Ten months of war in Ukraine
A brief review of war aims that have changed or haven’t
1. Back to the starting point: Russia conducts a “special military operation” targeting Kiev and eastern Ukraine with the explicit aim of ousting the government that complies with the West — the EU and NATO — and replacing it with a pro-Russia one. Occupying territories bordering the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the east of the country that are loyal to Moscow is supposed to protect them against constant incursions and attacks by Ukrainian forces and secure the annexation of Crimea by military means. At the same time, Russia declares that its much broader strategic goal is to secure its own existence against the advance of the Western military alliance up to its western border. It sees NATO and the EU’s co-opting of its Black Sea neighbor as an anti-Russian outpost, possibly also for stationing American medium-range missiles, as a fundamental threat to its own strategic defense capability — a threat that must be repelled.
These two objectives are on quite different levels. The second goes far beyond a changeover of power within Ukraine. Even if that succeeded it would not be any serious insurance against what the Western alliance is after — as Russia sees it and is trying to push back in Ukraine — that is, to neutralize Russia as a strategic adversary, destroy its power, remove the great country from the stage of global politics. But the Russian government combines these war aims — its local one and its strategic one — into one in practical terms by its invasion, and in diplomatic terms by its double declaration of war. Both from Moscow’s point of view and in actual fact, the intended strike to push back the Western advance qualitatively exceeds the dimension of a “special operation,” with its intentionally low-key designation and scope, against the ruling “fascists” in Kiev. Such a strike puts a conflict on the agenda that is of a completely different order of magnitude than a local or regional one. The Russian government makes this explicitly clear by warning the NATO states that they must reckon with unprecedented destruction if they try to stop it in Ukraine. But the same warning that builds its Ukraine operation up into a case of global confrontation between Russia and the US and its allies also takes that major strategic conflict down to the dimension of a rescue operation for a pro-Russian Ukraine that the hostile West should just let it take care of. On the one hand, it explicitly addresses the united Western world power as the adversary it is actually tangling with in Ukraine and, on the other hand, it insists just as explicitly that it is not really tangling with its main strategic enemy there, at least not directly, but only trying to get the West to make a concession with regard to a regime change in Kiev. The two war aims act as denials of each other. That is how the Russian government means them, while at the same time seeing them as congruent.
So the military action that is intentionally defined and carried out in such a limiting way has an overshooting strategic objective going far beyond the Ukrainian battlefield. And that indicates the reason for war that is not just explained by the Moscow government making a contradictory calculation, but is part of the rationale of the state power this government is executing, and therefore quite necessary. Russia has a deterrent force based on the world’s second strongest nuclear arsenal and that makes it the one big exception in the imperialist order of world peace established and safeguarded by the USA and its allies. It is an exception in the qualitative sense that it is able to be truly autonomous in defining and enforcing its security, the basis and guarantee for its freedom of action in world politics; against the American/Western regime of deterrence. This freedom is the epitome of strategic world power, first and foremost in the Russian reason of state. And it demands an unconditional ability and readiness to go to war against anyone who challenges this freedom, making war an imperialist — in this case mainly anti-imperialist — necessity. It is this reason of state the government is dutifully serving when it defines when and where it sees a violation of its security interests, and takes opportunities to make sure its freedom to decide as it sees fit in matters of world politics is respected. As now in Ukraine.
2. The two targeted adversaries, the Kiev government attacked and NATO confronted with Russian deterrence, respond promptly and in accordance with the dual war aim. More precisely, their answer matches the congruence of the two disparate war aims that Russia is pursuing with its invasion. The Ukrainian government puts its country in a state of war and opens up the battle for its sovereignty; from the outset using means far beyond its own national capacities. The reason for this is the much more important other side: Russia’s main strategic enemy, the Western war alliance, declares itself the object of Russia’s “special military operation” from the very first moment. It throws weapons and logistics into the fray, and declares its commitment to protecting European peace, saving its sovereign protege in Eastern Europe, and relentlessly fighting any unlicensed correcting of borders anywhere in the world. It is thus pronouncing itself, and acting, as the world-ordering power that is actually being attacked itself on the Ukrainian battlefield. At the same time and clearly contradicting that, but in line with the Russian jumble, NATO and its leading power stress that they are not under attack themselves, not directly involved as a warring party. They claim to be taking action as Ukraine’s legitimate protecting power, but only very locally and only within the bounds of international law.
And that is enough to destroy the purpose of the Russian invasion aimed at the Ukrainian leadership. The country’s army is by and large holding out, armed by NATO powers and led “from behind” by Western commanders; there is no overthrow in Kiev and no about-face of the nation. But that also means that the West is using its protege and its protege’s sacrifices to beat back Russia’s assault on its supremacy over war and peace in Europe and the world, and on its anti-Russian forward strategy. And it is doing this exactly the same way that Russia is waging its assault. It will not be deterred, not be stopped from vigorously deploying its military machinery in the local arena. In this respect Russia’s virtual deployment of its strategic weapons — its threat to use them — has failed for now. Russia is also failing to achieve its war goal of rebuffing the West’s strategy of encircling it and breaking it up. It is failing in two ways here. Insofar as the West identifies with Ukraine’s war fortunes as its protective power, it can chalk up a first direct success in the war arena on the Black Sea as the anti-Russian world power that is actually in charge of everything. It has foiled Russia’s attempt to put a check on the West’s supremacy over the continent by executing a lean military operation on the Black Sea. At the same time, the West has evaded this Russian war aim by distancing itself from the local course of the war, declaring itself a non-warring party. In this way it has informed its adversary that, as far as the higher strategic level of the war is concerned, the West’s global policy of subjecting even an exceptional power like Russia to its world-ordering supremacy cannot be touched, much less curbed, in Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia’s special operation are no occasion for NATO or the USA to see their imperialist claim to domination as being at stake. Thus, even while heavily interfering in the course of the war, the world power preserves its freedom to deal with it as it sees fit.
This is in complete contrast to Russia, which has been out to set an example in accordance with its disparate war aims posed as congruent. By attempting to defeat Kiev and thereby face the West down strategically at the same time, Russia has been risking its ability to do that, and failing puts it seriously on the defensive.
3. Russia reacts by redefining the goal it is pursuing with what it continues to call its “special military operation” in Ukraine against its sustained resistance. Instead of fighting to overthrow and replace the anti-Russian government in Kiev and gain a compliant neighbor on the Black Sea, it is fighting in the east and south of the country — including a long bloody battle for the city of Mariupol — to secure substantial territorial gains. The aim is now to take territory away from its hostile neighbor, make it hard or preferably impossible for it to persist as a viable nation, and also irreversibly secure the annexation of Crimea by conquering the adjacent southern provinces. This is how it is substituting for the failed program of winning over and subordinating the entire state in a lightning action.
However, the higher strategic purpose remains basically the same. On its long frontline within Ukraine, Russia is preventing NATO — or at least working to prevent NATO once and for all — from taking possession of the country as its strategically threatening outpost. In doing so, it is contesting the Western alliance’s claim to expand its exclusionary regime of control over the European states up to Russia’s heartland and thereby cement it. This response of Russia’s prevents the West from demonstrating its power by intervening to save its Kiev protege. This is also the purpose of Russia’s repeated warnings that as a nuclear power it has quite different arrows in its quiver and is capable of enforcing its autonomously defined security needs in much more drastic ways than by fighting bloody, militarily costly battles against the finest Western matériel and its local operating crew.
So by transitioning to a pretty extensive land war, Russia is re-establishing the connection between its local warfare and its asserting itself as a world power in its own right. This makes its war goal of small-scale land gains congruent with its overall strategic aim of fighting off a Western monopoly on force in Europe that threatens its existence. For it still wants to engage its imperialistically superior enemy in the Ukrainian war theater indirectly but effectively, and force it to give in and accept that the country belongs to Russia.
4. NATO and Ukraine are fighting back, appropriately updating the goal and course of their warfare. The local government continues to sacrifice its people and what remains of the country’s wealth for the sake of its sponsored sovereignty. Intensifying its uncompromising position, it declares its boundless readiness to make sacrifices to be unshakably aimed at complete restoration of its territory including Crimea. Its patron and general outfitter that Russia is challenging translates that into the somewhat more open announcement that a victorious Russian peace is absolutely out of the question, and reiterates its commitment to the higher goal of taking away the Russian aggressor’s military capability for campaigns like the Ukraine invasion: Russia has to lose the war and submit to Western supremacy, whatever that will look like.
The West steps up its military involvement accordingly. It empowers the Ukrainian state and enables its army to stop Russia’s advance, make successful counterattacks and, using long-range weapons and high-precision reconnaissance of enemy positions, annihilate a lot of Russian military personnel and matériel behind front lines, in occupied territories and even in Crimea. This is how the West, without regard for Ukrainian casualties and without any sacrifices of its own except money and military equipment, is gradually realizing its goal of wearing down its adversary’s conventional military might. It escalates to put Russia increasingly on the defensive while repeating the mantra that it is still no party to the war and wants to keep it that way. Taken literally, this reaffirmation is more and more of a farce; people in many NATO capitals readily celebrate the Ukrainian army’s defensive and offensive successes as triumphs of their own superior military technology and competence in reconnaissance and leadership. At the same time, however, the alliance insists on restricting its vassal’s warfare to its own territory, i.e., not making or allowing attacks inside Russia. To the chagrin of militant Russophobes not only in NATO’s easternmost states and Britain, the united world power is sticking to its self-defined “red line” of keeping its attack on Russia’s war-fighting capability within the bounds of Russia’s war theater in Ukraine so as to stay below the threshold of a direct confrontation potentially involving world war. On the other hand, at the same time as rejecting an offensive that would go beyond the regional and qualitative scope of current war events, the US keeps threatening the Moscow leadership more and more explicitly that if they escalate beyond this scope, in particular try nuclear weapons of whatever caliber, the response will be immediate, inescapable annihilating blows. In this way, mirroring the West’s own definition of how far its war deployment should go, it deters the Russians from making the evidently quite conceivable transition to using the higher kind of weapons of destruction to discourage the offensive push of the Ukrainian army and its Western leadership or reverse already suffered defeats. Also mirroring the Russian warnings, the sharpness of the West’s threats reflects how badly its adversary must expect to be beaten.
This does not take back NATO’s and its leading power’s declaration that they too are avoiding escalating as they are forbidding the Russians to do. Nor does it take back their deterrent threat to retaliate. This declaration and this threat together make clear, as at the outset, that the united world power is both fully present in the Ukraine war and won’t be nailed down to anything. No matter how harsh its real or threatened counterstrikes are, the West does not see Russia’s invasion as crucially challenging its imperialism in any way. It does not even acknowledge that the reach of its power over Europe might be at stake. It very coolly gauges what to consider a provocation, how to react, and how much risk to take, consistently preserving its freedom of action. And it is quite free to present Russia with the prospect of a war lasting many years if necessary that will rob it of most of its military freedom of action and all of its offensive capability. NATO is accordingly celebrating the accession of the northern states Sweden and Finland as a strategic gain that moves it considerably closer to the Russian power. In a grand proclamation, it commits itself to the goal of unequivocal supremacy over this unwieldy exception to its regional and global domination. In the course of the war there is thus a shift in strategic power relations.
5. How does Russia respond to the war of attrition the West presents it with using Ukraine as a big weapon, to defeats and setbacks that jeopardize its conquests and thus also its goal of asserting itself incontestably as a world power against the US and NATO regime? It massively escalates its grip on Ukraine.
This escalation is firstly a political one. Moscow declares the occupied territories to be integral parts of its federation following referendums with the expected outcome. In addition, it sends a clear message, which is certainly received in the West, that these territories are consequently subject to the guarantee of protection that world power number two has put into effect with its self-granted license to use nuclear weapons against any attack threatening its intact existence. This in principle abandons the distinction it declared from the outset between a “special operation” on Ukrainian soil and a confrontation with the Western world power on the level of nuclear threats. Russia’s two disparate war aims — to achieve a regime over its neighboring state, and to repel the Western alliance’s monopolistic claim to ordering the world — are now no longer merely congruent, but combined as one. The strategic confrontation coincides with the battles on the frontline inside Ukraine, which is now one between Russia and enemy countries. From now on, what happens there is the critical situation Moscow was always warning against.
Or it is “only” close. For the political escalation is accompanied by a military one: partial mobilization of the Russian military for a purpose still referred to as a “special operation.” For now, it is up to the conventional forces to defend the homeland unconditionally on the Ukrainian front. The widely discussed first use of tactical nuclear weapons for this purpose, including direct collision with the world’s greatest nuclear power, remains a different option. It is still a threat meant to deter the West from trying to prevent Russia from keeping its new territories. Moscow changes its warfare in Ukraine accordingly. It firstly switches from conquering territory to securing the newly defined sacred national border. Beyond all tactical calculations and requirements, it straightens the front, even at the cost of giving up conquered territory, and in particular withdraws from the provincial capital of Kherson — which the hawks in Moscow supposedly actually welcome — in order to meet this revised purpose. In so doing it underlines its position: what Russia is not giving up is irrevocably Russia once and for all.
Secondly, Russia is revising its military handling of the rest of the Ukrainian state that still exists. Instead of fighting for territorial gains that decimate the power and reach of the enemy’s rule, Russia is now devastating the infrastructure. In so doing, it demonstrates its will and capability to render the country practically uninhabitable and the state power unable to fight, thus making Ukraine unfit to continue doing military service for the West. When at the same time Russia offers to negotiate with the government in Kiev again, this indicates its aim of staging impending disaster for the country and its people in order to force the leadership to give in and make compromises; a disaster that, if realized, Western weapons and financial assistance could not avert.
In that way Russia is taking a strategic outpost away from the West. And it is repudiating the West’s deterrent power with a military offensive that in any case stays below the qualitative transition to using nuclear weapons but is practically at its heights within these limits. It is thus thwarting Ukraine's declared war aim of completely defeating Russia to restore its old national territory. And at the same time it is thwarting the West’s declared aim of using Ukraine — the theater opened up and defined by Russia — to inflict a defeat on Russia’s military power that will bring the West closer to subjecting its main enemy to its imperialist regime.
6. The West is working on its response. It will apparently not be deterred for the time being from continuing to supply arms. But when Kiev urgently requests that the missile debris hitting a Polish border town be regarded as an attack on NATO, the highest authorities immediately and quite demonstratively refuse, officially making it clear that the projectile was a Ukrainian one. So there is no counter-escalation against Russia’s missile attacks as sought by Kiev, at least not on this occasion. That is no reason for the West to abandon the prospect of embroiling Russia in an attritional war that goes on and on. After all, it can see that it has already achieved considerable success that way. The alliance is — still — keeping its options open as to how to continue.
When Russia threatens to escalate the war to the nuclear level to prevent its global power from being destroyed — a threat that is not yet an ultimatum but taken seriously — the USA again answers by warning that its own conventional and nuclear destructive potential is infinitely superior. But it also answers on a different level, the diplomatic one. Aiming to mitigate the danger posed by Russia’s deterrent power, Western politicians are working toward nuclear war and any threats of it being more strongly condemned, in general, but above all by Russia’s powerful supporters among the world’s countries. It is intensely trying to progressively isolate Russia politically; this will not eliminate its strategic power, but diminish the advantage this power gives Russia in global politics. In addition, the US government is reactivating some nuclear-war diplomacy, that is, some elements of its old arms-control deals with the enemy, involving mutual disclosure of their strategic armaments aimed against each other, and the assurance to agree that a strategic nuclear war is unfeasible. It also informs the global public of this, making clear that it is definitely keeping a firm hand on how the confrontation intensifies — however it follows that up.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government is disappointed, and all the more determined to make its people keep fighting as long as the country still exists.
© GegenStandpunkt 2023