Signs of demoralization in Russian army as opposition to war, draft grows in Russia
By Geoff Mirelowitz and Argiris Malapanis
As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine enters its eighth month, the war shows no sign of ending. However, there is growing evidence that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s belligerence has not been equaled by Russian military success.
To the contrary, Ukraine’s resistance has begun to bear fruit with a series of recent military advances. It seems clear those advances were made with the support of Ukrainians in the most affected areas, and throughout the country.
The Ukrainian army is fighting for something it believes in and has popular support. The Russian army — or significant parts of it — is not, while popular support for the war in Russia seems to be on the decline. Ukrainians are fighting for self-determination and independence from Moscow. Russian soldiers have been sent to deny those rights.
In response Moscow has taken what seem to be desperate — and increasingly dangerous — steps. They include “annexing” more Ukrainian territory, threatening to use nuclear arms, calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists into military service, ramping up repression against Russian citizens and soldiers opposing its murderous war, and launching new deadly missile strikes into civilian areas in Kiyv and other Ukrainian cities.
On September 30, the New York Times reported, Putin announced Russia would annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. “Mr. Putin said that the residents of the four regions — which are still partially controlled by Ukrainian forces — would become Russia’s citizens ‘forever.’ He then held a signing ceremony with the Russian-installed heads of those regions … clasping hands with them and chanting ‘Russia! Russia!’”
In a performance dripping with the rhetoric of Great Russian chauvinism,1 Putin also amplified his threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. “Describing the West as ‘deceitful and hypocritical through and through,’” the New York Times reported, “Mr. Putin noted that the United States was the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. He added: ‘By the way, they created a precedent.’”
That the United States is the only country to have used nuclear warfare — on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — is an undisputed, shameful fact. The further use of such weapons of mass destruction by another capitalist power today would also be reprehensible, and even more dangerous in a world where many governments now have nuclear stockpiles. Such an act would endanger millions and risk wider nuclear war.
Putin is continuing a course tailor-made to open the door even further to military action by U.S. imperialism and its NATO partners. One sign of this danger is an ABC News interview with retired U.S. four-star army general and former CIA director David Petraeus. “Just to give you a hypothetical,” if Putin acted on his threat, said Petraeus, “we would respond by leading a NATO — a collective — effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.”
Expansion of NATO a danger
Another sign of danger is Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky’s announcement that his government “was fast-tracking his country’s application to join NATO — a move that Russia vehemently opposes and that faces steep hurdles, given that admission to the alliance requires unanimous consent from all 30 member nations,” as the New York Times reported.
Putin rationalizes his invasion claiming it was a necessary step to defend Russia from further encirclement by NATO’s military forces. The danger of that aggressive encirclement, another undisputed fact, has only grown in the face of Putin’s actions. Sweden and Finland cited them as the basis for requesting NATO membership. The requests have won approval from 28 of the 30 members of the military alliance. Putin has gifted Washington the chance to demagogically claim NATO is the defender of smaller nations and “democracy.”
Zelensky’s request for NATO membership is a political setback to Ukraine’s historically justified struggle for self-determination. Defending the right to full independence from Moscow is the driving dynamic of the conflict. It is the reason for the broad support for resistance to the Russian invasion within Ukraine and sympathy for it throughout much of the world.
The Zelensky government’s political identification with Washington, the world’s major imperialist power, and NATO, the alliance it leads, is an obstacle to winning and sustaining the political support of the world’s working people. Especially in the semicolonial countries, millions are too well aware of Washington’s and NATO’s brutal record of military invasions and aggression over decades.
Anti-labor law in Ukraine
The Zelensky government has taken other steps against the working class in Ukraine. The anti-labor law no. 2434-IX took effect in August. The websites Education International and OpenDemocracy, among others, reported on this recently.
“Ruling party moves to restrict workers’ rights,” wrote Education International. “Under the new law the main instrument regulating labour relations between employer and employees in small and medium-size companies will be individual contracts. In fact, collective agreements negotiated by unions will no longer apply and unions have also lost the legal authority to veto workplace dismissals. This change opens the door to arbitrary dismissals and will create fear to engage in trade union or other independent activities.”
The measure only applies — for now — while martial law is in effect. But there is good reason to believe its aims are more long term. “Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People party argued,” wrote OpenDemocracy, “that the ‘extreme over-regulation of employment contradicts the principles of market self-regulation [and] modern personnel management.’”
“A leading member of Zelensky’s party promised further liberalisation of Ukraine’s labour legislation earlier this month,” the article by Thomas Rowley and Serhiy Guz continued.
“’These are draft laws that business is waiting for, draft laws that will protect the interests of all entrepreneurs. And workers, too, by the way,’ wrote MP Danylo Hetmantsev on Telegram on 9 July.
“’A worker should be able to regulate his relationship with an employer himself. Without the state,’ claimed Hetmantsev, who is head of the Ukrainian parliament’s finance committee.
“‘This is what happens in a state if it’s free, European and market oriented,’ he continued. ‘Otherwise, the country will be travelling with one leg on an express train to the EU, and with another inside a Soviet-era train going in the other direction.’”
“While martial law prevented unions from calling strikes and protests,” Education International observed, “the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine is launching a campaign to challenge Law no. 2434-IX in the Constitutional Court of Ukraine and will appeal to the International Labour Organization and other European and international bodies.”
The Zelensky government’s aim is to strengthen capitalist rule in Ukraine while allying itself with the major imperialist powers. This is a dead-end for working people as it is in every capitalist country. However, an essential step for truly advancing the struggle for the rights of Ukraine’s working people is getting the boot of Great Russian chauvinism and military aggression off their necks.
Ukraine’s battle for self-determination deserves unconditional backing. Support for the struggle to force the complete withdrawal of all Russian military forces from every inch of Ukraine does not rest on approval of or support for the Zelensky regime. Ukrainian working people must be able to decide the future of their country independent of all outside interference.
Ukrainian military advances
The reverses inflicted on Putin’s army by the Ukrainian resistance are encouraging. These include driving Russian forces out of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and the recent Russian retreat from Lyman, an important railroad hub.
“Russia’s retreat from Lyman on Saturday [October 1] leaves its troops in the country’s east in an increasingly perilous position,” reported the New York Times.
“The battle for the town was a continuation of Ukraine’s northeastern offensive in September, which routed Russian forces from cities, towns and dozens of villages and recaptured more than a thousand square miles of territory in the Kharkiv region. The lightning victory there severed most supply lines to Lyman, where Russian forces relied on a north-south rail line that is now mostly under Ukrainian control.
“Now that Ukrainian forces have retaken the city,” the Times continued, “they will have a solid foothold on the northeastern side of the river that they can use to advance farther east, applying pressure on the Russian front lines that formed following their recent defeats around Kharkiv.”
In early October, the Ukrainian counteroffensive began to make headway in the country’s south, where it had stalled until now.
That offensive “has suddenly picked up speed, with Russian units retreating in recent days from a large swath of territory along the west bank of the Dnieper River,” reported the Washington Post on October 4.
“Ukrainian forces pushed ahead dozens of miles into the southern Kherson region, liberating towns and villages and re-creating scenes from mid-September when they swept into Kharkiv and were greeted by joyful residents who had spent many months under Russian occupation.”
It remains to be seen if Ukraine can hold this territory. According to the October 5 Washington Post, Ukrainian commander Colonel Roman Kostenko observed, “This is not Kharkiv. There, they left all of their ammunition and vehicles and fled. Here, we don’t even have many trophies. They just retreated from the fight, took everything with them to their new position and are digging in anew.”
Antiwar protests in Russia
The Ukrainian victories and Putin’s policies deepening the war are spurring greater dissatisfaction and more open opposition inside Russia.
On September 21 Putin ordered a partial military mobilization and the call-up of 300,000 military reservists. Within five days of Putin’s announcement, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, citing government sources, reported that 261,000 Russian men had fled the country.
Other protests also erupted in Russia immediately after the announcement. They were modest but significant as Moscow has declared all such actions illegal.
Protests started in the country’s Far East. According to Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, which regularly documents such activities, an antiwar billboard went up in Angarsk, eastern Siberia, reading: “40,000 killed, 100,000 wounded. What for? NO TO THE WAR! 150 days of the ‘special operation’ have cost 1 trillion dollars.”
Flights from Russia to Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey which don’t require visas for Russians, sold out within minutes of Putin’s September 21 speech.
The October 4 Washington Post reported, “The interior minister in neighboring Kazakhstan, Marat Akhmetzhanov, said that… about 200,000 [Russians] had crossed that country’s border since Sept. 21, most of them apparently fleeing the mobilization or leaving out of fear that Putin would soon impose martial law and bar international travel. Tens of thousands more Russians have fled to other neighboring countries, including Georgia and Finland.”
Demonstrations against the draft also took place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and more than 30 major cities according to National Public Radio (NPR) and other news outlets. “I haven’t heard the word ‘war’ out of Putin’s mouth,” Natalya Zurina, a retired university professor who joined the protests, told NPR. “And if there’s no war then how can we have a mobilization? He’s calling up our young boys to die for nothing. I just couldn’t stay home.”
These protests led to more than 1,300 arrests as of September 24, according to rights groups.
Demoralization in the Russian army
On September 28, the New York Times published “exclusively obtained recordings of thousands of calls that were made throughout March and intercepted by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies” outside of Kyiv as the Russian military failed to take the capital city just weeks into the Russian invasion. If genuine, they testify to both the brutality of the invasion — widespread looting and killing of civilians, so they would not become prisoners needing to be fed — and opposition to the war among soldiers early in the war.
There are now signs demoralization is growing among the Russian forces. The Washington Post reported on “handwritten letters” drafted by Russian troops and recovered when Ukrainian forces retook the city of Izyum. Dated August 30, the letters — addressed to their superiors — requested they be relieved of their posts, citing concerns over their health and “moral exhaustion.”
Hastily retreating from some areas liberated by Ukrainian forces, Russian soldiers left behind large numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery howitzers, reconnaissance drones, grenade launchers, and other weapons and ammunition.
Hundreds of Russian troops surrendered to Ukrainian forces in the Kherson region the first week of October, according to the Eurasian Times. They include a group that drove up to Ukrainian positions in an armored vehicle, waving white flags, to give themselves up.
It is impossible to confirm these reports, which originate with the Zelensky government, with certainty. However, this excerpt from the Times article — and the evidence of the beginnings of widespread draft resistance inside Russia — lend validity to these claims:
“Several soldiers fear the consequences, saying they’ve been told — sometimes by their commanders — that they could face prosecution and imprisonment.
“The scare tactic had no legal grounds at the time, Sergey Krivenko, a Russian human rights lawyer, told the Times. But in September, days before Mr. Putin announced a mobilization to draft hundreds of thousands of civilians, Russian lawmakers approved harsher punishment for desertion, insubordination, and evading military service.”
Signed into effect September 24, the law now criminalizes refusal to serve in the military with up to 10 years in prison, strongly suggesting demoralization among Russian forces is real. If it were not, such steps would not be necessary.
None of this assures that the war will end soon. The Times cited Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at C.N.A., a Virginia-based defense research institute, who told the podcast “War on the Rocks,” that the conscription process in Russia “At first… obviously looks like a hot mess. That’s very much true, but they are also pulling in quite large numbers of men.” He noted a large enough draft could allow Putin to continue the war.
The same dynamic was observable during the U.S. war against Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite heroic resistance by the Vietnamese people and developing opposition to the war in the U.S., Washington poured well over 2.5 million people and untold resources into its war effort that lasted for years.
While the demoralization at home and inside the military is noteworthy, given that Putin’s invasion has lasted less than a year, it seems likely this will have to grow substantially, and the Ukrainian resistance will need to register many more victories, to compel Putin to change course.
On the other hand, there are also frustrated Russian supporters of the invasion who are becoming more vocal, pressing for further Kremlin escalation of the war. According to a report in the October 6 New York Times, Kirill Stremousov, Russia’s “deputy governor” of the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, said, “Many people are saying that as an officer, the defense minister could simply shoot himself for being the one who let things get to this state.” The reference is to Russian defense minister Sergei K. Shoigu, a close associate of Putin.
Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense committee in the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, also sharply criticized the defense ministry for hiding the truth about Russian military failures. “They need to stop lying,” said Kartapolov, who served as a senior military commander before becoming a lawmaker. “Our people aren’t stupid, far from it, and they see that they are not being taken seriously. It’s not being considered necessary to tell them even part of the truth, let alone all of it.”
Erosion of international support
Immediately prior to the mobilization of more Russian troops and the claimed annexation of Ukrainian territory, signs had appeared that Putin may be losing support among leaders of some countries he has viewed as key international allies.
In mid-September Putin, Indian prime minister Norenda Modi, and Chinese president Xi Jingping participated in a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. According to a September 16 Washington Post report, “Putin acknowledged he had heard ‘concerns and questions’ about the war from Chinese President Xi Jinping… Xi, however, did not voice his questions or concerns publicly.”
Modi was more blunt. In front of cameras and a group of journalists Modi declared to Putin, “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”
Putin replied, “I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, about your concerns that you constantly express. We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible.” Those words proved empty.
In response to Putin’s most recent attacks on civilians, India and China renewed calls for immediate de-escalation.
Putin had also hoped European governments would soften their stance toward Moscow because of their continuing dependence on Russian oil and gas. In mid-September, however, Germany nationalized three Russian-owned oil refineries in the country. Germany has also reduced its dependence on imports of Russian natural gas.
Also in September, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez and deputy foreign minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío were in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Democracy Now! conducted a wide-ranging interview with Fernández de Cossío, which can be read in its entirety here.
He was asked about Cuba’s foreign policy and specifically, “When the invasion [of Ukraine] occurred, shortly thereafter, there was a vote in the General Assembly in March where the majority of countries condemned the invasion, and Cuba, in fact, then abstained.”
Fernández de Cossío replied:
“Cuba’s position is not new. For some years now, we have been alerting of the dangerous path taken by the U.S. trying to push NATO in an aggressive position threatening Russia. It would be naive, and it was naive, to expect that Russia would not react one moment or the other. So, we — in our position, we say there’s a huge responsibility by the U.S. government by pushing NATO in an aggressive position against Russia.
“At the same time, Cuba cannot support and does not support the transgression of the sovereign borders or the sovereignty and territory of any country. That explains our abstention in the resolution that took place in the U.N. We also have a great support for some of the resolutions that were quoted in that resolution. We couldn’t vote against them.
“Now, we clearly see that there has been a path — and it’s not only with Russia — by the U.S. to act as an aggressive hegemon trying to tear down or to put down any country that it seems that eventually — eventually — could be a rival to the United States. That is not the way to conduct international relations. It only serves U.S. big corporate interests. It doesn’t serve the people of the United States. It doesn’t serve the people around the world. And it’s a transgression of international law. It’s a transgression of peace and of security for all nations.”
End the war – Russia Out Now
Fernández de Cossío is right. Prior to 1991, NATO membership was limited to western European governments alongside the United States and Canada. Starting in 1999, 14 eastern and central European countries — some bordering Russia — joined NATO. Russia, which also has a history of facing invasion from western powers, understood these as hostile moves.
As World-Outlook explained last February in its first editorial opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “Would Washington accept military bases, like those it is now establishing in Poland, to be set up today by Russia in Mexico, 100 miles from the U.S. border?”
“None of this justifies Putin’s invasion,” we said then. “But it points to Washington’s hypocrisy in claiming to seek a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the current crisis.”
The path to ending the war remains clear. Russia must withdraw all of its forces from all of Ukraine. Russian citizens and soldiers opposing the war while facing state repression deserve support as does the tenacious Ukrainian resistance to Moscow’s invasion.
Defending Ukraine’s right to self-determination is in the interests of working people around the world. Cuba’s lead in stating it “cannot support and does not support the transgression of the sovereign borders or the sovereignty and territory of any country” is one other countries and working people worldwide should follow.
In addition, working people should demand an end to U.S. sanctions against Russia — which, first and foremost, hurt Russian workers and farmers — as well as the abolition of NATO, an alliance that only guards the interests of U.S. imperialism and its allies, not the working people of the world.
1. When Russia first developed as a modern nation, it was composed of a substantial number of different nationalities. The largest group was known as “Great Russians,” who, under the tsar, dominated the country and oppressed other nationalities that faced discrimination, bigotry, and at times violent pogroms.
In an article published in 1924, Russian revolutionary leader V.I Lenin wrote, “The Great Russians constitute no more than 43 per cent of the entire population of the country… less than half the population… Consequently, the ‘subject peoples’ in Russia constitute 57 per cent of the population, i.e., the majority of the population, almost three-fifths, in all probability actually more than three-fifths.”
Referring to discriminatory measures taken against Ukrainians under the tsar, Lenin continued, “Mllions upon millions of ordinary people…were made to see the truth of the saying that Russia is ‘a prison of nations.’”
“Great Russian chauvinism” refers to these bigoted attitudes, discriminatory policies and outright violence such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — a nation that suffered from these policies under the tsar, and then again, after Lenin’s death, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under the regime led by Joseph Stalin.
Categories: World Politics