Russia in the world


By Renfrey Clarke

April 3, 2017
Links International Journal of Socialist RenewalFor several weeks in mid-December, media outlets were aflame with the news: Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less, had led a cyber-assault on US democracy, hacking the files of the Democratic Party in an effort to secure the election of his ally Donald Trump. Or perhaps, the real source of the tale had nothing to do with Russia: perhaps it was an attempt to reinforce the self-hypnosis of US liberals that Hillary Clinton’s defeat did not stem from the disgust of millions of rust-belt workers at years of disdain and neglect by Democratic Party politicians. Retired US intelligence experts soon shot the “hack” allegations full of holes.[1] But the refutations were ignored by the mainstream media. And the prejudice the allegations created would survive, to strengthen the rationale for Western economic, diplomatic and military pressures on Russia unparalleled in the post-Cold War period. Defying the spirit, at least, of a 1997 agreement, US, British and other Western military units are now kept close to Russia’s borders in semi-permanent “rotation”. Last June, more than 31,000 troops from NATO states and Ukraine took part in the unsubtly-named “Anaconda” manoeuvres in Poland. Since then, NATO forces have held exercises in Ukraine and Latvia, with which Russia shares direct frontiers. Do the arguments for putting the “squeeze” on Russia hold up? In the West, perceptions of Russia often have the country a world-ranking super-power, a malign counter-force on the scale of the United States. Correct? Hardly. Present-day Russia has only half the population the Soviet Union had in 1989. The 143 million Russians are far outnumbered by the 324 million Americans. What about Russia’s economy? Among the world’s top handful? Figures for Gross Domestic Product at current prices put Russia in 2016 at number 12 in the world. In these terms the Russian economy is about the size of Australia’s, somewhat smaller than that of South Korea, much smaller than the economies of Canada, Brazil and Italy, and about 7 per cent of the size of the economy of the US.[2] And Russia’s general level of economic development? Russian GDP per head of population in 2015, calculated using a method that takes account of prices within countries, was about that of Malaysia, at roughly 45 per cent of the US figure.[3]

Military potential

But surely, Western concerns about Russia relate above all to the country’s military potential? Russia’s conventional military forces are large for a country of its general economic weight, but are unimpressive in terms of the relevant comparison – that is, with the combined armed forces of the NATO countries. In their raw military spending, the NATO countries in 2015 outstripped Russia by a ratio of more than thirteen to one.[4] Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons roughly matches that of the US. For many decades these weapons have provided an effective deterrent to nuclear attack ‒ the reason, no doubt, why most of us were not incinerated long ago. But the system of “mutually assured destruction” is under Western assault. Last May, the US broke ground on an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and Romania. These installations will enhance Washington’s ability to mount a nuclear “first strike” without fear of an effective Russian response. Highly destabilising, the move has stirred furious Russian objections. Western pundits will argue that bellicose posturing toward Russia is needed to block the Putin leadership’s alleged “expansionism”. But whose armed forces have really expanded their reach in the past few decades? In talks in February 1990 US Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl intimated – and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev clearly believed – that NATO would not expand eastward if the USSR agreed to German reunification.[5] Today, NATO extends to Estonia’s border with Russia, barely 100 km from the suburbs of St Petersburg. Russia currently has about 23 military bases and other installations outside its territory, all but three in other former republics of the USSR.[6] In 2015, the US maintained nearly 800 foreign military bases in more than 70 countries and territories around the world.[7] The US Special Operations Command acknowledges that in 2016 its forces deployed to a total of 138 countries.[8] Subjected throughout the past century to intense military threats from the West – and to devastating invasions –Russia puts substantial resources into its defence. While forcing this burden onto the Russian people, Western leaders ignore the country’s history and encourage the belief that Russian military spending is “really” preparation for aggression. According to the assumptions underlying this narrative, Russia would wage war on the grand Western scale if not hemmed in, threatened, and subjected to sanctions. But is this correct? Is serial war-mongering normal behaviour for any relatively large state?


It is no mystery why the US and its developed-world allies – Australia among them – should try to keep the globe in militarised lockdown. These countries’ economies possess highly evolved finance capitals – that is, huge complexes of corporate power and wealth that seek profitable fields of exploitation, abroad as well as at home, for chronic surpluses of potential investment funds. In particular, countries like the US and Australia own outright or effectively control key areas of the economies of so-called “developing countries” – to an important degree blocking any kind of balanced development there. The relatively high living standards of the advanced capitalist world rest in part on a massive transfer of wealth from the world’s steerage passengers to its staterooms. There is nothing “normal” about this system, which liberal economists in the late nineteenth century dubbed “imperialism”, and which produces endless war and misery. Over more than a century, left theorists have come up with a highly developed analysis of imperialism. Understood in its classic left sense, imperialism is central to the workings of advanced capitalism. The system’s chronic over-accumulation of capital compels industrialists, bankers and their political servants to seek expansion beyond national boundaries, appropriating new markets and fresh sources of cheap labour and raw materials. Where does Russia fit within this scheme? If the research is done, and the best elements of the left theoretical heritage are applied, the answer emerges with startling clarity: Russia is no kind of imperialist country.[9] To Russians of both left and right, the notion that their country is home to an “advanced capitalism” is absurd. Since Soviet times, the more high-tech sectors of Russian industry have gone into steep decline. In classic “Third World” fashion, the country now subsists on exports of oil and gas, metals, and other semi-processed or raw materials. Nor does Russia possess a highly evolved finance capital. Its handful of large banks are no more than middling-sized in world terms, and its financial industry overall is small and heavily criminalised. Financial assets per adult are tiny.[10] The notion of Russia’s economy being marked by an imperialist-style excess of capital is laughable. The country’s exports of capital consist mostly of oligarchic gains sent into an “offshore cloud” for laundering, or of the fruits of industrial asset-stripping heading off to buy Western shares and real estate. Meanwhile, Russia’s infrastructure decays, antique industrial plant goes unreplaced, and vast natural resources lie undeveloped. Real Russian investment abroad is minor, and is directed mainly toward other states of the former USSR that are on a similar level of economic development – and whose own oligarchs often hold substantial assets within Russia. Unlike genuine second-rank imperialist countries such as Australia or Canada, with their massive stakes in developing-world resource extraction, Russia does not benefit meaningfully from the “profit siphon” that leaches wealth from the world’s poor. Exporting into chronically saturated commodity markets, Russia is among the victims of this value-transfer.

Foreign policy

If we acknowledge that Russia is not part of the imperialist world, we begin to understand why the country’s foreign policy is in no sense a mirror-image of that of the US. In their sources and underlying impulses, the foreign dealings of Russia and the US are sharply different. Russia has few foreign investments to police, and no need to subjugate other countries to secure energy or raw materials. The marketing of Russia’s primary exports is best served by peace. In its key motivations, Russian foreign policy is defensive. This remains true even while the Russian state, if pressed hard enough, is capable of resolute though carefully limited military initiatives. Among reputable scholars, there is a consensus that Russian actions in Crimea following the US-backed overthrow in 2014 of then Ukrainian President Yanukovych were driven by an urgency to retain the strategically vital Sevastopol naval base, on territory leased from Ukraine. Linked to these defensive priorities is a concern to maintain a stable, relatively predictable regional environment. The Russian intervention in Syria is now being wound down, after helping ensure that the Assad regime there would not be overrun, leaving a cauldron of warring factions. Further characteristics of Russian foreign policy are an impressive sophistication, and all things considered, a remarkable restraint. We might imagine how the US ruling class would react if the Baltic countries bordered on the Great Lakes ‒ and after entering a Russian-led military pact, hosted manoeuvres by Russian forces. Russia, in fact, is in most key respects a normal country – more precisely, a part, along with states such as Mexico, Brazil, Iran and India, of the “semi-periphery” of today’s capitalist world-system. While modernised to a degree, these countries are still very much part of the developing world. Mexico is not a menace to the world, requiring heavy-handed containment. Neither is Russia. Notes [1] [2] [3] [4]; [5]; [6] [7] [8] [9] See [10] See Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2016, p. 53.

Submitted by Chris Slee (not verified) on Thu, 04/06/2017 - 15:29


I agree with some of Renfrey's points but not all.

I agree it is absurd to blame Putin for Hillary Clinton's election defeat.

I agree that Russia is much weaker than the US.

However I have reservations about Renfrey's statement that: "In its key motivations, Russian foreign policy is defensive."

I would agree that Russia's motivation in Crimea was defensive. But I would not say the same about Syria.

Russia intervened militarily in Syria to prop up the Assad regime. But intervening to prop up a brutal dictatorship - something that the United States has often done - can not be considered simply as "defensive".

Submitted by Seth Ellingson (not verified) on Mon, 05/01/2017 - 11:56


I agree with most of this article but believe that the author underestimates the strength of Russia. It seems most of the metrics the author uses to compare Russia in military, foreign policy or economic terms miss the point.

I agree that Russia is not a menace and its actions in Crimea have been defensive. Even the most left wing Russians, such as Just Russia, agree with the precept "Кым наш". Or Crimea is ours. Russia is taking a sensible approach to NATO's encroachment on its territory. Eastern Ukraine is a similar story. A Russian majority is just revolting to the fascists in power in Kiev. One of the first moves the new Ukrainian government introduced when they took power was to ban Russian in all official uses.

On Syria Putin has a more Machiavellian view. Assad, for Putin, ensures stability in the region. Russia has a major naval base in Syria and sells a lot of weapons to Syria. Given the outcome of the Arab Spring elsewhere, Putin sees Assad as a way to prevent extremism from taking root or the region descending into sectarian civil wars, although that probably is already happening. He knows Assad supports him and can keep order in the country, so he is backing Assad instead of throwing his weight behind a motley crew of resistance fighters who could divide the country further or become enemies once they're in power.

However, I would not underestimate Russian military power. Russia has always been somewhat poor and backwards going back to the Tsars. Yet they have always managed to make reliable, cheap and above all effective weaponry that can at least counter Western weaponry. Their anti-air missile systems, like the one that downed the Malaysian Airline in Eastern Ukraine, can cover wide swaths of airspace from US or Western air strikes. Just because some systems are not state of the art does not mean that they are better.

Take the F-35 for example. A groundbreaking stealth aircraft that can avoid detection from the most sophisticated radar systems. Yet a prinicipal aircraft designer criticized the aircraft's maneuverability and can still be seen by old short wave radar systems. For this reason, the Russians have been dusting off their old 1950's radar systems.

Many weapons systems from the Soviet era still outperform Western counterparts. The Mi-24 Hind attack/transport helicopter impervious to ground fire still outclasses Western helicopters. No other country has yet created a counter to this helicopter or even created something with similar versatility. Likewise, the Russian military just revealed a brand new infantry weapons system ратник . It provides protection for 90% of a soldiers body and can even protect against 10 shot point blank from a high powered sniper rifle. Sadly, the US has not found it worthwhile to invest to effective body armor.

Finally, some Russian weapons system are flat out better than US systems. The new Russian T-90 active armor system uses laser targeting to detect incoming projectiles, deploys counter measures and neutralizes all threats incoming to the tank before they even hit the tank. Or take the new Zircon anti-ship missile, the fastest ballistic missile in the world. Western analysts fear that this Russian system would make aircraft carriers obsolete. While these systems has never been deployed in combat in order to preserve secrecy, this system is already ahead of the US.

All of these systems are cheap and basic with an emphasis on reliability. So while they don't inflate a military industrial complex in Moscow or they don't cost an outrageous amount of money, they do their assigned task for a fraction of whatever America is spending for some big shiny plane or missile. Russia has found a way to create a counter weapon to each of America's or the West's for a fraction of what they cost us. If Putin wanted to, he could have troops in Warsaw and occupying the Baltic states within two weeks. NATO barely has enough forces to oppose an invasion and America is spread too thin across the globe to put up a good defense.

Both the US and Russia would refrain from using nuclear weapons in most invasion scenarios and in conventional terms, Russia matches if not surpasses Western military power. Military power is not something you deduce from budget or how much something costs but rather its effectiveness and reliability.

I agree that Russia is not an imperialist power. Their lack of financial capital is a good thing. While their reliance on natural gas and oil hampers growth, I would argue that economic growth is biased in some regards. To compar Russian and American economic development is apples to oranges.

I am glad the author stated that Russia is a normal country. The self appointed "left media" in America still cannot stop talking about Russia's influence in the 2016 election. This defense is a classic example of a powerful party not wanting to accept responsibility for their own defeat. If Russia's hacking did influence the election, which is probably not true since Putin did not write all those Podesta emails dripping with corruption, those actions would not eclipse America's meddling in the 1996 Russia Presidential election. The CIA worked in not-so-covert terms in electoral fraud, campaign donations and real media blackout to swing the election away from Zyugandov (the communist) to the neo-liberal Yeltsin. Dmitri Medvedev admitted that Yeltsin was not the legal winner of the 1996 election.

This backstabbing of Russia left a bad impression on all Russians who never forgot how the US stole their election. The Sovie Union did everything right during the late 1980's and 1990's. They went to the UN Security Council and asked it to supervise their withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the US ignored. NATO ignored the 1998 pact, as mentioned, to keep former Warsaw Pact countries neutral. By the end of the 1990's, we offered the same collective defense powers to the 2 million people in Lithuania as we do for Germany. Bill Clinton sent in armies of occupying neo-liberal economic advisors to transition the state run soviet economy to the thriving market economy.

When inflation hit record highs, and everyone's savings were wiped out, those Clintonian advisors quietly turned their heads and blamed the communists. Russia lost 50% of its GDP during the 1990's, by comparison, America only lost 25% of its GDP during
the Great Depression. Basic services like police, firefighters, and electricity shit down. The mafia soon filled the void and violent crimes skyrocketed. Heroin epidemics swept through the country as young people soon found themselves alive in a country that no longer existed. Soldiers returned home from Afghanistan wearing medals for a country that disintegrated while they were away, for a battle that everyone forgot, and all their dead comrades and injuries and permamneant scars became relics of a society that no longer existed.

The only mitigating factor to all this was the Supreme Soviet of Russia. This democratically elected body tries to shield the last remaining vestiges of socialism for the Russian people. They sought to have a gradual transition to a market economy, while state ownership of large industries and strong state oversight to protect the rights and dignities of all Russians. They wanted to shape their country into something akin to Norway. The Supreme Soviet was widely supported by the people, indeed many of the former Soviet bloc countries seemed to be taking a gradual route to market economies. But the US and Yeltsin wanted overnight, shock therapy. When the Soviet resisted, Yeltsin called in the tanks to shell the White House, killing hundreds of innocent people. The US supported this man and three years later when he ran for president and the communist Zennady looked poised to win, the CIA helped pour in funds to elect an overweight drunk just because he would open up Russia to the reaches of capitalism. They instituted media block outs for Zyuganov. When polling places opened, they took control of them to stuff the ballot boxes or turn away people to ensure Yeltsin won.

Russians hold no illusions about all of this. When they were at a low point, a dark time when everything that was nailed down was blowing off, America ignored them, subjugated them and twisted their country into a puppet for the West. They never fully forgave America for how they destroyed Russia during the 1990's. Every since that hopeful time, Russia has retreated backwards into a defensive posture. They remember what happened last time they "did the right thing" and they won't make those mistakes again because they learned where America's heart really is.