plant they resisted the Russian advance. The Ukrainians do not publish the numbers of their military casualties, but hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers will have died before the survivors were finally ordered to surrender in May.  

With the fall of Mariupol, the Russians had won their land corridor to Crimea, but in the meantime Ukraine persuaded its supporters in Europe, America and Canada to supply more modern weapons to Ukraine, especially advanced missiles. From late August, the Ukrainian army began its counteroffensive in the east and the south. They recaptured territory in several areas.  

Putin responded to the Ukrainian successes by appointing General Sergey Surovikin as head of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine. He already had a record of massive destruction of civilian homes in Chechnya and Syria, and, indeed, was apparently responsible for the only three deaths in the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia began large-scale missile, artillery and bombing attacks on civilian infrastructure across Ukraine, targeting particularly electricity networks. 

In September, Putin implicitly recognised the military difficulties he was in by announcing a ‘partial mobilisation’. A few days later, the Russian occupying forces organised fake referenda in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. Following these, Putin annexed all four into the Russian Federation – although in reality, Russia did not control large parts of the last three of these oblasts.  

Annexation allowed Putin to claim that Ukrainian attacks in these regions were attacks on Russia itself, which meant, Putin implied, that he would be justified in using nuclear weapons. Further, since under Russian law conscripts cannot be sent abroad in peacetime, and Putin maintained the fiction that this was a ‘special military operation’, not a war, it would now be possible to send conscripts into these regions.  

In parts of the Donbas, Ukrainian troops met stiff resistance from the Wagner Group of mercenaries, owned by Putin’s crony oligarch Evgenii Prigozhin and augmented by prisoners released from prison into his corps. These clashes have led to large numbers of deaths on both sides. (How Prigozhin, already with several atrocities to his name, was able to persuade HM Treasury in 2020 to set aside UK sanctions against him so he could begin legal proceedings against the founder of Bellingcat, is another story.)   

Putin’s annexations proved hollow. In early November, Ukrainian troops advanced in the south and liberated the city of Kherson. Over winter, both sides strengthened their lines of defence, and there was less movement of the front lines. Surovikin’s brutal tactics failed to allow Russian advances, and he was removed in January. General Valerii Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, took over direct command of all Russian forces in Ukraine. 

While Surovikin’s tactics failed militarily, they have inflicted misery on Ukrainians this winter. Even if their homes have not been blown up, they have frequently been without heating, electricity and water. Soldiers in the trenches have to contend with frostbite as well as enemy fire.  

Despite appearances and some changes in his rhetoric, Putin has not changed his aims since February last year. Before then, Russia demanded that NATO declare that Ukraine would never become a member. NATO could not do this; in 2008 it had promised Ukraine membership. After the Georgia-Russia war later that year, however, it became clear that NATO could not (or would not) defend Ukraine against Russia, and the idea was put on ice. In 2022, Boris Johnson could tell Putin in all honesty that Ukraine would not become a member in the foreseeable future. Ukraine did not even acquire candidate status in the EU until several months into the ‘special military operation’ in 2022.  

While Russia did have genuine fears about the enlargement of NATO in 1999 and 2004, Putin has used these fears to mask his real concerns about Ukraine, Russia’s principal brotherly eastern Slavonic neighbour. Since Putin’s election as president in 2000, Ukraine has had four changes of government: twice by revolution, in 2004-5 and 2013-4, and twice when an incumbent president was defeated by his opponent in free elections. Given the historical close relations between Russia and Ukraine, this is a frightening model for Putin. 

The Ukrainians have risen twice against the lying propaganda, electoral fraud, authoritarian methods and repression which Putin has ruled by in Russia. Several Russian politicians in exile have made Kyiv their headquarters. Putin still needs not only to control those parts of Ukraine he has formally annexed, but also remove what he calls the ‘Nazi’ government in Kyiv and impose a puppet regime on Ukraine. 

The Ukrainians are willing to fight, not only to restore the situation of before 24th February but to regain those parts of the Donbas which have been under Russian control since 2014, and Crimea too. Their arms factories are targets for Russian missiles. So long as Western states supply them with modern weapons in adequate quantities, they will be able to carry on fighting. They have a large reserve of manpower and womanpower.  

The war is likely to last for a long time. Russia is investing heavily in its war industries, moving over to an arms economy. Thus, they can increase arms production, although their equipment will continue to be inferior to that of the Ukrainians. Putin has probably mobilised a million men – more than has been officially claimed – and most of them are being trained before being sent to the front. Their morale is lower than that of the Ukrainians, however, as, unlike the Ukrainians, they are losing the feeling that they are fighting for the defence of their fatherland. Their morale gets lower the nearer they get to the front and see what they’re up against. 

It would be optimistic to expect change to come from inside Russia. Probably more than a million men have left to escape mobilisation. Those who have stayed or returned and openly opposed the war, such as Ilya Yashin, Alexei Navalny and Alexei Gorinov have received long prison sentences. Vladimir Kara-Murza awaits trial. Even the top elites are afraid to move against Putin.  

Putin’s victory would mean a defeat for freedom and democracy in Europe and around the world. For Ukraine to carry on fighting against the expected Russian offensives and to recapture lost territory, it needs many more Western weapons, including fighter aircraft. Without these, after more years of war, they may be forced into a messy compromise with Russia which would allow Moscow to claim a victory. Alternatively, it might mean a complete victory for Putin, in charge in Kyiv and threatening other countries. Just as socialists supported armed struggle against Nazism, so today we must advocate sending Ukraine all the weapons it needs. 

Pete Duncan
Peter J. S. Duncan is the author of Russian Messianism: Third Rome, Revolution, Communism and After (2014) and co-edited Socialism, Capitalism and Alternatives (UCL Press, 2019). He is an horary associate professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and a member of Walthamstow CLP.

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