After a year of waging a near-genocidal war against the Ukrainian people, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to put a facade of legitimacy on his regime’s seizure of almost a fifth of the country. He went to Moscow-occupied areas of Ukraine for the first time since the war began.
Putin visited Sevastopol in Crimea, the long-time home of the Crimean Tatars, nine years after it was invaded and annexed by Russian forces. Moscow has tightened its grip there, shutting down the Mejlis, the Tatar parliament, in 2016, forcing Tatar leaders into exile and carrying out a sustained campaign of oppression there.
Putin then flew to Mariupol, which was captured by Moscow last May after being bombarded for weeks. Ukrainians in the city heroically defended the besieged Azovstal steelworks, holding out for 83 days and winning support from working people around the world. Putin “arrived in the night like a thief,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said, to a pristinely cleaned-up area. He kept hidden from Russian audiences the scars of destruction throughout the city.
He returned to Moscow to host Chinese President Xi Jinping March 20-22. The Chinese and Russian presidents sought closer ties, despite their conflicting national interests. Moscow has been weakened in the course of its so-far futile attempt to obliterate Ukraine. It is looking for greater aid from Beijing, which has helped capitalists in Russia offset the impact of some of Washington’s sanctions and provided political cover for the invasion.
As Beijing advances its own interests, it is increasing its leverage over the Russian rulers and will extract a growing political and economic price from Moscow, as it becomes increasingly dependent on the Chinese government. This is part of the shifts in political, economic and military alliances worldwide that are resulting from Moscow’s invasion.
At the same time, Xi is posturing as “neutral” in the war and as a mediator who could broker an end to the conflict. However, his plan contains no pullback of Russian forces from Ukraine. He hopes to maintain relations with capitalist powers in Europe, where there are important markets for Chinese exports.
Tensions between Washington and Moscow spiked when Russian warplanes forced down a U.S. spy drone over the Black Sea March 14, destroying it. Two fighter planes buzzed the pilotless aircraft, dumping jet fuel on it before one clipped its propeller blade. Russian forces are now trying to bring some of the debris up to study.
Russian conscripts from Irkutsk in Siberia complained in a March 7 video appeal to Putin that they were “being sent to the slaughter.” Thousands have been killed in human wave attacks on Bakhmut in recent weeks, far outweighing losses by Ukrainian forces.
“This amount of Russian losses hasn’t caused an explosion in Russian society yet, but it resonates a lot inside the Russian army,” Yevhen Dykyi, a Ukrainian war veteran, told a TV show. “And the longer these crazy losses — unjustified in the opinion of lower- and middle-rank soldiers — go on, the lower the morale of the Russian army will be at the time of our counteroffensive.”
By contrast, Ukrainian troops are motivated to defend their country’s sovereignty in the face of Moscow’s destructive assaults. At the same time, Ukraine is a capitalist country whose government lets the greatest hardships fall on working people.
Production in Ukraine has been crippled by the war, creating a serious crisis. Workers face rising prices for food and other essentials, alongside irregular wage payments.
Thousands of businesses have been shut down, moved or been destroyed. On top of that the Ukrainian government just cut salaries for non-frontline military personnel. Some soldiers have received a fraction of their monthly pay.
The state military health care system is overwhelmed by an influx of wounded troops. Although soldiers receive free hospital care, they have to pay for follow-up private medical treatment. Volunteers raise funds to help the injured make payments.
‘Russia is not Putin’
Inside Russia opponents of the war continue to find ways to express their opposition to the slaughter.
“I hear the voices of Russia” is the title of a series of artworks created by Alisa Gorshenina in Nizhny Tagil, a city in the Urals. One piece repeats the phrase, “We are against the war” in different languages.
“Russia is a multinational country, and I noticed that people had started to speak out against the war in their native languages,” she told the Moscow Times. A fifth of Russia’s population of 144 million are from over 160 ethnicities other than Russian. The Russian army’s foot soldiers come disproportionately from poorer regions like Buryatia and Dagestan and suffer high casualty rates in Ukraine. This spurs protests in these areas.
Hundreds have been dragged before Russian courts charged with the “crime” of spreading “fake news” about the war.
Dmitry Ivanov was sentenced to over eight years in prison March 7. He was accused of “political hatred” for posting online news about Moscow’s deadly attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
The day of the verdict, his supporters packed the courtroom. Ivanov expressed solidarity with fellow political prisoners and asked his supporters to write them letters and to attend their trials.
“Russia is not Putin. Tens of millions of Russians are against this criminal war,” he said. He noted that many have relatives in Ukraine. “This is a dark moment of our history, but the darkest moment always comes before dawn.”