How should socialists respond to Russia’s war on Ukraine

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy with Ukrainian troops

By Chris Slee

June 28, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified a longstanding debate about whether Russia is an imperialist power.

Michael Probsting says that Russia is imperialist, citing its military strength; the fact that the Russian economy is dominated by Russian (not foreign) monopoly capital; significant foreign investment by Russian corporations; and super-exploitation of immigrant workers within Russia. [1]

By contrast, Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis cite various features of the Russian economy as evidence that Russia is not imperialist: low per capita GDP, limited amount of overseas investment by Russian companies, limited development of finance capital, dependence on raw material exports, etc. They say it is “part of the capitalist semi-periphery”. [2]

It is true that Russia is economically weak compared to imperialist countries such as the United States, Western Europe countries and Japan. But Russia is militarily strong.

Russia has nuclear weapons, in quantities comparable with the US. Russia’s conventional armed forces are strong. Russia has military bases in other countries (mainly those formerly part of the Soviet Union, but also Syria).

Russia has intervened militarily in other countries. The Russian air force played a major role in the Syrian civil war, helping to keep the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in power. The Russian mercenary company Wagner is also involved in a number of military conflicts, particularly in Africa, apparently with the approval of the Russian government.

Economically the picture is mixed. Accurate information on foreign investment by Russian companies is not available because much of it is conducted indirectly via tax havens. It is small compared to countries such as the US, but is spreading to new areas. Russian mining companies have begun to invest in Africa.

Russia’s dependence on raw material exports is similar to that of Australia, which is an imperialist country.

Russia is not just an ordinary semi-peripheral capitalist country such as Mexico. Mexico does not have nuclear weapons, nor overseas bases, nor does it send military forces to participate in civil wars in other countries.

Lenin called tsarist Russia imperialist, even though it did not fit his economic criteria for capitalist imperialism. It was a “crude, medieval, economically backward” imperialism.

Clarke and Annis argue that this old form of imperialism disappeared after World War I. But I don’t think we should rule out the possibility that the uneven development of capitalism can give rise to new forms of “backward” imperialism.

However, I don’t insist on using the term “imperialism”. Perhaps a better term can be found to refer to Russia’s combination of economic backwardness and military strength. For example, some people call Russia “sub-imperialist”, others call it a “regional power”.

Whatever the term we use, we should denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and support Ukraine’s right to defend itself.

However, we should recognise that there is no purely military solution. The overwhelming military superiority of Russia makes a Ukrainian military victory unlikely. And a complete victory might not even be desirable, if it means the Ukrainian army marching into areas where the local population is hostile.

The recent history of Ukraine is complex. In 2013 a protest movement arose against the Viktor Yanukovych government. The initial trigger was the government’s decision to abandon its plan to join the European Union, instead strengthening links with Russia.

Many middle class people thought that joining the EU would bring prosperity. Many working class people, particularly in Western Ukraine where unemployment was high, hoped to get jobs in EU countries.

But many people in eastern Ukraine took a different view. The factories in that region often had links with the Russian market, so the people tended to favour closer ties to Russia.

The protests in Kyiv's Maidan square and in western Ukraine attracted people with various views. Some were mainly concerned with the corruption of the Yanukovych government. But there were also fascist groups playing a major role.

In February 2014, the Yanukovych government was overthrown. Most people in western Ukraine welcomed this, but many in eastern Ukraine saw it as a coup that removed the government they had voted for. Most people in eastern Ukraine speak Russian as their first language, and were alienated by moves to deprive the Russian language of official recognition as one of the languages of the country.

This led to an uprising in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Like the Maidan revolt, the “anti-Maidan” Donbas revolt included diverse people. Some were relatively progressive, supporting workers’ rights and a welfare state. Others were corrupt local officials or reactionary Russian nationalists. In a 2014 interview Boris Kagarlitsky gave a generally positive view of the uprising, describing it as a “revolutionary movement”, despite “contradictory tendencies”. [3]

The Russian government supported the Donbas revolt, but also tried to control it. Increasingly Russia took control of the area, pushing aside the more progressive elements of the movement. This alienated many of those who initially supported the Donbas revolt, but did not necessarily cause them to support the Ukrainian government. [4]

In theory, it would be desirable to hold an internationally-supervised referendum to find out whether the local people want to be part of Russia or Ukraine. But this would be difficult to organise, because millions of people have fled their homes.

A ceasefire and negotiations would be desirable to resolve the Donbas issue. But the outcome of any negotiations will depend on the balance of forces, both military and political.

Ukrainians need weapons to partially counteract Russia’s overwhelming military superiority. But they also need to adopt policies that can win the support of those Donbas residents who supported the Donbas revolt but are now disillusioned with Russia, as well as the support of people in Russia itself.


[1] Michael Probsting: Russian imperialism and its monopolies

[2] Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis: The Myth of “Russian Imperialism”: in defence of Lenin’s analyses” 

[3] Interview with Boris Kagarlitsky

[4] Simon Pirani: The Russian statelets in the Donbas are no "peoples republics":