Vladimir Putin clearly loves the trappings of imperial Russia, but is today’s Russia an imperial power?

Assessing Putin’s gamble

Mike Macnair critiques the idea, common amongst social-imperialists and social-pacifists alike, that modern Russia is a full-blown imperialist power

The left is divided, in relation to the Ukraine war, between those who argue that this is purely a case of ‘Russian imperialism’, and the duty of the left is to defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination; and those who argue that this is a case of inter-imperialist conflict.

If it is a case of inter-imperialist conflict, like 1914, it would logically follow that it does not matter who fired the first shot, and that the issue of self-determination of nations is secondary. In turn, it would follow that the left should celebrate the existence of support for Ukrainian self-determination in Russia; but support for Ukrainian self-determination in the UK would be the same phenomenon as support for ‘plucky little Serbia’ and ‘bleeding Belgium’ in the UK in 1914: that is, loyalism to ‘our own’ capitalist state.

In fact, advocates of the analysis of the war as an inter-imperialist conflict do not follow this dual-defeatist line. In the main, they want to prioritise demands for Russian withdrawal, and to find excuses to avoid interrogating the conduct of our state and its US leash-holder as parties to the conflict. The US, after all, sponsored the 2014 coup (or small-scale ‘colour revolution’) in Kyiv, and the US and UK have been steadily arming and training the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as the ‘Banderist’ far-right nationalist irregulars, since well before 2014, and have continued to do so since.1

Usually, the argument is that defeatism is merely ‘re-enactorism’ and/or that the world has moved on. Before the 1990s, the UK was an attack dog in the service of the USA; since the British armed forces have been run down, it has become (mainly) merely a ‘yap dog’ in the same service, and leftists of this sort join the yapping chorus of the state and advertising-funded media.

In this context, the ‘Russian imperialism’ claim serves as part of the ‘Russian aggression’ narrative. The result is that the concept of imperialism gets reduced to military aggression. If we follow the logic of this, we would be forced to talk about Welsh imperialism when Llewelyn Fawr invaded England in 1223, or Pictish imperialism in the form of the several invasions of the Roman province of Britannia in the 2nd to 4th centuries CE (I hope it is obvious that these would be absurd).

If we ask why those on the far left insist on characterising Russian aggression as ‘imperialist’, the answer is partly that they are, in fact, stuck within the ‘Leninist’ paradigm in which, while dual-defeatism is appropriate to inter-imperialist wars, in wars between imperialist countries and colonies or semi-colonies, the left should support the victory of the colony or semi-colony in spite of the unpleasantness of its regime. Thus Trotsky on the 1935-36 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and in 1938 on the hypothesis of a war between ‘democratic’ Britain and the Vargas dictatorship in Brazil.2

We could, in fact, arrive at a dual-defeatist line without characterising the war as an inter-imperialist rerun of 1914 - as I argued in this paper in ‘Neither 1914 nor 1940’ (March 3).3 The underlying case for dual-defeatism is a case for disloyalism in relation to the operations of our own state; this allows us the ability to pose a radical alternative to the constitutional order, while loyalism towards our own state’s military operations necessarily entails loyalism towards its military capacity, which implies in turn loyalism towards the state hierarchy, arms production, and at the end of the day Burgfrieden - the suspension of the general class struggle for the sake of the war: thus, for example, the Tory press’s attacks on the RMT union as Putin supporters in connection with tube strikes.4

And the case for this policy in at least some non-‘inter-imperialist’ wars is demonstrated by - for example - the extent to which the Argentinian ‘Morenist’ Trotskyist Movimiento al Socialismo wrecked itself by support for the junta’s doomed adventure in the Malvinas war in 1982.

However, it is worth considering the issue a little further: because there have been some more serious attempts to argue that Russia is an imperialist power in some stronger sense than merely it is the aggressor in this war. Further, it is worthwhile to appreciate that, first, if Russia loses this war (as is most likely) the result will be regime change, the suppression of the Russian arms industry and a world status more closely analogous to Mexico or Argentina; the fact that it has historically been a great power no more prevents colonial subordination than the histories of Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey or Ch’ing dynasty China did in the 19th-20th century. And conversely, however, if Russia wins this war, as is relatively unlikely, it can become an imperialist power - as Germany did after 1870 and Japan did most clearly after 1904.


Authors from the ‘Cliffite’ tradition - Socialist Workers Party, and so on - generally assume that the old USSR was a (state-)capitalist, and therefore imperialist, state. The ‘shift sideways’ (the Cliffites’ version) in 1989-91 then leaves Russia as a declining imperialist power - as such analogous to the UK: thus Stathis Kouvelakis analogises Russia to France or Britain.5

In an article originally from the Australian paper Red Flag, currently to be found on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website, Australian socialist Tom Bramble argues that Russia is aggressive because it is a relatively weak imperialist power, using the analogy of late 19th-early 20th century Germany. But this is still within the Cliffite framework of ‘declining imperialist power’. Thus Bramble says: “In its heyday, the USSR dominated the trading patterns of its neighbours” (an unsubstantiated claim). But “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has exerted a much greater pull on them ...”6 Gareth Dale responded to Bramble’s argument within the same framework: “Although in theory a federation of equal republics, the USSR was converted into a vehicle of Russian empire.” But he sees Russia as now radically weaker: “Today, Russia’s imperialist status is based on its nuclear arsenal, its conventional forces and other military factors ... its GDP, as of last year, was below Texas and on a par with such ‘sub-imperialist’ states as Brazil.”7 But if Bramble, like other Cliffites, merely assumes Russia is imperialist, Dale’s analysis in effect points to the conclusion that it is at most sub-imperialist - unless you count being heavily armed, including with nukes, as being imperialist (which would make India and Pakistan imperialist countries). In this case, as with the less theorised versions, being ‘imperialist’ collapses into being the ‘aggressor’.

Jamie Gough, in an article on his own webpage - which has been severely cut and rendered, as a result, a good deal less coherent for the Anti-Capitalist Resistance website - offers more of a theoretical case for Russia as an imperialist power.8 Gough does not share the belief in Soviet imperialism that affects the Cliffites, but argues that the policy of the bureaucracy was essentially defensive and ‘peaceful coexistence’. Since the restoration of capitalism, however, Russia has shifted to imperialism. To make this case, he uses the Leninist theory of imperialism (derived from Hilferding and Parvus and before them Ernest Belfort Bax).9 In this theory, capitalist imperialism results from overproduction of capital which cannot find a profitable outlet in the domestic economy. This, he argues, is true also of Russia: for whatever reason, Russian capital cannot find profitable employment at home, and is thus driven to seek employment in its ‘near abroad’; and, since the ‘west’ is more attractive to the targeted countries, Russia uses force to try to bring these into satellite status.

There are two serious problems with this argument. The first is that, as an application of the Bax-Parvus-Hilferding-Lenin theory, it is decidedly artificial. In this theory, the drive for overseas investment results from the overproduction of capital and the ‘overdevelopment’ of Britain, France, Germany and so on. The theory was given plausibility by the long depression after the 1873 crash and the drive to cartelisation contemporaneous with the ‘scramble for Africa’. But, so far as there is a lack of opportunities for profitable investment in Russia, it does not result from systemic overproduction producing cartelisation, but from the continuing effects of the ‘shock therapy’ imposed on the former USSR countries in the 1990s.

Secondly, Gough offers no actual evidence of Russian capital investments in its ‘near abroad’ which would support this explanation of Russian expansionism. In fact, on the contrary, what is being seized in the ‘sanctions regime’ is not capital investments - where money is put to work in industrial production, including transportation, mining, and so on - but pure financial holdings, real estate, luxury yachts, and suchlike. In this respect members of the Russian kleptocratic elite do not behave like capitalists - even like Indian capitalists conned into buying British bankrupt industries. They behave like colonial rentier elites, like the Saudi royal family and so on.

Nor is this surprising: when we look at Russia’s export profile, it is, with two (important) exceptions, that of a colonial country, dominated by low-value-added exports of primary products for the industries of other countries.10 The two exceptions are arms11 and nuclear power plants.12 And in both cases, the markets are not countries in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, but ‘third world’ countries more generally, who choose to maintain a degree of independence from the USA’s tech controls by buying Russian. Given the nature of these markets, they do not provide an incentive for Russian military aggression either in the Caucasus or in Ukraine.

Güneş Gümüş of the Turkish Socialist Equality Party has a piece on the website of the International Socialist League which argues for Russia as imperialist in the sense that Putin is attempting to revive the imperialism of tsarist Russia. Gümüş generalises from the Leninist conception:

Imperialism is based on a contradictory development process created by the capitalist mode of production. On the one hand, capital has national footing; the nation-state is the protector of the general interests of capital in intra-class and inter-class competition. On the other hand, the market for which the capitals competed has a global character.

Imperialism expresses the system of international economic and geopolitical competition of nation-states that acts to protect the most general interests of their own capital. The geopolitical competition here is also subordinate to the spirit of capitalist relations of production; behind the competition for territory and influence is the dominance of energy resources and the goal of obtaining the economic advantages brought by regional-global hegemony. Imperialist competition takes a military and political form as well as an economic one; eventually extends to wars.13

In this context, Russia was still imperialist before 1917 in spite of being, in Lenin’s view, a second-rank imperialism (his notebooks on the subject show that he regarded only Britain, Germany and the US as first-rank powers, with France, Russia and Japan in the second rank and Italy and Austria-Hungary in the third).

The larger part of Gümüş’s article is concerned with the case of China. There is very little difficulty in identifying China as a full-capitalist country, and there is also very considerable evidence for Chinese overseas investments and - as she points out - for China pushing to increase its military capabilities in the past period. In relation to Russia, the argument is given a real empirical basis, but is more than slightly slippery. A table is offered of Russia’s 10 leading non-financial corporations, in terms of their foreign assets, as of 2014 (ie, before the sanctions regime created in response to the annexation of Crimea), in which the turnover, foreign assets, and foreign assets as a percentage of total assets, are shown. But these are not shown as comparable with (for example) German or French corporations.

Gross domestic product in dollar current prices shows Russia 11th in the world - behind Italy, Canada and South Korea; but, revalued on the basis of “purchasing power parity”, Russia now comes sixth. However, “purchasing power parity” besides its general problems as a measure,14 is plainly useless for the purpose of measuring the relative weight of countries in a dollar-dominated world economy: for this it is the dollar value of outputs that matter, all the way up to the point at which full-scale war cuts off trade, so that raw local production in natura becomes decisive.

Again, this theory will not support a conception that the invasion of Ukraine - or the events of 2014, the 2008 invasion of Georgia or the Chechen wars of the 1990s-2000s - were driven by Russian imperialist expansionism in the service of capitalist imperatives. The problem is the same as with Gough’s account: the interests of Russian capital are not in the near-abroad, but in trade relations with ‘third world’ countries.

The interests involved are, in fact, perfectly clear and transparent, and the Russian state has not hidden them. Having agreed to the Entente, Russia was in 1914 radically defeated in invading Germany, and was itself invaded, defeated and forced, at Brest-Litovsk, to a humiliating peace (including the present borders of Ukraine, though the Bolshevik leadership retained these for their own reasons). The country was again invaded, this time by the Entente powers, (operating to a considerable extent from the north shore of the Black Sea and the Caucasus) in 1918-20. Casualties in the civil war were about eight million; though this was a real civil war, not just the result of the intervention, it has to be said that, even when there were not Entente troops directly involved, the Entente powers armed, advised and supplied the White armies. And Russia was again invaded, this time by Nazi Germany, in 1941, suffering about 27 million casualties. The Russian state has excellent reasons to fear invasion, and the recent conduct of the USA gives it reasons to fear what the results would be of any capitulation to the USA.

It would be more plausible to suppose that the ‘Euromaidan’, etc, were purely Ukrainian movements against Great Russian chauvinism if we did not have, firstly, direct evidence of US involvement in 2014;15 secondly, published writings of US state actors proposing the strategic goal; and, thirdly, a history, going back to the turn of US policy after defeat in Vietnam, of repeated US interventions using irregular forces: Unita in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique, US indirect backing for the Khmer Rouge, the Mujahedin from the later 1970s in Afghanistan, Israel-backed Phalangists in Lebanon, Contras in Nicaragua, opponents of the Somali government in the late 1970s-80s16 ... The results of these initiatives have been, as I argued in March, to export destruction and not to impose any sort of order. In this the decline of the US is unlike the contradictory imperialist operations of the European colonial powers in the period of British decline.


Gümüş is certainly right to generalise on Lenin’s concept of imperialism in the direction of geopolitical competition in global markets, rather than clinging to the export-of-capital criterion. But, as soon as we do this, it becomes clear that world is one of persisting, albeit shiftable, hierarchies of capitalist states - not one in which there is a clean division between ‘imperialist’ and ‘colonial’ countries. And, as a result, the strategic line of the Congress of the Peoples of the East and Second and Third Congresses of Comintern - dual-defeatism in inter-imperialist wars, but single defeatism for imperial powers and ‘revolutionary victoryism’ for colonial countries at war with them - also fails.

It is within this general framework that it becomes clear, as I argued in March (and as also follows from my long series on imperialism published over the past five weeks) that war can create shifts in the global hierarchy of states, as the relative decline of hegemon powers leads them into (indirect) aggression, which ends in full-scale, great-power war.

It is impossible to understand the modern world without accepting British war guilt for 1914, through the British pursuit of a tightening encirclement of Germany and successive provocations, in order to preserve the declining power of the British empire by pre-emptive war before German industrialisation and fleet-building could reach the point of actually threatening Britain. The present war is, in a sense, like the 1912 first Balkan war, in which states which were clients of the Entente powers attacked the Ottoman empire to seize its Balkan territories, thereby closing the iron ring round Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The aim of the United States in arming and supporting its Ukrainian nationalist ‘Gladio’ forces and deploying them in 2014 has all along been - and is now very clearly - to repeat the operation carried out in Afghanistan on a bigger scale, and as a result to produce a second 1989-91: regime change in Russia, which has been openly advocated by Biden and those around him.

The result of this regime will be a second step-down of the Russian economy, through the liquidation under a ‘new Yeltsin’ of the Russian arms industry and other suppliers, like the nuclear industry, which can offer third-world countries a partial escape from US control. There will likely be further partitioning of the Russian republic. The upshot will be the closure of the iron ring round China; and, if China attempts to break out, it will be accused of ‘aggression’ just as Russia now is - and, just as Germany was in 1914.

The other side of this coin is that, in the unlikely event that Russia actually wins this war with the US-armed Ukrainians, the hierarchy will shift in the opposite direction. In order to win, Russia will need to radically strengthen domestic production, and to develop financial mechanisms which are actually independent of the dollar system. If it successfully does that, everything which I have so far said about Russian behaviour not being animated by capitalist-imperialist interests in Russia’s near-abroad will be reversed: the productive industry and financial structures created to win the war in Ukraine will have obvious interests in further deployment - and, because Russian victory would imply an urgent interest of the USA in a further push-back, Russian capital would need to press its temporary advantage as hard as possible.

Hence, in sum, the uselessness of arguing that Russia is now animated by imperialist expansionism. The Russian state is engaged in a tactical offensive within what is at the end of the day a strategically defensive position. This offensive is unlikely to work; and the result of its failure is likely to be regime change in Moscow and Russia turned into an actual ‘semi-colony’ of the USA, on the road to the coming war between the US and China.


  1. A 2014 text discusses the roots: www.salon.com/2014/02/25/is_the_us_backing_neo_nazis_in_ukraine_partner.↩︎

  2. I have argued against this position in Revolutionary strategy London 2008, pp79-81, with references there.↩︎

  3. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1385/neither-1914-nor-1940.↩︎

  4. Eg, ‘How close is the RMT union to Vladimir Putin’s Russia?’ The Daily Telegraph March 2; ‘Vladimir Putin’s useful numbskulls’ Daily Mail March 3; ‘MP attacks RMT union leader who “supported Putin separatist”’ Evening Standard March 2.↩︎

  5. ‘The war in Ukraine and anti-imperialism today: a reply to Gilbert Achcar’ International Socialism March 2022 (paragraph after the text to note 14).↩︎

  6. ‘Russian imperialism under Putin’ RS21 April 3.↩︎

  7. ‘Russia’s war and the west’ RS21 April 12.↩︎

  8. ‘The war in Ukraine and the position of socialists: the nature and roles of Russia, the US and western Europe’, March 14: www.jamiegough.info/sites/default/files/downloads/Ukraine, Russia, NATO 14-3-22.pdf; also Anti-Capitalist Resistance March 17: anticapitalistresistance.org/russia-as-an-imperialist-country-export-of-capital-military-aggression.↩︎

  9. Discussion in H Tudor and JM Tudor Marxism and social democracy: the revisionist debate 1896-1898 Cambridge 1988; RB Day and D Gaido (eds) Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Leiden 2011; B Lewis Karl Kautsky on colonialism London 2013.↩︎

  10. oec.world/en/profile/country/rus; www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/russia-gas-oil-exports-sanctions; www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/daily_update_e/trade_profiles/RU_e.pdf.↩︎

  11. www.statista.com/statistics/1296245/russia-arms-exports-by-weapon; www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/9/infographic-which-countries-buy-the-most-russian-weapons. Claims that Russia’s civil aerospace industry is in severe decline: R Aboulafia, ‘China has nothing to gain from an aerospace alliance with Russia’ Foreign Policy April 7: foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/07/russia-war-china-aircraft-aerospace-alliance-aviation-industry (although this has to be read with the assumption that it is actually written in the service of the USA’s war aims in the present war).↩︎

  12. www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/eunpdc_no_61_final.pdf.↩︎

  13. ‘What is imperialism? Are China and Russia imperialist?’: lis-isl.org/en/2022/03/09/what-is-imperialism-are-china-and-russia-imperialist-gunes-gumus-sep.↩︎

  14. For example: www.grips.ac.jp/teacher/oono/hp/lecture_F/lec05.htm.↩︎

  15. A comment from the US right in 2017: ‘America’s Ukraine hypocrisy’: www.cato.org/commentary/americas-ukraine-hypocrisy.↩︎

  16. blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2021/01/06/the-biden-administration-can-change-failed-us-policy-towards-somalia.↩︎