Is Russia imperialist?

By Stansfield Smith

January 21, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Russia is said to be an imperialist world power, one in conflict with the imperialist superpower that is the United States. Russia has been characterized in this manner both during the period of the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Union collapsed and separate states were formed. Russia is said to be imperialist both when it was a socialist state and now as a capitalist state.

Russia is also said to be a non-imperial capitalist state, one still struggling to recover from the crisis of the Soviet collapse and the political and economic catastrophe of the Boris Yeltsin years, when it degenerated into a near neo-colonial client looted by the US.[1]

Vladimir Lenin recognized that modern capitalism “is everywhere becoming monopoly capitalism.[2] “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries.[3] This domination of the world by a few imperialist powers is not only the biggest barrier to the economic and social progress of less developed countries, but to resolving the pressing problems that afflict humanity as a whole and now the planet itself.

Lenin defined modern capitalist imperialism as such:

… without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.[4]

Below we will look at how capitalist Russia today shares in these features by considering the role Russian capitalist monopolies play in the world imperialist system, the nature of Russia’s export trade, the export of Russian capital, the world role played by Russian finance capital, and finally Russian military power.[5]

Russia’s strength among the international capitalist monopolies

Russia’s role in “the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves” can be measured by the country’s corporations position among the 2000 most important international corporations.

Forbes listed the top 2000 corporations in the world based on total sales, profits, assets and market value. Of the top 10 companies, five are Chinese and five are US. China is home to 291 Global 2000 companies (up from only 43 in 2003). The US is on top with 560. Canada has 50, Australia 39, India 58.

Russia has just four in the top 100, ranked 43, 47, 73 and 98. It has only 6 in the top 500, and 25 in the top 2000. Its total corporate share shows a slightly declining, rather than an ascendant, trend: in the 2008-2013 period up to 30 Russian corporations made the Global 2000 list.

The 2000 companies on this list account for $39.1 trillion in sales, $3.2 trillion in profit, $189 trillion in assets and $56.8 trillion in market value. Russia’s 25 corporations’ sales total $568 billion, merely 1.45% of the total. Their collective assets amount to $1,757.3 billion, comprising just under 1% of the total. Among international monopolies, Russia is a very minor player.

Russia’s labor productivity compared to the European Union and US

The prospect of significant change in these figures is belied by the problem of the low productivity of Russian labor. Labor productivity, here measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) valued in US dollars divided by the total number of hours worked by the country’s workforce, stood at 25.4 in 2016 for Russia. This is the lowest rate among all the European countries — so low in fact, that it is less than half the average European Union rate of 53.4. Russia’ labor productivity is 36% of the US level of 69.9; Germany is 68.1. Russia remains mired in a backward country’s level of productivity, far from being able to compete with that of the advanced capitalist centers.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report based on a combination of twelve factors, ranks Russia as 38 on their list, higher than several of the Eastern Europe countries. The report’s ranking has improved Russia’s position from 67th in 2012-13, to 38th in 2017-18.[6]

Russian manufacturing output

The role Russia plays in the world economic system can again be understood when comparing manufacturing output by country in dollar terms. In 2015, China ranked first with $2,010 billion

in manufactured goods (20% of world output). The US came second with $1,867 billion (18%). Russia ranked number 15, behind India, Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil, producing $139 billionin manufactured goods, again a marginal player, producing only 1% of world output.

Russian exports of raw materials vs high technology goods

In their export trade, imperialist countries typically show a marked tendency toward sales of sophisticated high-value finished goods, knowledge-intensive technical services, and financial services. Nations oppressed by imperialism typically are restricted to the export of raw materials at prices determined by the imperialist market and to production of finished goods by imperialist-owned corporate subsidiaries located in their countries.

In 2017, of the top exporting countries in the world, Russia ranked number 17, after Mexico, United Arab Emirates and Singapore. China ranked first, with $2,263 billion in exports, the US second with $1,547, and Germany third with $1,448. Though Russia was significantly up from 2016, it still only exported $353 billion worth of goods.

The World Bank reported on Russia in 2017 that oil and gas account for 58% of exports, metals for another 11%, 6% food raw materials, 3% wood and pulp and paper, and 4% precious stones and metals, other minerals. Over 82% of Russia’s exports were raw materials, while actual finished technological goods (including military) only made up 8% of exports.[7]

Russia’s top 10 exported and imported items in 2017 show that machine goods amounted to $12.8 billion in exports, compared to $106.2 billion in imports.

Russian exports (and imports) do not fit the pattern of an imperialist state, but rather of a semi-developed Third World state, exporting primarily raw materials and relying on foreign import of advanced goods.

Russia’s ranking in the export of high technology goods

Imperial powers are the leaders in the export of high technology goods.[8] In terms of world ranking in the export of these goods, China was again first, with $496 billion in high technology exports, with the US third (after Germany), exporting $153.2 billion. Mexico exported $46.8 billion. Russia ranked 31 in exports of high technology goods, with mere total of $6.64 billion in exports. These figures show that Russia is a long way from becoming an imperial player on the world stage.

Russia’s role in international banking and finance capital

In Lenin’s list of the characteristics of imperialist countries of his time, the large banks are the most important organizations of finance capital. We would expect an imperialist state to be well represented among the leading banks. Of the world’s top 100 banks, ranked by total assets, China has 5 of the top 10. The US has 6 of the top 40. Of the top 100 banks, 20 are Chinese, 10 are US, 9 are Japanese, 6 French, 6 German, 6 British, 5 Canadian, 5 South Korean, 5 Brazilian, 4 Australian, 3 Swedish, 3 Italian, 3 Spanish, 3 Dutch, 2 Singapore banks, and 2 Swiss banks. Russia has one, ranked number 66.

Lenin stated that in the imperialist epoch “the division of the world among the international trusts” has taken place. How the world in the imperialist epoch is divided among these trusts changes as imperialist states rise and fall. In the present world division among these trusts we find Russia a quite minor actor: 4 corporations in the top 100; 25 in the top 2000, holding 1.45% of the world market share; no corporations among the top 100 in terms of foreign assets; and one bank in the top 100 international banks.

Russia’s export of capital

Lenin stated that under imperialism the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance.” Russia does have a substantial export of capital, but this comes in the form of capital flight to tax havens such as Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands. Russia’s Central Bank put the country’s net capital flight in 2014 at $154.1 billion, and the total between 1999 (when Vladimir Putin came into office) to 2014 at about $550 billion. The actual total through 2014 may be greater than $1 trillion. The Central Bank put Russian capital flight in 2018 at $66 billion.

Russian multinationals’ foreign assets

A study lists the top 100 non-financial multi-national corporations as ranked by their foreign assets, that is, their investment in other countries. In this key measure of export of finance capital, 20 of the corporations are US, 14 are British, 12 French, 11 German, 11 Japanese, 5 Swiss, 5 are Chinese (including Hong Kong). Not one Russian corporation makes the top list of 100 corporations based on their investments abroad.

The top 10 non-financial Russian multinationals possess $188.3 billion in total foreign assets, representing one-third of the Russian total. The total Russian corporate foreign assets still amounts to less than that of the first two on the top 100 non-financial world multinationals list.[9]

Russian holdings of finance capital compared to imperialist states

Credit Suisse produces another measure of finance capital holdings by countries annually. Its Global Wealth Databook 2018 charts national financial wealth (stocks, bonds, money market funds and bank accounts) by dividing national financial wealth by the total adult population in each country. The top group, with over $100,000 average wealth per adult, consists of the countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Singapore and Taiwan. The US ($336,528) ranks second after Switzerland ($372,336). All countries in this group are imperialist countries, or key satellites of the imperial center, the United States. The world average financial wealth per adult is $38,110; looted Greece stands at $33,969. China is far behind at $19,862. Russia lies much lower at $8,843, which amounts to 2.6% of the average adult financial wealth compared to the US.

Russia remains a world apart from possessing the financial wealth of an imperialist country. Of financial and non-financial wealth in the world, the US has a 31% share; China is the only other country with more than 10% at 16.4%. Russia’s share is 0.7%.

Lenin wrote “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies … in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance.”[10] In the area of export of finance capital for productive purposes by Russian multinationals, Russia is a very minor player.

Russia’s world military weight

Lenin refers to the “the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest

capitalist powers.” Fundamental to imperialist country dominance of global economic structures is their role in policing and maintaining the world order they impose. Leading imperialist powers have important weapons industries and participate as sellers in the global arms trade.

Russian military exports

It is only in military weight that Russia shows its power but this by itself fails to make it imperialist, according to Lenin. Nor does it make Russia imperialist even in the pre-capitalist imperialist manner of ancient Rome, which required military expansion and slave labor. While Russia’s significant military might, especially its nuclear arsenal, makes it difficult for the imperialists to push it around, Russia does not invade and bomb countries across the globe as the US or even second-rate imperial powers like Britain and France do.

Moreover, unlike these other imperial military powers, capitalist Russia did not develop its own military power, but rather inherited its military might and armaments industries from the USSR. Russia is also unique in being the only country of the former socialist Soviet bloc that continues to be surrounded and threatened with military attack by the imperialist West.

Nevertheless, Russia is a top world weapons exporter. No branch of Russian manufacturing is competitive on the international market except for the armaments industry. World arms exports in 2016 totaled $32.262 billion and $31.106 billion in 2017. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Russia’s arms export at $6.148 billion in 2017, down from $6.937 billion in 2016. The world’s number one arms exporter is the US, with $10.304 billion in arms sales in 2016 and $12.394 billion in 2017. The US accounts for 34% of global military sales, and Russia for 22%.

The US's arms exports are slightly more than double those of Russia. Here, Russia is falling behind: while US arms exports grew by 25% in 2013-17 compared to the 2008-12 period, Russia's exports fell by 7.1% over the same period.

Russian corporations among weapons producers

According to SIPRI, the world’s top 100 arms producers made $398.2 billion in sales and military servicing in 2017. (Defense News gives somewhat different figures). Half of that sum went to the top 10 producers, five of which are US companies, while one is Russian. Of the top 100, 42 are US corporations, while 10 are Russian.

Russia’s foreign military bases and military budget

Russia has 15 military bases in 9 foreign countries. Only two of these are outside the former Soviet Union: in Vietnam and Syria. China has one base outside of China, in Djibouti. The US has over 800 foreign bases.

Compared to the US military budget, which SIPRI put at $610 billion, just the increase in the Pentagon budget this year alone is greater than the whole Russian military budget, which was $66 billion in 2017, fourth after China and Saudi Arabia.

Russian interventions in other countries

Russia has intervened in other countries (Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria) but not in the manner of imperialist countries, which are motivated to seize natural resources and wealth. Nor is Russian intervention even close to the scale of secondary imperial powers such as France or Britain. Nor has Russia engineered coup d’etats in other countries as imperialist countries constantly do.

Russia intervened in a very limited intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s when Russian forces acted as soft cops for NATO. Russia fought over pro-Russian South Ossetia with Georgia in 2008, which was backed by the US.

The conflict in the Ukraine is a direct result of the US engineering a right-wing anti-Russian coup in 2014. The people in the eastern region of the Ukraine, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, rose up demanding political and economic autonomy. While those in east Ukraine are backed by Russia, Moscow has shown no interest in absorbing eastern Ukraine as it did with the Crimea after the referendum there.

Russia’s direct military involvement in 2015 in the Syrian war is similar to that in the Ukraine: to fend off continuing US-NATO regime change and encirclement of their country. Russia was invited in by the Syrian government to assist in defeating rebel groups armed and financed by the US, NATO countries and Saudi Arabia.

Unlike the US, Britain and France, in none of these cases has Russia intervened militarily to overthrow a government to protect its foreign economic interests.

Russia and imperialism today

Referencing Lenin’s statement on imperialism, Russia is not a player in the dominance of monopolies and finance capital, nor does the export of capital play an important role (save the negative effect of on-going capital flight), nor do Russian trusts play any essential role in the division of the world resources.

Russia can be ranked as one of the world’s most powerful states only based on its military strength. Economically it shares the characteristics not of an advanced capitalist state but of one on the capitalist semi-periphery. It plays very little part in the quintessential imperialist activities: the export of capital to the periphery and the extraction of profit from developing countries’ labor and resources. Russia’s finance capital is small, its exports predominantly raw materials, its industry weak, its multinational corporations minor, its economy plagued by low labor productivity.

Imperialism continues to be the main danger to the life and well-being of the peoples of the world. Humanity’s problems are rooted in imperialist domination of our nations and our lives. Specifically, this means the rule of the US imperialist boss and the secondary imperial powers in its orbit: Western Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia. Russia, while a capitalist country, bullied by the US because of its independence (like Venezuela, Iran, Qaddafi’s Libya, Nicaragua, for example) is not part of any imperialist cabal that threatens us. Rather the world powers of Russia and China find they must respond to imperialism's efforts to subordinate them. Fortunately, their inconsistent resistance does provide openings for other peoples and countries to assert their own national sovereignty.

Stansfield Smith is an activist with the Chicago ALBA Solidarity


[1] Stephen Cohen wrote in The Failed Crusade that after the collapse of the Soviet Union began the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history. Capitalist restoration brought mass pauperization and unemployment, wild extremes of inequality, rampant crime, virulent anti-Semitism and ethnic violence, combined with legalized gangsterism and precipitous looting of public assets. By 1998 investment was down by 80%, real wages by half and meat and dairy herds by 75%. Those living below the poverty line in the former Soviet republics had risen from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million. This had produced more orphans than Russia's 20 million-plus wartime casualties, epidemics of cholera and typhus re-emerged, millions of children suffered from malnutrition and adult life expectancy has plunged. Fidel Castro spoke of the scandalous looting of post-Soviet Russia in the latter part of a 1998 speech available here

[2] Lenin: The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 339

[3] Lenin: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, CW, 22, p.191

[4] Lenin: Imperialism, CW 22, p.266-267

[5] Two helpful articles in writing this piece were: Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis, The Myth of “Russian Imperialism” and Sam Williams, Is Russia Imperialist?

[6] Russia’s detailed information on pp. 248-249 of the report

[8] High-technology exports are products with high R&D intensity, such as in aerospace, computers, pharmaceuticals, scientific instruments, and electrical machinery.

[9] This information on Russian capital flight and foreign assets is entirely consistent with the data in an earlier study on Russian global investment, one used, ironically, to claim Russia is imperialist.

[10] Lenin: Imperialism, CW 22, p.297, 267