After two-and-a-half months of imposing upon the population at large in the south and east of Ukraine a sustained and bloody offensive waged with tanks, artillery shells and aerial bombardment, costing an estimated 40,000 lives, with many more injured and over a million refugees, the fascist junta in Kiev has now been pushed onto the defensive by the resistance, which has broken the siege of Donetsk, regained control of Lugansk airport and at the time of writing is laying siege to the key port city of Mariupol.
Having previously sabotaged every attempt to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, the junta’s leaders are now begging for a ceasefire, hoping that their imperialist backers will somehow get them out of the hole they have dug for themselves. But, whilst more help is doubtless at hand, it remains to be seen how ready Anglo-American imperialism is to tackle Russia head-on, and how keen European imperialist countries are to go along with sanctions that threaten to tear gaping holes in their own economies.
With the military initiative firmly in the hands of Donetsk and Lugansk, the diplomatic initiative rests firmly in the hands of Russia.
The junta’s offensive
June, July and the first three weeks of August were dark and difficult days for the resistance, facing an enemy that enjoyed supremacy in both men and materiel. At times the situation looked bleak.
According to an interview with Mikhail Kovalev, Kiev’s forces in Donbass numbered between 48,000 and 52,000 fighters, between 550 and 600 armoured vehicles, up to 270 artillery units and mobile rocket launchers, up to 15 planes and between five and 10 helicopters. This superiority in both numbers and equipment was a consequence of the hijacking of the regular army by the illegal junta, the recruitment into the National Guard of freelance Nazi scum, and no doubt the clandestine supply of materiel by the West.
Against this formidable arsenal, Kovalev estimated that the resistance could only muster between 19,000 and 23,000 fighters, up to 130 armoured vehicles, about 50 artillery units and no planes or helicopters. (See ‘The view from an operating room – a Slavyansk surgeon speaks’, slavyangrad.org, 25 August 2014)
But, as the US imperialists discovered to their cost in Vietnam, success and failure in war are not decided solely by mathematics. As General Giáp remarked,
“The United States has a strategy based in mathematics. They question the computers, add and subtract, extract square roots, and then go into action. But arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here. If it did, they would already have exterminated us. With their planes, for example … They don’t reckon on the spirit of a people fighting for what they know is right.”(General Vo Nguyen Giap, The Military Art of People’s War, 1971)
One important factor that has helped to shift the balance of forces is the failure of the regime to overcome the widespread demoralisation in the regular army. Again and again, reports have told of regular soldiers surrendering their arms to the resistance and slipping over the border to join the other million refugees streaming into Russia.
Meanwhile, back at home in the west of Ukraine, soldiers’ relatives have been besieging recruiting offices to stop their conscript sons from being sent to the east, and blockading roads to impede troop transports. There have been large anti-war demonstrations in Kiev, with masses of women lying down in the road to block convoys.
In a desperate attempt to motivate the regular troops, the National Guard, the Azov brigade and other irregular forces were deployed with a double mission: to terrorise the people of Donetsk and Lugansk, and to terrorise unstable elements of the regular army into compliance. Yet these irregular forces, answerable to nobody but themselves, have proved more of a liability than an asset to the regime.
In a re-run of the disastrous policy of the Nazis in the last world war, when the brainwashed Nazi ‘elite’ force of the SS were separated out from the regular army and had their own hierarchy, weaponry and command, these autonomous fascist forces have suffered from a dearth of competent commanders, resulting in high losses of personnel and vehicles. It’s one thing to commit terrorist outrages against women and children, it’s quite another to deal with a determined guerrilla army that is ready to fight to the death.
The resistance catches fire
For the truth is that the militias that sprang up in defence of the new people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk – republics which came into being, not by self-proclamation but by the democratic will of the people expressed in two referenda – have rapidly matured into formidable opponents of the junta’s stormtroopers.
These men, some of them miners, and all of them having previously served their time as army conscripts, came from a tough background. More crucially, their struggle was from the first informed by a strong sense of history and class struggle. In a recent post on Slavyangrad, a militiaman going under the nom de guerre of Artem related that, in the militia,
“There are different people: Ossetians, Chechens, Russian and Ukrainian. We are all internationalists and we are very proud of it. Because if, God forbid, one of the brothers has trouble at home, the same Russian, Ukrainians, Serbs and Ossetians, for example, will come to help him. This is the essence of internationalism.
“The backbone of the militia are local boys and men. They come constantly, and not all are accepted. Even some grandfathers, WW2 veterans, wanted to join … There are many militia fighters in the LNR [the Lugansk militia] … who consider themselves communists and internationalists. I would also note the role of the Workers’ Front of Lugansk (formerly the regional committee of the Communist Party), whose members refused to obey ‘the official leadership of the party’ and openly declared for the Republic … Here it is such a mixed pot that no one even thinks of who belongs to what organisation. Communist – and be done with it.
“There is no nationalism here in the LNR, none. Don Cossacks perfectly interact with the communists … War consolidates people, awakens their historical memory, and then the class interest. It is not sectarianism, but dialectics that helps internationalists to understand the essence of the situation; to see behind bizarre forms – to see the true content; to make the right, even a tough choice …
“And I will add: compatriots, fellow countryman, remember that your ancestors shed blood on this earth for the victory of the proletariat. Remember that modern Donbass was built by incredible efforts of the working class, the victory over the Nazis. Donbass – a real monument of socialist construction. Remember who you are. Do not mutate; do not stray. Glory to the Donbass and the international solidarity of the working people!” (‘We did not go to war, the war came to us!’, 23 August 2014)
Kiev’s rudderless forces
If brute force, powerful weapons and strength in numbers were on their own a guarantee of victory, Novorossiya’s fate would indeed have been sealed long ago.
For over two months, Kiev threw all its most formidable weaponry and the cream of its army into the offensive, striving to surround the centres of resistance and rain death and destruction on Slavyansk, Lugansk, Donetsk and the smaller towns and villages across the Donbass region. When the resistance retreated from Slavyansk and other forward positions, this was hailed as the death knell of the resistance. News of its death was premature, however.
Things started to go wrong for the invaders as their frontline became overextended and gaps opened up. Rather than face up to this new situation and show tactical flexibility, Kiev’s sundry forces ploughed on regardless, more eager to make a political splash by claiming the capture of one town or another than to reformulate its military strategy.
Meanwhile, their artillery pounded away at Lugansk and Donetsk, shelling schools, hospitals, residential areas and infrastructure. The Kiev junta hoped by this cowardly assault on civilians to compensate for their incompetence on the field of battle, faithfully reproducing the ‘collective punishment’ tactic of their Nazi forebears. However, this tactic proved as counterproductive now as it had been for the old Ukrainian Banderists (local fascists during WW2), serving rather to strengthen than to weaken the will of the resistance.
Having squandered its initial advantage in men and equipment, Kiev was obliged to fall back on less experienced fighters and older weaponry. This became apparent to the resistance from the sorry state of the troops they captured. Here is one eyewitness account of one luckless band.
“Seventeen troops of the 93rd Mechanised Brigade are lined up on a makeshift parade ground. Frankly, a pitiful sight. Torn shirts, dirty camouflage in all sorts of colours and styles. Combat boots that should have been thrown out a year ago. Only the ‘black men’ of the NatsGvardiya battalions are immaculately and uniformly equipped by sponsors. But supply of the regular army, it seems, is based on the principle of a ‘white elephant sale’.”(‘Surrendered Ukrainian soldier: Lyuba, don’t worry, I’m in captivity’, Slavyangrad.org, 1 September 2014)
Taking advantage of the increasing disarray of the invading forces, the resistance hunkered down for the long haul, bracing itself if need be for a winter war. The militias followed the policy of surrounding and kettling enemy detachments in ‘cauldrons’, using a relatively small number of fighters to immobilise larger numbers of the enemy.
As Kiev’s forces tried in vain to sever connections between the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, the resistance adopted classic guerrilla tactics, avoiding head-on confrontations with the enemy, not risking all for a ‘big win’ but persisting doggedly with the policy of encircling the enemy and harrying his supply lines.
Creating these ‘cauldrons’ at the least had the effect of slowing the enemy down and dislocating his battle plans. Better still, with increasing frequency the enemy’s troops would give up their weapons and vehicles and settle for internment in Russia. News of the humane treatment of prisoners would filter back to their comrades still stranded in a ‘cauldron’, further spreading the mood of disaffection.
Fighting Poroshenko to the negotiation table
As August drew to a close, it became clear to everyone that Kiev’s offensive had transformed into a (not-so-tactical) retreat. Mariupol and other key positions were fortified by Kiev – not as bases for an offensive but as last-ditch defensive positions against a startling counter-offensive by the resistance. A field report posted on Slavyangrad made this assessment: “Overall, as of 3 September, we can confidently say that the fascist junta has switched to strategic defence in the Donbass.” (‘Kiev – going on the defensive’, 6 September 2014)
This catastrophic turn of events for the Kiev junta, a cause for joy throughout the progressive world, clearly put Poroshenko and his western backers in a panic. The trilateral contact group consisting of the junta, Russia and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) had met up in Minsk on 1 September, shortly before Nato convened in Newport, and agreed upon a ‘protocol’, the main points of which were a ceasefire, decentralisation of power, OSCE monitoring of the Ukraine-Russian border and demilitarised buffer zones on each side, the release of hostages and a conditional amnesty.
This ‘understanding’ marked a volte-face by the junta, which previously had eschewed diplomacy in favour of a military solution. Such an about-turn can only be explained by sheer panic at the sight of the devastating counter-offensive now being waged by the resistance forces.
Needless to say, Poroshenko’s new enthusiasm for a ceasefire, confirmed on the phone to Putin on 3 September, was in reality a plea for a breathing space whilst the junta recuperated and tried to get some more Nato muscle in place. The grudging return of the junta to the negotiating table was entirely the achievement of the resistance on the ground, backed up by Russian diplomacy.
The surest sign of the vigour of the militia’s counter-offensive is the new pitch of hysteria brewing up about ‘invasion by Russia’. The one thing Poroshenko and his friends in the West just cannot bring themselves to admit is that the humiliating retreat by the junta’s forces is the work of the resistance alone – outnumbered and outgunned though they are. As was the case in Vietnam, ‘arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here’.
So, rather than accept that the drubbing Kiev’s forces are receiving is being delivered by the resistance alone, Nato’s fictions about an invading Russian army must be made to stick. The latest figure-in-the-air to be plucked by Nato for the number of Russian troops alleged to be on Ukrainian soil is about a thousand. An article by Jacques Sapir made a useful point in this connection. Even if Nato had their facts straight,“this number of troops is completely inadequate to explain the military collapse suffered by Kiev’s forces in these past days.
“It is estimated that the number of soldiers (of the Ukrainian Army and of the National Guard) engaged in operations against the insurgents is some fifty thousand. Meanwhile, they face a force of around fifteen thousand. If the presence of those Russian troops were confirmed, they could only have performed a local and marginal role in the fighting that took place in these last days. Their presence cannot therefore explain the numerous defeats suffered by the Kiev forces.” (‘Ukraine: Putting politics back in the driving seat’, Slavyangrad, 30 August 2014)
As for the question of where the resistance is getting its growing arsenal from, there is no great mystery there. Sapir noted that the “insurgents have reported more than two hundred units of armour (tanks, but also Infantry Fighting Vehicles and self-propelled artillery) captured in combat”. So, for example, between 16 and 23 August, the resistance captured “14 tanks, 25 IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles), 18 APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers), 1 ARV (Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle), 1 Uragan rocket-launcher, 2 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers, 4 D-30 howitzers, 4 82mm mortars, 1 ZU 23-2 AA gun carriages, 33 cars.”And that’s on top of the haul pulled in in the preceding three-month period (including 79 tanks).
Nato tools up
Poroshenko assuredly will have found a ready audience for his tale of woe when he attended the recent Nato summit in Newport as the sole non-Nato participant. Poroshenko’s henchman Yury Lutsenko blurted gleefully on Facebook that the US, France, Italy, Poland and Norway had all promised in Newport to supply the junta with shiny new weapons and military advisers.
This public broadcast of a private gentleman’s agreement caught everyone on the hop. Norway claimed it had no plans to send arms or military hardware; the US denied having offered ‘lethal assistance’; Italy claimed it was only sending “non-lethal military aid such as bullet-proof vests and helmets”. On this occasion, we might for once choose to believe Poroshenko.
Meanwhile, Nato began its Steadfast Javelin 2 exercises on 2 September in Latvia, simulating the deployment of 2,000 Nato stormtroopers. This is to be followed by further exercises this autumn in Germany, Norway, Poland and (of course) Ukraine. In addition, in Newport Nato hatched a plan to invent a rapid reaction force in eastern Europe with a minimum headcount of 4,000 troops, able to deploy within 48 hours and probably based in the Baltic states or Romania.
Europeans get cold feet
It’s one thing getting everyone to agree to a rapid reaction force, and quite another to get them to pay for it. As the economic crisis bites deeper in Europe, countries are more and more reluctant to pay the rent on Nato. In theory, every member country is supposed to fork out 2 percent of GDP on defence spending, but at the moment only France and Britain meet this target. In Newport, Obama and Cameron both harangued the summit on the need to increase military spending, but to little effect.
And when it comes to waging economic war against Russia, there is growing anxiety about the consequences for Europe of blindly following the Anglo-American lead. Some of this anxiety was recently expressed in a round-table discussion under the auspices of the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association, bringing together a number of representatives from the world of politics, business, culture and science.
It is reported that “The business leaders present stressed the profoundly destructive and politically unjustifiable character of the mutual sanctions (both European and Russian) imposed heretofore … The question of sanctions was raised, in particular, by Christophe de Margerie [CEO Total] as well as by the director of GDF-Suez. De Margerie said that the importance of economic relations was central to dialogue between our two countries. French businesses are very concerned regarding economic exchanges, which have developed greatly over these last 20 years, between the two countries, but also at the level of Europe, into whose economy Russia’s is partly integrated.”(‘What does Russia want?’, Slavyangrad, 3 September 2014)
These opinions are not those of dissenting journalists or bar-room pundits, but are coming from the leaders of major capitalist oil concerns. As the effects of Russia’s reciprocal sanctions take effect, and the overproduction crisis further undermines world capitalism, Anglo-American efforts to mobilise European imperialism behind its strategy of containing and neutralising Russia and China can be expected to fall on ever stonier ground.
Hands off Russia! Hands off Ukraine!