Workers Vanguard No. 1071

10 July 2015


Is Russia Imperialist?


25 March 2015

Workers Vanguard,

I do have one political question. WV did mention Russia was a regional power and not an imperialist power, as regards the Ukraine. True, Russia is an economic shell compared to what it was when it was the old Soviet Union but they still have an enormous amount of nuclear weapons and they do continue to occupy areas, such as Chechnya, leading to some question as to what it takes to qualify as a true imperialist state?

I have traveled extensively in the Ukraine and it is obvious, that much of Eastern Ukraine and certainly Crimea, are very, very Russian. Certainly, one must oppose NATO and hence, American aggression. Remembering the Russian Revolution however, at what point does the slogan become: “Turn the guns around—the main enemy is at home”?

Red Greetings,
Lawrence of Seattle

WV replies:

The criteria used by the reader to suggest that Russia may be imperialist are essentially military: the fact that it has nuclear weapons, and it waged two savage wars against Chechnya. But military might and aggression do not in and of themselves define a country as imperialist. As Lenin summarized it, “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed” (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism [1916]). This domination of the world by a few imperialist powers is the biggest barrier to the economic development and social progress of the less developed countries.

The constant struggle of the imperialist powers for access to markets, raw materials and cheap labor leads to the recurrence of imperialist wars to acquire and protect assets in foreign countries. Russia does not play a role in the carve-up of the world on a global scale. While Russia’s significant military might, especially its nuclear arsenal, makes it harder for the imperialists to push it around, Russia does not invade and bomb countries across the globe as the U.S. does. Nor does it, like even second-rate imperialist powers such as Britain and France, send troops to faraway places to advance its national interests.

Russia is a regional power, albeit with imperial ambitions. Post-Soviet Russia has never intervened militarily outside the territory of the former Soviet Union except for a very limited intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s when the Russian forces acted as soft cops for NATO. Moscow has waged two brutal wars in Chechnya to prevent the oppressed Chechens from asserting their right to secede from Russia (a right that we support). But many countries that are not imperialist oppress minority peoples within their borders, for instance, the Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma). Russia also fought over pro-Russian South Ossetia with Georgia, which was backed by the U.S. In that 2008 war between two non-imperialist capitalist countries, we had a position of revolutionary defeatism: the class interests of the workers of Georgia and Russia lay in a struggle to overthrow their respective capitalist rulers through socialist revolution.

Arising out of capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, post-Soviet Russia represents a historically unique and unprecedented phenomenon. Because Russia’s industrial development took place primarily through the collectivized economy of a workers state, Russia does not today neatly fit into the categories of long-established capitalist countries.

Russia’s economy, bolstered by high prices for its fossil fuels over much of the last decade, has recovered somewhat from the depths to which it fell after the capitalist “shock therapy” of the 1990s. But it does not have the economy of an imperialist power. Russia’s new capitalist rulers got their hands on a large industrial base and extensive infrastructure in a country with enormous natural resources. However, its industry lags significantly behind other advanced capitalist countries in technique and product quality. No branch of Russian manufacturing is competitive on the international market except for the armaments industry (mainly inherited from the USSR).

In contrast to imperialist countries, which are characterized by the export of capital, Russia primarily exports natural resources, not capital. Russia’s economy is very dependent on its oil and gas sector, which in 2013 accounted for 16 percent of its GDP, 52 percent of federal government revenues and over 70 percent of exports. What passes for “investment” abroad mostly takes the form of capital flight to imperialist centers or to tax havens.

Sections of the German ruling class look to an alliance with Russia as a means to assert what they see as Germany’s “natural” role as ruler of Eurasia. Even “Atlanticists” like Chancellor Angela Merkel strike a much less belligerent posture toward Russia than Washington does. To date, however, the U.S. and German rulers have maintained their alliance in terms of containing and reducing Russia’s influence in the other countries of the former USSR. Thus, the German-dominated European Union has gone along with Washington in maintaining sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

The existing imperialists, headed by the U.S., continue to work to keep Russia out of their club. The imperialist NATO alliance has expanded into East Europe (in the case of Estonia and Latvia, right up to Russia’s borders), the U.S. is increasing its deployment of tanks and other heavy equipment in the region and, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, NATO is discussing strengthening its nuclear deterrent. U.S. imperialism has also sponsored color “revolutions” to install pro-Washington regimes in several former republics of the USSR. The U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine last year, which installed a fascist-infested and virulently anti-Russian regime, is a case in point.

Our reader asks whether we should call for soldiers of all the belligerents in Ukraine today to “turn the guns around” against their own capitalist rulers; that is, should we have a position of revolutionary defeatism? Such was Lenin’s position in World War I, which was an interimperialist war fought over the redivision of the world among imperialist powers. In contrast, the current conflict in Ukraine, the direct result of U.S. imperialist machinations, is a civil war. Militants in the eastern part of the country, which is ethnically mixed but predominantly Russian-speaking, rose up because the ultranationalist Ukrainian regime was trampling on their national rights. The Kiev regime responded by mobilizing its army and neo-Nazi volunteer battalions—bombing cities, killing hundreds of civilians and destroying hospitals and industrial plants. It should be noted that while the insurgents in East Ukraine are backed by Russia, Moscow has shown no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine. Contrary to repeated claims by Kiev and its imperialist patrons that the Russian army is invading, Putin has clearly avoided outright war with the Kiev regime.

Revolutionary Marxists have a side in this conflict: the interest of the working class—in Ukraine, Russia and internationally—lies in defense of the population of eastern Ukraine and its right to self-rule. The fact that we side militarily with the “pro-Russian” forces in eastern Ukraine by no means implies political support to the nationalist rebel leaders or to the Putin regime. Our defense of eastern Ukraine’s population is guided by the approach of Lenin, who underlined that the recognition of the right of self-determination is essential to combating national antagonisms and creating conditions where working people of different nations are able to see that the real enemy is their “own” capitalist ruling class, not each other.