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The Russia as “Imperialist” Thesis Is Wrong and a Barrier to Solidarity With the Ukrainian and Russian People

Russia fails as an imperialist power by most, if not all, objective criteria and that has consequences for those who wish to show solidarity with the anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist factions in Ukraine.

People’s Friendship Arch: This steel rainbow was erected in 1983 to commemorate the unification of Ukraine and Russia in 1653 and is meant to symbolize friendship and mutual respect between the two nations. (Photo: Jennifer Boyer / Flickr)

The violent coming to power of a rightist regime in Kyiv, Ukraine in late February 2014 has opened an exceptionally dangerous political period in Europe. For the first time since World War II, a European government has representatives of fascist parties as ministers. These are the ministers of the armed forces, prosecution service and agriculture, and deputy ministers of national security (police), education and anti-corruption.

Mainstream parties alongside the fascists in government, including the elected president, are committed to an austerity project of economic association with Europe that will see much of the manufacturing base of the country further degraded or dismantled. The consequences for agricultural production are also likely to be dire.

The Kyiv regime has launched a civil war in the southeast of the country to quash popular movements demanding political and economic autonomy for their regions. Elsewhere in the country, the government or the fascist parties and militias allied to it are seriously repressing the rights of political association and expression.

Hundreds have died from the regime’s violence in the east and south. Tens of thousands have been driven from their homes in the southeast regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Petro Poroshenko is a billionaire who was elected president on May 25 in an election that saw a 25 percent decline in voter participation compared to the last election in 2010. Touted as a “man of peace” by a deluded and deeply compromised Western media, he is taking the regime’s civil war and repression to new heights of violence.

The repression and civil war follow the humbling referendum decision by the majority of the people of the Crimea region in March to secede from Ukraine.

NATO threatens the autonomy movements and the working class and nations as a whole of Ukraine and Russia.

The Ukraine regime’s actions are fully backed by the governments of the NATO military alliance. They are providing key training and hardware to the Ukraine army and to the rightist and fascist militias that are directing the army or fighting alongside it. They have dispatched their own soldiers, fighter aircraft and warships to Ukraine’s neighboring countries and ocean waters. NATO threatens the autonomy movements and the working class and nations as a whole of Ukraine and Russia.

All of this presents a huge responsibility for progressive forces in the world to mobilize against the violence in Ukraine and protest our own governments’ collusion. Yet, most liberal and moderate-left forces in Europe and North America are turning a blind eye to these events. More disquieting still, many on the radical left are cautious and hesitant. Campaigns such as “Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine” in Britain are too rare and need to be emulated.

What explains the hesitations? There are several reasons, but two overriding ones are a misreading of the political and economic forces that are driving the conflict, and a fear of association with the Russian government, being near-universally labeled by Western governments and their propaganda machines as an aggressor. It is vital to set the record straight on both counts.

Russia “Imperialism” and the Ukraine Conflict

Much of left commentary in the West and in Ukraine and Russia presents Russia and its economic elite as “imperialist.” To their credit, many on the left nonetheless identify the NATO powers and Ukraine’s billionaire elite as the aggressors in the Ukraine conflict and are speaking out against it. This is in the best tradition of the movement 10 years ago against the war waged by the United States against Iraq. At that time, it was correctly argued that the reactionary essence of Saddam Hussein and his regime was no excuse not to protest the war. Today, whatever one’s appreciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government he leads, there is an elementary duty for leftists and progressives to speak out against the Kyiv regime’s bloody war.

But that’s apparently a hard decision for some to make in the face of the vast propaganda campaign saying that Russia is aiding and abetting “pro-Russian separatists” in eastern Ukraine and may even be poised to invade and seize Ukrainian territory.

The false depictions of Russia have a ring of credibility for some. After all, don’t some of the autonomy fighters voice sympathy for joining the Russian Federation? Isn’t there a tragic history of Great Russian domination of the Ukrainian nation? Didn’t Russia (or its Soviet predecessor) invade and pummel the small nations of Afghanistan and Chechnya not so long ago?

It’s important to view the regime and NATO violence in Ukraine as an assault against all the peoples of the broader region – not just Ukrainians but also Russians and other nationalities and republics. The assault builds upon the successes of far right political forces, which came to control and divert the “Maidan” protest movement of late 2013 and early 2014.

A new and highly informative article by Viktor Shapinov of the Borotba political association in Ukraine (translated by Renfrey Clarke) argues that the Maidan movement was fundamentally conservative and nationalist in its political and social outlook, making it all the easier for the far right to come to dominate it.

Shapinov writes:

By January [2014], the ideological and political content of the Maidan was obvious to any unprejudiced observer. At that time, we characterised what was occurring as “a liberal-nationalist revolt with increasingly noticeable participation by the openly nazi elements of the Right Sector” . . .

The Euromaidan is thus a movement initiated and controlled by the largest oligarchs. Its political base consists of radical nationalists and to a lesser degree of pro-Western liberals, while its social base is made up of petty-bourgeois and declassed elements. By contrast, the resistance movement in the southeast is more proletarian in its composition . . .

What about Russia’s territorial designs on Ukraine? The evidence doesn’t add up. All the fear mongering of a Russian military intervention has clearly been misleading and deceptive. Russia has withdrawn its military forces from the Ukraine border. It counsels moderation to the autonomy movements and says it won’t supply them militarily. It is engaged in talks with a regime in Kyiv waging war along Russia’s own border. This is hardly the conduct of an aggressor.

What about Crimea? Wasn’t that an imperialist takeover? Emphatically no. The appendix below summarizes the secession vote in March 2014 and its aftermath. It was the first time in history that the peoples of that region had an opportunity to vote on their political status.

Russia as Imperialist?

More deeply, the empirical, economic and political evidence disproves the claims of Russia as “imperialist.”

The role of finance capital is the benchmark of any measure of the core nature of a capitalist country. In Russia, it is nothing resembling that of the imperialist countries. It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.”

Russia’s recent economic history belies the imperialist label. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, its constituent republics experienced economic contractions unprecedented in post-World War II history. The collapse rivaled that of the global economic slump of the 1930s. Life expectancy of citizens of the new Russia, for example, declined sharply. So did the new country’s social welfare infrastructure, including health care, post-secondary education, seniors’ pensions, and protection for disabled people. Much of the former Soviet Union’s developed industries disappeared or shrank to shadows of their former selves.

The only thing that saved Russia from the fate of former Soviet republics such as Ukraine (whose per capita GDP today is one fourth that of Russia) was its vast reserves of petroleum, natural gas and precious and rare earth minerals.

The only thing that saved Russia from the fate of former Soviet republics such as Ukraine (whose per capita GDP today is one fourth that of Russia) was its vast reserves of petroleum, natural gas and precious and rare earth minerals. These found markets in the imperialist countries and in China. But again, according to the CIA Factbook, “Russia’s reliance on commodity exports makes it vulnerable to boom and bust cycles that follow the volatile swings in global prices. The government since 2007 has embarked on an ambitious program to reduce this dependency and build up the country’s high technology sectors, but with few visible results so far.”

Russia has used revenues from oil and gas exports to keep major industries operating. A few are, sort of, globally competitive – including aerospace, armaments and metallurgy. But while its per capita GDP may be well above that of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, it’s not in the same league, by a long shot, of the imperialist countries. It is roughly one fourth, or less, that of North American and West European countries. It is higher than Brazil’s, but a lot lower than Portugal’s and just over half of South Korea’s.

What about Russia’s capital exports, another key indicator of whether a country sits in the ranks of imperialist countries? In 2012, the stock of direct foreign investment in Russia was $498 billion while the stock of investment abroad was $387 billion. Compare this to Canada, with about one quarter the population of Russia: $992 billion (domestic), $992 billion (abroad). Or Britain, with less than half of Russia’s population: $1.3 trillion and $1.8 trillion, respectively (all figures are 2012, from the CIA Factbook).

“If Russia today is not only capitalist, which it indeed is, but also imperialist, we would expect Russian banks to be increasingly prominent in the world, since the ‘great’ universal banks are the most important organizations of finance capital.”

Russia’s neighbor China is another candidate, for some, of the imperialist descriptor. Its manufacturing base is much more extensive than that of Russia. But like Russia, the role of finance capital in directing the economy is not comparable to that in the imperialist countries. The state plays the preponderant role, including majority ownership of many enterprises. The imbalance between domestic and foreign investment is greater in China than in Russia – $1.2 trillion (domestic) and $532 billion (abroad). There are no Chinese banks of global stature, though they are growing domestically.

Chinese manufacturing depends on infusions of US and other imperialist capital and technology. It is hugely dependent on access to the markets of imperialist countries for sales of the products it manufactures. And what does China do with its trade surpluses, except buy US treasury notes? The net result is that China is paying an annual tribute to the capitalists of the imperialist countries. That is hardly characteristic of an imperialist power, a nuclear-armed one to boot. It is, rather, a sign of dependency.

A US Economist Writes

For all the descriptions of Russia as “imperialist,” little substantive analysis has been written to prove the claim. All the more welcome, then, is a new essay by US Marxist economist Sam Williams. He has recently published a 30-page essay on his blog, “A Critique of Crisis Theory.” The title of the essay asks, “Is Russia Imperialist?” The answer Williams provides is a resounding “no.” Here are some excerpts:

The countries that are richest in finance capital – not necessarily richest in industrial capital – are the imperialist countries that economically exploit all other capitalist countries in the world . . .

In a country rich in finance capital, there is in addition to the extremely rich people found in all capitalist countries – for example, the Russian and Ukrainian “oligarchs” – there is a large “middle class” of “modest savers.” This middle class comes to include the more privileged upper levels of the working class, who may own some mutual funds or be beneficiaries of pension funds through various job-related retirement plans [and, importantly, who are owners of real estate] . . .

What is the relative position of Russian banks today? If Russia today is not only capitalist, which it indeed is, but also imperialist, we would expect Russian banks to be increasingly prominent in the world, since the “great” universal banks are the most important organizations of finance capital. The publication Global Finance lists the world’s 50 biggest banks as of 2012 in terms of assets. Despite the size and natural wealth of Russia, not a single Russian bank appears on the list . . .

According to the Jan. 31, 2014, Wall Street Journal, based on assets of the world’s 100 biggest banks, only two Russian banks, OAO Sberbank and OAO VTB, appear. They come in at number 54 and 94, respectively. Sberbank evolved from the old Soviet savings bank system – in Russian, Sberbank means savings bank. Even today, 51 percent of its stock is owned by the Russian central bank, which itself is state owned. According to Wikipedia, the Russian Federation state owns 60.9 percent of OAO VTB. While both banks today are universal banks, they are still quasi – state enterprises . . .

The Crédit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2012 [link] divides the countries of the world into four categories according to wealth – not income – per adult. This is a rough proxy for the average amount of finance capital that is owned by individuals in each country, since finance capital – stocks, bonds, money market funds and bank accounts – form the great bulk of wealth in today’s world . . .

The top group, with over US $100,000 average wealth per adult, pretty much defines the imperialist countries, including the “white colony” of Israel. These countries are the United States – no surprise here – Canada, all the countries of Western Europe with the exception of Portugal but none of the East European countries. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are also among the countries in the top group…

Today’s Russia is very far indeed from becoming an imperialist country, and, if anything, is in danger of falling into the fourth tier where Ukraine already is.

Williams goes on to explain that a defining feature of imperialism in today’s world is its military alliances. The four, big, imperialist military alliances are NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty-1951), SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization-1954), and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). To this can be added the “Five Eyes” spying alliance of the United States, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Where are the comparable alliances of Russia and China? They do not exist.

Williams provides a specific example of the extensive deindustrialization that has beset the republics of the former Soviet Union, choosing the city of Konstantinovka in Ukraine. Less than 30 years ago, the city employed 15,000 workers in its glass factories. Today, there are fewer than 600 workers. He goes on to write:

What many of the workers involved in the anti-Maidan movement [in eastern Ukraine] want is not simply the reversal of the February [2014] coup in Kiev. What they really want is the restoration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is shown by the Soviet flags that compete with the tri-color flags of the bourgeois Russian Republic and the double eagles of the Russian nationalists, the complaints of Western correspondents about widespread “Soviet nostalgia” and the defense of the statues of Lenin . . .

And this is why the anti-Maidan movement is such a threat not only to imperialism but to Russian capitalists and their representative, Vladimir Putin. This explains why Moscow is doing everything it can to cool down the movement.

The only real solution to the Ukraine crisis is the restoration of workers’ power and workers’ ownership of the means of production through a revived Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which itself must inevitably be part of a still broader movement that will ultimately involve the workers of the entire world.

National Defense of Ukraine and Russia

Williams goes on to explain that a defining feature of imperialism in today’s world is its military alliances.

If the foregoing analysis is correct – that Russia is not imperialist and is, rather, a hybrid capitalist state and economy – then the resistance to capitalist and NATO penetration of Ukraine and ultimately Russia assumes an important dimension of national defense that Marxists and other progressives need to recognize and voice. It behooves an international solidarity movement to oppose the violence of the Kyiv/NATO war and the specific threats against the Ukrainian and Russian nations. Just as was done during the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan and as is needed in the face of the ongoing imperialist threats against Iran.

Such an approach counters the harmful “plague on both your houses” attitude that makes a false equivalency between the threats of imperialism and the actions of the Russian government. That attitude is an obstacle to the elementary obligation to defend those who come under attack by imperialism and risks serving as a cover for betrayal.

Recognition of the regime in Russia as less than imperialist does not diminish the crucial importance for the peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe to struggle against capitalism and fight for socialism.

Recognition of the regime in Russia as less than imperialist does not diminish the crucial importance for the peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe to struggle against capitalism and fight for socialism. On the contrary, it provides fertile ground to forge alliances with those who, while not yet convinced of the need for socialism, are opposed to war and fascism and defend the national rights of countries under attack by imperialism.

For background on the current situation in Ukraine, read my article of June 11, 2014, “Following inauguration, new president in Kyiv shells cities in eastern Ukraine as NATO military buildup continues.”

Appendix: On the Political Evolution of the Crimea Region, by Roger Annis:

  • The people of Crimea voted in their majority in March 2014 to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. While it is true the referendum was rushed and did not leave a lot of space for opponents of federation with Russia to voice their views, it is also true that it was held under the shadow of the repression and threat of military intervention by the new, rightist regime in Kyiv and its allied, fascist gangs. The launching by the regime one month later of a civil war against the people of southeastern Ukraine is proof that the threat against Crimea was real and imminent. Ukraine socialist Sergei Kirichuk explained in a recent interview, “Not all people in Crimea were happy about the annexation to Russia. But now they watch TV and see the Odessa massacre, the civil war and the bombing of apartment blocks in Donetsk, and they say to each other, ‘Thank God that we are not affected.'”
  • Sixty years earlier, Crimea was transferred to the authority of the Ukraine Soviet Republic by administrative fiat of then-leader of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev. When the USSR imploded four decades later, no plebiscite was held in Crimea to let people decide their national status. Crimeans travelled with the passport of the old Soviet Union and most are culturally and linguistically Russian. Ukraine’s post-Soviet, elite class of billionaires oppose or cannot agree upon a right of the distinct peoples or regions within the country to exercise even a modest form of political autonomy (that would resemble, for example, the powers exercised by provinces in Canada or states in the United States).
  • There was no Russian military “invasion” of Crimea in February to March 2014. Russian naval and land forces were stationed in Crimea according to a treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Captured Ukraine military equipment was returned to that country. Many members of the Ukraine armed forces stationed in Crimea resigned their commissions and applied to join the Russian armed forces.
  • In Crimea today, sections of the population are working to preserve elements of the de facto autonomy the region exercised during pre-2014 Ukrainian rule, including freer rights to protest compared to what is in Russian law.
  • See also my article, “Be wary of Crimea Tatars used as pawns to justify violence and war in eastern Ukraine,” May 24, 2014.
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