World Politics

After One Year of War, Ukraine Fights On

By Geoff Mirelowitz

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has now entered its second year. The war has developed quite differently from what many expected. The resistance of Ukraine’s people, determined to defend their right to self-determination, has been fierce and shows no sign of ebbing. The Russian military has proven far weaker than many supposed it to be.

Early expectations around the world held that the Russian invaders would quickly conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, depose the government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, and occupy the country. As CNN reported on February 25, 2022, “Heavily armed Russian troops are pushing rapidly towards Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, and US officials are warning the city could fall within days.”

At the time that prediction seemed possible, even likely. The Russian population is more than three times that of Ukraine. As the war began, the Russian military had more than four times the number of active military personnel, almost five times the number of armored fighting vehicles, more than 10 times the number of aircraft, and almost 20 times the number of helicopters.


Yet a year later Ukraine has fought Putin’s invasion to a stalemate.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a 105mm Howitzer towards Russian positions, near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, in February 2023. Russian forces have surrounded Bakhmut from three sides and are throwing wave after wave of combatants in a bloody, months-long attempt to take the town. (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP)

“A year into the war in Ukraine,” reported the February 28, 2023, New York Times, “the Russian military has suffered staggering losses — as many as 200,000 troops killed or wounded, Western officials say, and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Russia is running low on artillery shells and cruise missiles, and is having trouble replenishing its stocks because of Western sanctions. Many of its most elite, best-trained and experienced units have been decimated, left in a shambles that experts say will probably take years, rather than months, to recover from. In their places, Russia is being forced to rely on tens of thousands of newly conscripted soldiers rushed to the front with little time for instruction.”

It would be a mistake to consider Russia’s military a spent force. Putin can still draw on substantial reserves of troops and equipment. A stalemate does not necessarily portend a victory. Nevertheless, what explains the unexpected turn of events of the first year of the war?

Fighting for self-determination

Ukrainians are fighting for deeply held beliefs. They are keenly aware of centuries of Great Russian chauvinism — under the Tsarist monarchy, then Stalinist rule, followed by some pro-Moscow regimes in Kyiv, that held power after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukrainians are again fighting for their right to self-determination and independence from Moscow.

One compelling sign was the rush of volunteers to fight Putin’s invasion. On March 19, 2022, National Public Radio (NPR) reported: “The combat spirit in Ukraine right now appears to be pretty robust. Only men face conscription. But lots of them haven’t even been called up yet, because the military has already been inundated with volunteers — of all genders.”

NPR continued, “It wasn’t until after Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine that women enlisted here in the Ukrainian armed forces in huge numbers — and were officially recognized as combat veterans, with full military pensions. Before conscription, nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s military was female. Some of the iconic images of the current war — on propaganda posters and on social media — are of female combatants.”

Lyubov Plaksyuk, the first woman to head an artillery unit of the Ukrainian Army. About 50,000 women are part of the Ukrainian armed forces today, including 5,000 on the front lines. (Photo: Joint Forces Task Force)

Putin has tried to break this fighting spirit by using Russia’s great advantage in air power to target Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. In a February 2023 interview, Alona Liasheva from Lviv, Ukraine, explained:

Russia started launching this latest round of missile attacks on October 10 [2022]. They were supposed to weaken the Ukrainian army, but it didn’t work. Here in Lviv, they seemed to hit everything but the military buildings. While civilian buildings lost their electricity and suffered blackouts, the military buildings were up and running either with regular electricity or generators.

So, the victims of these missiles were civilians and civilian infrastructure. Many lost heat in the middle of winter and had to endure extremely cold conditions in their houses and apartments.

The attacks knocked power out at hospitals, turning off refrigerators that keep the COVID vaccines cold. We couldn’t get vaccines for a while as a result. All sorts of people and organizations mobilized to get us new vaccines, get generators to key places, and get the electricity back on.

I think Russia hoped to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But the opposite has happened. In surveys, popular support for the military resistance to Russia has remained steadfast.

From interview with Alona Liasheva

Liasheva is a sociologist and researcher of urban political economy who works at The Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. She is a co-editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and member of the Ukrainian democratic socialist group Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement). The full interview can be read here.

In the interview, Liasheva advances the idea of reforming capitalism in Ukraine. But her factual observations about the war have the ring of truth.

The high morale among Ukrainians she describes is attributable to the powerful desire for self-determination with deep roots in Ukrainian history. This is in stark contrast to what Russian soldiers have to fight for. As one Ukrainian combatant told the New York Times, “They have quantity, and we have spirit.”

From the beginning, Putin has falsely claimed that Russia is fighting against “fascism” in Ukraine.

In his February 2023 speech to the Russian State Duma, Putin again referred to “the threat coming from the neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine. But Ukraine is ruled by a capitalist government like others throughout Europe and elsewhere, including Russia. There are neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine, as there are in Russia and many other countries. But their presence does not define the nature of the Ukrainian state today.

Putin stated the real reason for the invasion in his address to the Russian Federation days before he launched the war. “I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia,” Putin proclaimed on February 21, 2022. “This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia — by separating, severing what is historically Russian land.”

A year later, in his February 21, 2023, speech to the State Duma, Russia’s president repeated this reactionary theme: “In our time, they started turning Ukraine into an ‘anti-Russia.’ Actually, this project is not new. People who are knowledgeable about history at least to some extent realize that this project dates back to the 19thcentury. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland had conceived it for one purpose, that is, to deprive Russia of these historical territories that are now called Ukraine. This is their goal. There is nothing new here; they are repeating everything.” (Emphasis added.)

Bolsheviks backed Ukraine’s rights

As Liasheva explained, it is striking how many who identify as part of “the left” around the world today are taken in by Putin’s demagogy. “Of course, I think it’s important to analyze every conflict to understand all the players, the dynamics, and who’s culpable, she said. In the case of Ukraine, it’s far simpler than many on the left think. Ukraine was attacked by an imperialist army, and as a result we are in a struggle to defend our lives and our very right to exist as a sovereign nation.”

Few of those she referred to as being part of the “the left” today know or care that following the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the revolutionary government led by V.I. Lenin based its stance toward Ukraine on firmly supporting self-determination for the Ukrainian people.

“It is therefore self-evident and generally recognized,” Lenin wrote in a 1919 letter to Ukrainian workers and peasants, “that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.” (Emphasis added.)

If supporting the right to self-determination for Ukraine was the right position when a revolutionary government had been established in Russia, it is even more necessary today, when Moscow is again in the hands of the very proponents of Great Russian chauvinism that Lenin often polemicized against.

(World-Outlook has shared some of Lenin’s writing on this subject. See “Why Lenin, Bolsheviks Backed Independence for Ukraine,” and “Lenin on Internationalism, Fighting National Oppression.”)

What of Putin’s claim that those “knowledgeable about history” would support his views? Readers of Putin’s February 2023 speech should notice his identification with Pyotr Stolypin[1] and the goals of the Tsarist government he served.

“Our sovereignty and our national interests override everything else for us,” said Putin. “I would like to thank you for this responsible, firm position and recall the words of Pyotr Stolypin, a patriot and a proponent of a strong Russian state,” he continued. Stolypin “said this in the State Duma over a hundred years ago, but it is still consonant with our times… ‘In the cause of defending Russia, all of us must unite and coordinate our efforts, our commitments and our rights for supporting one historical supreme right — the right of Russia to be strong.’”

It is clear what Putin means when he declares his admiration for such figures from Tsarist history. Lenin had good reason to describe Stolypin as “the arch-hangman.” Ukrainians see Putin today in the same way, for good reason.

U.S. imperialism and its allies

The war in Ukraine has deeply affected world politics. U.S. imperialism2 has seized the opportunity Putin has offered, posing as the defender of self-determination and national sovereignty by backing the Zelensky regime. Any study of history, however, confirms how false such claims are.

Full-scale U.S. invasions or other forms of military intervention in other countries since the end of World War II include those in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not to mention the war Washington and its NATO allies helped instigate and fuel in the Balkans in the 1990s, leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the re-establishment of capitalism there. Or the decades-long effort to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, including backing a mercenary invasion and countless attempts to assassinate Cuba’s central leader Fidel Castro. The CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, just to name a few, is also part of this history.

This record can never be forgotten or minimized. But it does not lead to the conclusion that Ukraine does not deserve support in its effort to repel Putin’s invasion. The Ukrainian people’s tenacious fight to defend their country’s sovereignty today is in the interests of working people around the world as are other battles by oppressed nations for self-determination.

Polish Leopard 2PL tanks during a NATO military exercise in Bemowo Piskie, Poland, May 2022. Poland has been a prime lobbyist for sending German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Washington and its allies are arming Ukraine for their own reasons, to strengthen NATO and increase U.S. military role in Europe. (Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Washington is arming Ukraine for its own reasons. It sees the Putin regime and the Russian capitalist class it represents as economic and military rivals — although the U.S. economy and military power dwarf Russia’s. It seeks to strengthen NATO and increase the U.S. military role in Europe. None of this is in the interests of working people. However, Putin’s invasion in no way protects working people in Russia from U.S. aggression. Rather it has given Washington a pretext to further expand NATO.

The Zelensky regime not only welcomes U.S. aid. It urges Ukrainians to identify politically with Washington and NATO and has applied for fast track NATO membership. That too should be opposed and explained. But it doesn’t change the central dynamic of the war: Ukraine’s right to self-determination and independence from Moscow.

Imperialist powers seek at all times to respond to world events in ways that serve their interests. That response, while always a factor, does not alone dictate how opponents of imperialism evaluate those events.

Useful lesson from history

A useful lesson from history can be drawn from Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria that led to a wider invasion of China. As the war expanded, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote a letter to Mexican artist and revolutionist Diego Rivera in September 1937.[3] He reminded Rivera that in an earlier statement Trotsky had said, “the duty of all the workers’ organizations of China was to participate actively and in the front lines of the present war against Japan, without abandoning, for a single moment, their own program and independent activity.”

For that stance, Trotsky said, some accused him of “social patriotism.”[4]

The Chinese government at that time was led by Chiang Kai-Shek. His regime led the bloody suppression of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, that was crushed by the massacre of Shanghai workers in April 1927 and further repression that followed.

Japanese troops invading Manchuria in 1931.

Also, by 1937 the world was clearly on the verge of a new inter-imperialist war. (It began in September 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland, followed by declarations of war against Germany by Britain and France. The war soon spread involving all the imperialist powers.)

Although these factors could not be ignored, Trotsky explained why China’s war against the Japanese invasion demanded support. “We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane,” Trotsky wrote. “Marx and Engels[5] supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy… at all events, Catholic reactionaries.”

He continued, “China is a semicolonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan’s struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China’s struggle is emancipatory and progressive.”

“We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China,” Trotsky wrote. “Just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse to participate in that struggle.”

A direct analogy to the war in Ukraine today would not be accurate. China was a colonial county in 1937. Ukraine cannot be described that way. Despite the 1927 defeat, there was a substantial revolutionary movement in China at the time. No such movement exists in Ukraine today. However, Ukraine is an oppressed nation that has never definitively won its independence from Moscow. The goal of Putin’s invasion is to end any chance of Ukraine’s  right to exist as a separate nation and to force it back under Moscow’s domination. Ukraine’s struggle, as Trotsky explained about China’s, is “emancipatory and progressive.”

Beijing’s role today

That cannot be said about Beijing’s response to the war in Ukraine. Since Moscow’s invasion, the Chinese government has provided diplomatic and economic assistance to Russia, while formally proclaiming “neutrality” in the conflict.

On February 24, Beijing issued a statement on “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” It professed support for “respecting the sovereignty of all countries” — in the abstract. But it ignored the fact that Moscow’s invasion has trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty. It did not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops, which is the necessary step to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty. The Chinese plan called for a cease fire and negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Moscow nevertheless threw cold water on China’s proposal. “We paid a lot of attention to our Chinese friends’ plan,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on February 27, according to the Moscow Times. “For now, we don’t see any of the conditions that are needed to bring this whole story towards peace.”

China’s support to Putin’s regime since the Ukraine invasion has included ramping up exports to Russia — especially of cars, machinery, and computer chips — and increasing its imports of Russian oil and natural gas. Other countries that have followed Beijing’s lead include India, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, and an array of African countries — from South Africa to Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

The port at Vladivostok, Russia. Increased exports from China, India, and other countries have enabled Russian imports to recover to nearly prewar levels. (Photo: Vladimir Soldatkin/Reuters)

Such economic co-operation has helped Moscow minimize the impact of U.S.-initiated sanctions. As an editorial World-Outlook published a year ago explained, “The sanctions Washington and its allies are imposing against Russia will do little to deter Putin’s invasion, which is backed by China, while they will mostly hurt working people inside Russia and elsewhere in Europe.”

The headline of that editorial declared: “Russian Troops Out Now! For Ukraine’s Independence! U.S./NATO Out of E. Europe!” The course of the war in the past year confirms the analysis presented then.


[1] Pyotr Stolypin was both interior minister and prime minister under the Tsar. He was assassinated in 1911 by Dmitry Bogrov, a member of the Social Revolutionary Party.

In an article written after Stolypin’s death Lenin described him this way:

“Stolypin was the head of the counter-revolutionary government for about five years, from 1906 to 1911…. A landowner and Marshal of the Nobility, he was appointed governor in 1902… gained ‘fame’ in the eyes of the tsar and the reactionary court clique by his brutal reprisals against the peasants and the cruel punishment he inflicted upon them (in Saratov Gubernia), organised Black-Hundred gangs and pogroms in 1905 (the pogrom in Balashov), became Minister of the Interior in 1906 and Chairman of the Council of Ministers after the dissolution of the First Duma. That, in very brief outline, is Stolypin’s political biography.”

[2] Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. It became predominant at the dawn of the 20th century. Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin gave this economic system the most apt definition in his famous work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916. Imperialism is marked by five basic features, Lenin said: “(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this ‘finance capital,’ of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.”

At the second congress of the Communist International in July 1920, a report on the work of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions summarized the further development of imperialism this way: “The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world, as we now see, being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces. The vast majority of the world’s population…belong to the oppressed nations…This idea of distinction, of dividing the nations into oppressor and oppressed, runs through the theses.”

[3] See “Leon Trotsky on the Sino-Japanese War: Letter to Diego Rivera.”

[4] Social patriotism is an openly patriotic standpoint that claims to combine patriotism with socialism. An example was the position most European social democratic parties took at the outset of WWI when they chose to support the war efforts of their respective governments and abandoned socialist internationalism and solidarity of all working people.

[5] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were German-born revolutionaries who became the central founders of scientific socialism.

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4 replies »

  1. The war in the Ukraine is a 120 billion dollar US proxy war that can only end end badly for the working people of the Ukraine just like Afghanistan or Iraq, I think.

  2. Thanks for the work bringing all the historical context together. Surprising how many progressive minded people in my area parrot Putin’s justifications. I think this paragraph in your article makes the crucial point:

    Ukrainians are fighting for deeply held beliefs. They are keenly aware of centuries of Great Russian chauvinism — under the Tsarist monarchy, then Stalinist rule, followed by some pro-Moscow regimes in Kyiv, that held power after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukrainians are again fighting for their right to self-determination and independence from Moscow.

  3. I just read the entire interview with Alona Liasheva. Very helpful you included the link. I recommend everyone take the time to read it. I have shared the link with local people I believe would benefit from reading it.

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