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The Russia as ‘imperialist’ thesis is wrong and a barrier to solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian people

By Roger Annis, June 18, 2014, first published on Truthout

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square, Moscow

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 Two, a European government hasrepresentatives 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 right of political association and expression.

A new and harrowing account of the war being waged by the Kyiv regime in the east is published in The Guardian on June 17. It reports that cities are being strafed and shelled daily. Hundreds have died and tens of thousands have lost access to water and electricity. Tens of thousands have been driven from their homes in the southeast regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has delivered a report to the UN Security Council containing serious concerns about the situation.

Two Russian reporters were killed in a mortar attack near the city of Luhansk on June 17. [See this June 20 report by BBC on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the southeast.]

Russian embassy in Kyiv attacked on June 14, 2014

Russian embassy in Kyiv attacked on June 14, 2014

In Kyiv on June 14, a mob attacked the Russian embassy and damaged the building. Some members of the UN Security Council, including Lithuania, blocked a resolution condemning the attack, which followed the shooting down of a Ukraine military transport plane over the city of Luhansk earlier that same day. All 49 airmen and soldiers on board died, dealing a huge blow to the war offensive and the morale of those militia volunteers or conscript soldiers prosecuting it.

Petro Poroshenko is a billionaire who was elected president on May 25 in an election that saw a 25 per cent 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.

The 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 neighbouring 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 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 Russia 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 ten years ago against the war waged by the U.S. 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 lefts and progressive 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?

In 1994, Russia went to war with Islamic-inspired military forces in neighbouring Chechnya. The capital city of Grozny was flattened.

In 1994, Russia went to war with Islamic-inspired military forces in neighbouring Chechnya. The capital city of Grozny was flattened.

It’s important to view the regime/NATO violence in Ukraine an assault againstall 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/early 2014.

A new and highly informative article by Viktor Shapinov of the Borotba political association in Ukraine (translated by Renfrey Clarke and available here) 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. 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 of this year 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 claims of Russia as ‘imperialist’ are disproven by the empirical, economic and political evidence.

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 Two history. The collapse rivaled that of 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, protection for disabled people, etc. 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. 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 foreign direct 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’ population: $1.3 trillion and $1.8 trillion, respectively (all figures are 2012, from the CIA Factbook).

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 U.S. 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 to 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 U.S. economist writes

For all the trend to describe Russia as ‘imperialist’, little substantive analysis has been written to try and prove the claim. All the more welcome, then, is a new essay by U.S. Marxist economist Sam Williams. He has recently published a 30-page essay on his website blog, ‘A Critique of Crisis Theory’. The headline 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 U.S. $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), NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). To this can be added the ‘Five Eyes’ spying alliance of the U.S., 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

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. 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.

See also the following four items:

1. Discussion on 21st century imperialism: Are Russia and China ‘imperialist’?,  comments by Barry Sheppard, June 18, 2014

2. On the political evolution of the Crimea region, excerpt from an article 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-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; and The propaganda war over Crimea’s break with Ukraine, Dec. 10, 2014

3. My comment posted on Truthout June 18:

I appreciate Dave Argo’s comment. The quotation I selected from the excellent essay by Sam Williams is prone to misunderstanding. Williams wrote, “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.”

I think the operative word here is “revived”. Few serious Marxists or socialists today would deny that the ‘socialism’ of the former USSR (and let’s throw in China and East Europe, too) was profoundly flawed, and worse. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Sam Williams (who I do not know) would agree. I chose to highlight that quotation in order to be clear that I do not think today’s globalized capitalism, including the austerity Europe on offer to the Ukraine people, can do anything but take us further towards societal and environmental breakdown. I believe that only socialism–by which I mean a human, democratic and environmental system of rational planning and development can bring us back from the abyss.

For all of their flaws, and there are many, I believe that at bottom, the autonomy movements in the east and south of Ukraine fundamentally express aspirations for a peaceful and just society. I am certain, including because Ukrainian colleagues tell me so, that such sentiments are shared in western Ukraine, too, though they are getting drowned out for now by the violence and intimidation of the rightist militias and the booming of artillery shells fired toward the east.

Three things, principally, led to the failure and downfall of socialism in the USSR. There are many reasons to hope and believe they will not be repeated in present or future socialist experiments. One, by the time that the Civil War of 1918-21 ended (waged, as it was, by the ousted Czarist regime and its many, many imperialist backers), much of economic and social infrastructure of the future USSR was destroyed. Two, the chances of forging meaningful economic alliances with wealthier countries were dashed by the string of defeats of revolutionary uprisings in Europe, most notably in Germany. Instead, the new country faced a stark and ruthless isolation by teh imperialist powers. And three, Russia and the neighbouring republics which came together to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics inherited a low cultural level from Czarism (by which I mean high illiteracy, little formal experience with democratic institutions and an underdeveloped or non-existent social service infrastructure, including public education). So the construction of socialism was begun on extremely difficult and rudimentary foundations.

Capitalism rules according to the ‘whip’–greed, profit and blind laws of limitless expansion of production of ‘things’ for sale and purchase. Socialism proposes that the individual and the societal collective will strive not only to meet material needs but also to achieve vastly improved scientific, cultural and spiritual goals. All this will occur within the parameters of the deepening global warming emergency. Only a vigorous democracy, including the fullest participation of the individual, can ensure good outcomes. The lessons of earlier experiences are vital for avoiding a repeat past shortfalls or failures.

All this said, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was something of a miracle, and easily the most important event of the 20th century (not forgetting, also, China’s momentous revolution of 1949). The October Revolution put an end overnight to the horrors of WW1 for the Russian worker and peasant. It led to immediate independence for some republics (Finland, Baltic states) and to a myriad of experiments in self determination for others. The October Revolution granted land to the serfs and peasants and it instituted the most far-reaching measures of womens’ equality that the world had seen. It inspired hundreds of millions around the globe with the hope of a liberated future.

Alas, the experiment was short-lived. The times were exceptionally harsh and the mistakes were costly and without mercy. But we are seeing a “revival” of socialism for some time now in Latin America, since Cuba’s revolution in 1959 and accelerating in the past decade. I hope this regional ‘bad example’ will keep moving forward and spreading. Otherwise, I fear for our collective future.

4. Comment by Chris Slee and my reply, August 2014

Aug 30, 2014–The following is my reply to a published comment by Australian socialist Chris Slee on Aug. 21 concerning my article of June 18, 2014, ‘The Russia as ‘imperialist thesis is wrong and a barrier to solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russia peoples‘. Chris Slee’s comment and my reply appeared in the ‘comments’ section of my article as posted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Both texts are enclosed below.

Panicked threats from Kyiv and NATO are mounting significantly as Kyiv’s military offensive against the people of eastern Ukraine has begun to rapidly crumble in recent days. The weak response in western imperialist countries to NATO’s ramped-up moves against Russia, incluidng positioning more military forces in eastern Europe, is a reminder of how fatally disorienting for a potential antiwar movement has been the mistaken thesis that Russia is an ‘imperialist’ power and that it has imperial ambitions over Ukraine.

* * *

Comment by Roger Annis, Aug 29, 2014:

Chris Slee’s commentary posted to Green Left listserve ten days ago against my original article arguing why Russia should not be considered to be an imperialist power is welcome. The international left needs some vigorous debate and exposé of the issues that are raised.

That said, I am unconvinced by his argument. Here is my brief rejoinder.

Finance capital

Let me start this reply with a contextualization. Chris writes, “Roger Annis argues that Russia cannot be imperialist because of the alleged weakness of Russian banks”. The precise nature and role of Russia’s banks is only part of my argument, and I don’t say they are “weak” I said they’re not in the same league as those of the big imperialist countries.

Chris’ argument elevating Russia’s Sberbank into the league of imperialist banking outfits is not sustained by the numbers. The Canadian Banking Association places Sberbank at #54 of the 150 top banks in the world by assets in 2012. SNL Financial gives it the same ranking in 2013. Contrary to Chris’ claim that Sberbank rivals the large European banks, it is a minor player, one quarter the size of the largest German, UK and French banks and only half or less the size of the largest banks of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and even Sweden. It’s smaller than Denmark’s largest bank and smaller than the top four Australian banks.

The only other Russian bank in the top 150 is VTB at #92. By contrast to the Russian banks, Brazil’s Banco do Brasil comes in at #45. The next largest Brazilian bank comes in at #55, and the next two come in at #65 and #74. So would Chris’ criteria have us elevate Brazilian banks into the ‘imperialist’ ranking?

In that case, we would also need to elevate the Korean banks. There are seven in the top 111, according to the CBA.

Singapore comes in with three banks in the top 100. Hmm, this is getting out of hand. India comes in with two banks in the top 147. Obviously, banking assets alone do not provide the definitive criteria we seek.

Military alliances

Let’s move on to another important criteria that I listed in my article to characterize imperialist countries—the tight military and espionage alliances which characterize them. Most readers of this commentary will be familiar with the NATO and SATO military alliances. There are a host of additional, lesser-known military alliances through which the imperialist countries rule the world. NORAD and ANZA come to mind, and there are lots more.

To the directly military alliances we can add the decades-old ‘Five Eyes” spying alliance, of which most of us only became aware thanks to the valiant work of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and other members of their team. And there are the economic clubs, notably the G7, as well as the big financial institutions such as the IMF where decisions are made on how the world is to be run.

To the formidable array of powerful military alliances, Chris would have us consider a rival “imperialist” alliance of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is not convincing. He says, “Obviously this alliance is much weaker than NATO”. That’s an understatement, but there is something else at play which likewise makes a comparison between the two inappropriate. The Russian-initiated alliance is dedicated to national defense, not to predatory expansion. It’s not in the same universe, leave alone league, as the NATOs of the world.

As an alliance for national defense, the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation present a formidable military obstacle to the imperialists. That narrow aspect of the alliance is a good thing for the workers of the world. Yes, any capitalist military alliance that can be wielded against working class rebellions bodes badly for workers and farmers, but such is the complexity of the dialectic that CSTO embodies contradictory dynamics. A rival to the real imperialist alliances CSTO is not.

Social consensus

Chris has omitted any rejoinder to my argument, inspired by the research of Sam Williams, that the relative social and economic status of the different social classes in a given country is an important measure of its imperialist status or not. The per capita personal wealth of Russian people is only a fraction of that of the people of imperialist countries, placing Russia in the league of countries such as Brazil and South Korea. This has not unimportant political consequences for the dynamic of the class struggle in imperialist versus non-imperialist countries. In their home countries, the imperialist ruling classes obtain a degree of middle class and working class consensus for capitalist rule by virtue of the material stake that those secondary tiers of social classes acquire through their pension plans, ownership of real estate, stock market investments and a host of other webs.

Export of capital

Chris has declined to comment on my comparison of the degree and proportion of the movement of capital in and out of Russia compared to imperialist countries. The relatively low level of capital export by Russia is another factor weighing against a definition of Russia as ‘imperialist’.

Industry and agriculture

I am hoping that researchers more qualified than I will examine and publish the characteristics and dynamics of the Russian economy. I believe these will confirm my argument and that of others that Russia is a middle capitalist power, not an imperialist one.

One of these characteristics is the very great dependence of Russia’s economy and state budget on the export of natural resources.

Another is the relative underdevelopment of Russian agriculture. A comparison of agricultural production between imperialist Canada and Russia is very striking. The two countries resemble each other a great deal geographically. But whereas Canada exported $46 billion in agricultural products in 2013 (Statistics Canada), the comparable figure for Russia in 2010 was $6 billion. That same year, Russia imported $31 billion in food products; for Canada in 2013 it was $35 billion. Even accounting for the different years and possibly different measures, the figures describe two very different realities. Russia’s population is four times that of Canada’s.

An examination of the technological levels of Russia’s industry and manufacturing will likely show similar, large gaps with its imperialist rivals.

I can’t help but conclude that Chris’ argument is based on a flawed methodology. He begins with an assertion that Russia is ‘imperialist’ and then proceeds to find proof, rather unsuccessfully as it turns out. A more rigorous Marxist approach would be to examine Russia free of pre-determined conclusion and then see what the facts tell us. I believe I have done that more successfully than Chris.


Comment by Chris Slee, Aug. 21, 2014:

I have argued in an earlier article that Russia is an imperialist power. My reasons included the growth of Russian monopoly capitalist corporations, their increasing investments in other countries, Russia’s domination of the now formally independent countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union, the presence of Russian military bases in many of these countries and in Syria, etc.

Roger Annis argues that Russia cannot be imperialist because of the alleged weakness of Russian banks. He quotes Sam Williams, who says: “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…

“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. The 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”.

Russian finance capital started from a low base, due to the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s (a collapse brought on by “shock therapy” – the economic policies adopted in order to intimidate and atomise the working class so that it would be unable to successfully resist the restoration of capitalism).

However, the Russian economy has been recovering in recent years, and finance capital has been developing very rapidly. Michael Probsting has documented this in detail (see www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-russia). I will merely discuss the specific case of Sberbank.

Today Sberbank is the 33rd largest bank in the world, according to “The Banker” magazine. (The figures cited by Williams put Sberbank a bit further down the list. I am not qualified to judge whose figures are the most accurate, or the most relevant.)

According to The Banker, Sberbank is the third largest bank in Europe, and the biggest in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Sberbank is extending its influence beyond Russia. In 2011 Sberbank acquired an Austrian bank (Volksbank International AG) which owned banks in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (source: Wikipedia) In 2013, Sberbank bought a Turkish bank.

Wiliams seems to think that partial state ownership of the Russian banking system is somehow incompatible with Russia being an imperialist power. This is not the case.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Bank, which used to be wholly owned by the federal government, was the biggest bank in the country, and there were also several banks owned by state governments. This did not prevent Australia from being an imperialist country. (The government owned banks were privatised with the onset of the neoliberal era)

Russia is a relatively weak imperialist power, but one which is seen as a potential challenger by the longer established imperialist powers (especial the United States and Western Europe).

The US and the European Union have been trying to draw the countries of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) into their orbit. Russia has been trying to counter this. Russia tried to draw Ukraine into the “Eurasian Economic Community”, a grouping of former Soviet states led by Russia. The overthrow of the Yanukovich government by Western backed forces prevented this from happening.

Williams argues that because Russia does not have a system of military alliances comparable to Western alliances such as NATO, it cannot be an imperialist power. In fact, Russia has initiated the Collecitve Security Treaty Organisation, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. ( See www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-russia)

Obviously this alliance is much weaker than NATO. But this just reflects the fact that Russia is a relatively weak imperialist power.

What are the implications of this analysis for the struggle in Eastern Ukraine?

Recognizing Russia as an imperialist power does not mean dismissing the “anti-Maidan” forces in Eastern Ukraine as agents of Russian imperialism. Boris Kagarlitsky’s most recent article ( http://links.org.au/node/ 4008 ) makes it clear that while the Russian state is trying to control the movement, it has not up to now been totally successful. The movement includes diverse forces, and there has been a “growing political radicalisation within the movement”, with calls for the nationalisation of the property of oligarchs, and for reforms in the interests of workers. The Russian government has been using the threat of withholding aid as a lever to impose a more rightwing leadership.

This is exactly the sort of thing you would expect an imperialist power to do.

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