By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

As freezing temperatures took hold in Ukraine, Russia stepped up its efforts to deprive the population of heat, water, and electricity—and to try to break morale. By early December, fully one-half of the country’s energy facilities had been damaged or destroyed. Apartment blocks, clinics, schools, and cultural facilities were also targeted.

Ukraine has steadily increased its success in repelling the bombardments. The government reported having shot down 80 percent of the rockets fired by Russia during the month of December. In the final days of 2022, however, the murderous rain of missiles and drones that Russia unfurled sometimes overwhelmed Ukrainian air defenses.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Dec. 27 that it has confirmed 6884 deaths and 10,947 injuries among civilians in Ukraine since Russia launched the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. The real statistics, it stressed, are undoubtedly much higher, since major areas of the country in which civilians have come under attack—like Mariupol—are still under Russian occupation. Moreover, the invasion has driven some 14 million Ukrainians from their homes in “the fastest, largest displacement witnessed in decades,” according to the UN head of refugee relief, Filippo Grandi. And Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s top children’s rights official, said in November that 10,764 Ukrainian children had been reported by relatives or friends to have been carried off to Russia without their parents.

As the New Year approached, Ukrainian troops were slowly advancing on the eastern front in Luhansk along a triangle of highways leading to the twin riverside cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which Russia captured last summer. Ukrainian forces were pushing ahead from three directions—from the southwest at Bakhmut (a town that the Russians have been trying to encircle for weeks), from the northwest toward Kreminne, and from the northeast toward Starobilsk.

But the Ukrainian attempt to win back territory will not be easy; casualties are expected to be considerable. The Russians have built a series of protective barriers near Kreminne and elsewhere along the battlefront, although they are often manned by recently drafted soldiers, with minimal training. Russia has also reportedly transferred into the eastern region many troops that had been stationed in the south of the country last fall, when Ukraine captured the southern city of Kherson.

The hardcore of the Russian troops on the eastern front are said to be members of the Wagner Group, a shadowy and ruthless mercenary corps that Russia has employed in its imperialist exploits in Africa, Syria, and other areas. In recent months, according to U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby, the Wagner Group has recruited into its ranks as many as 40,000 convicted criminals who were released from Russian prisons in exchange for military service. The death toll among them has been high.

Military aid from the U.S. and NATO

Observers are expecting that both adversaries will undertake major offensives after the New Year, most likely in February, when the frozen ground will enable tanks and trucks to operate more effectively. Although there is considerable evidence that the Russian high command miscalculated its preparedness for the February 2022 invasion, as well as the will and capacity of Ukrainians to resist, we can anticipate that the regime will now redouble its efforts to annex the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine. This is historically the most industrialized section of the country, which contains rich mineral wealth and warm-water ports. Moreover, there is speculation that Russia might undertake another drive against Kyiv in 2023, in an effort to drastically weaken or even overthrow the pro-Western Zelensky government.

Russia hopes to gain additional military strength as the year progresses. Draftees who were held back from being sent to the front in 2022 will be better trained in the future than their predecessors were. And Putin has pledged to expand the army by another half-million troops, while raising the age of potential draftees from 27 to 30.

At the same time, it is widely anticipated that the Ukrainian military, in addition to pressing to reclaim territory in the east of the country, will begin a drive in the south, directed toward recapturing Melitopol. On Dec. 10, it was able to launch U.S.-supplied Himar missiles against a church in Melitopol that Russian forces were using as their headquarters. The 38 Himar mobile missile launchers that the U.S. provided have enabled Ukrainian forces to attack several hundred Russian bases and supply depots located far behind the front lines of battle.

The Ukrainians have an additional advantage of being supplied with highly advanced U.S.-produced intelligence and battle-management software, which can direct their weapons with great precision. The U.S. often helps with reconnaissance, using its satellite system. And even newer weapons are in the pipeline. The Joint Direct Attack Munition, usually referred to as JDAM (pronounced Jay-dam), is a device that turns a bomb into a highly accurate, GPS-guided weapon. The U.S. weapon was first dropped by stealth bombers over Kosovo in 1999; it will soon be used by Ukrainian pilots flying older Russian-made jets.

Ukrainian troops by the thousands are undergoing training in Britain and other European countries. In the meantime, U.S. and French operatives are training them on up-to-date weaponry, including the Patriot missile battery from the United States and the similar MAMBA from France.

Ukrainian working people—as service workers and in medical roles, as volunteers in the regular army, as members of the Territorial Defense Forces, and as partisans operating undercover behind the Russian lines—have made an important contribution to the country’s recent military successes. But the military aid from abroad, mainly from the U.S. and other imperialist countries, is considered by some analysts to have been pivotal in turning the tide of battle, while helping to ward off Russian missile and drone attacks on the cities.

During the past year, until December, the U.S. government allocated from $48 billion to $68 billion (depending on how it is calculated by various sources) in military, financial, and “humanitarian” assistance to Ukraine. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, close to $40 billion was for the military—including for long-term weapons orders, U.S. military operations in the region, and money to weapons manufacturers to replenish the U.S. arsenal. And some funds went to U.S. allies in Europe to compensate for giving older and outmoded equipment to Ukraine, while enabling them to buy more modern weapons from the U.S. in the future. (Aid to Ukraine from Europe—Britain, Poland, the Baltic countries, etc.—amounted to about $41.4 billion in 2022.)

In December, the U.S. Congress earmarked another $45 billion for Ukraine as part of its $1.7 trillion omnibus package. This aid is in addition to emergency loans that Ukraine has received from the World Bank and other major lenders.

Imperialism and the Zelensky regime

Workers Voice supports the right of self-determination for the Ukrainian people, and accordingly, we stand in solidarity with their resistance to the invasion by Russian imperialism. And therefore, we believe that Ukraine has the right to request aid from any country—including the U.S. and its NATO allies—in order to carry on the fight.

But we warn that none of this aid, whether in grants or loans, is “free”; the imperialists will demand payback for all of it in one form or another. Just a few years ago, the IMF and the World Bank pressured Ukraine to “balance its budget” by cutting back on social spending. Health care was privatized in 2018, and state employees were subjected to a raise in the age for retirement pensions. Given that experience, we should expect that the major lenders and donors will ask Ukraine to commit to even more “structural reforms” in the future, including further privatizations and opening the way for an infusion of foreign capital.

Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2018 as an anti-establishment “new face,” who promised that Ukraine would take an independent path in the world. Now, however, the Zelensky regime has shown itself to be quite open to collaboration with Western imperialism—during the war and afterward. This was symbolized by the Ukrainian president’s theatrical visit to the U.S. Congress in December when, holding the American flag aloft, he declared in an utterance worthy of Ronald Reagan: “We will win because we are united—Ukraine, America, and the entire free world!” A week later, Zelensky urged the European Union to open membership talks with Ukraine.

On the economic front, Zelensky demonstrated his friendliness to capitalist interests from the beginning of his administration with a decree that cancelled some 16 regulations that he claimed were unnecessary restrictions on business. After the war began, his government was able to take advantage of martial law, which hampers the ability of people to protest, in order to pass measures to hold down wages and curtail the rights of the country’s working class. For example, the Law on the Organization of Labor Relations under Martial Law, passed last April, lifts penalties for refusing to pay wages, allows workers to be fired despite collective bargaining agreements, and reduces paid time off. The Ukrainian parliament passed another law last August that exempts enterprises with fewer than 250 workers (i.e., 70% of employees) from negotiating with trade unions or complying with other labor rights. Companies are permitted to suspend prior labor contracts, and to extend or reduce working hours unilaterally.

The Ukrainian working class is faced with a combination of tasks at present. On the one hand, it needs to organize itself in the struggle to repel the Russian invaders and to begin to reconstruct the country. At the same time, it needs to organize against the anti-working-class and anti-social measures of the Zelensky regime and against the project of foreign capital to lock the country even more firmly in its grasp.

The International Workers League, of which Workers’ Voice is a sympathizing group, issued a statement last September that sums up these tasks. The IWL called on Ukrainian working people to defend “the expropriation of all the assets of the Russian oligarchs and enterprises associated with Putin’s regime, the nationalization and centralization in the hands of the state of the economy, in the service of national defense, under workers’ control, and the centralization of Territorial Defenses as the organization of the resistance in workers’ militias favoring the tendency towards independence of the government.”

The statement added, “We must call to defend national sovereignty at the cost of capitalist profits and to defeat layoffs, forced suspensions, and guarantee full employment, as part of a plan of national defense, with a policy of demands and criticism towards the actual policy of Zelensky.”

Workers’ Voice and the IWL are supporting an important act of international solidarity in the Workers’ Aid Campaign to Ukraine, organized by the International Labour Network for Solidarity and Struggles. Last April, the campaign sent a truck convoy with humanitarian aid (mainly food and power generators) to the Miners’ and Metallurgists’ Union in Kryvyi Rih. A new fund-raising campaign to obtain supplies for Kryvyi Rih is now being organized. To contribute, see https://laboursolidarity.org/en/. 

Photo: Civilians train with arms in Siurte, western Ukraine, in February 2022.