Russia, NATO and inter-imperialist rivalry

Russia NATO

Dave Holmes’ article, “Ukraine: US proxy war in crisis”[1] contains a contradiction. On the one hand, Holmes says “Russia is most decidedly defending itself from an existential threat from the US-NATO bloc”. On the other hand, Holmes approvingly quotes Scott Ritter’s assertions that “NATO is a paper tiger” and that “We [the United States] can’t win a war today in Europe. We’re not number one anymore. We’re not number two anymore. We might be number three.”[2]

But which is it? Is NATO an “existential threat” or a “paper tiger”?

Ritter considers the US to be militarily weaker than Russia, despite its much greater military spending. He says the US spends $900 billion a year on its military, while Russia spends $68 billion. But Ritter says “our system is broken”, presumably referring to poor planning, corruption, waste and inefficiency.

Holmes says Russia has “massively ramped up its arms production”. He cites a New York Times article that says, “As a result of the push, Russia is now producing more ammunition than the United States and Europe. Overall, Kusti Salm, a senior Estonian defense ministry official, estimated that Russia's current ammunition production is seven times greater than that of the West.”

Given this, the idea Russia faces an “existential threat” from NATO seems unrealistic. By contrast, Ukraine does face an existential threat from Russia. This is made clear by Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who Holmes quotes as saying: “Ukraine will cease to exist as a state unless the Kiev regime capitulates on Russia's terms.”[3] These words sound like those of an official of a colonial power issuing a threat to a rebellious colony. Of course, Ukraine is not a colony of Russia, but Volodin’s comments indicate a desire to make it a semi-colony or else annex it completely.

Holmes denies Russia is imperialist. He refers to a 2016 article by Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis, “The Myth of Russian Imperialism: a defence of Lenin's analyses”.[4] Clarke and Annis argue Russia is not imperialist because it lacks some of the features normally possessed by imperialist powers. For example, they say Russia’s industrial production is technically backward and that Russia relies heavily on extractive sectors and the export of basic commodities.

I have responded to Clarke and Annis’ article elsewhere,[5] so I will not repeat all my arguments here. Instead, I will briefly outline a few points.

If we look at economic statistics, Russia is in an intermediate position between the world’s richest and poorest countries. For example, according to World Bank figures, Russia’s nominal per capita GDP in 2022 was $15,345. That same year, the United States had a nominal per capita GDP of $76,394, while Sudan had a nominal per capita GDP of $1102. Russia’s nominal per capita GDP was about a fifth that of the US but nearly fourteen times that of Sudan. Nominal GDP figures can be misleading, but there is no doubt that Russia is much more prosperous than many poor semi-colonial countries, such as Sudan. 

But in considering whether a country is imperialist, we should not look solely at economic statistics. Vladimir Lenin considered tsarist Russia imperialist because of factors such as its colonial possessions, its military strength, its domination of oppressed nationalities, its intervention in other countries, etc. He said:

The last third of the nineteenth century saw the transition to the new, imperialist era. Finance capital not of one, but of several, though very few, Great Powers enjoys a monopoly. (In Japan and Russia the monopoly of military power, vast territories, or special facilities for robbing minority nationalities, China, etc., partly supplements, partly takes the place of, the monopoly of modern, up-to-date finance capital.) [6]

Russia today is militarily strong and intervenes militarily in other countries. Initially this was mainly in neighbouring countries that had been part of the tsarist empire and the former Soviet Union. But more recently it has intervened in Syria, where the Russian air force has bombed rebel-held areas to support the repressive Bashar al-Assad regime, causing severe devastation and large-scale loss of life. It has also intervened in a number of African countries, where the Wagner private military company has sent troops with the approval of the Russian government.

Russian capital exploits people in poorer countries, even if on a smaller scale than US, European or other Western capital. For example, Wagner profits from the mining of gold and other minerals in Sudan and other African countries. This was  well-documented in a recent article by Adam Tooze.[7]

Some of the facts cited by Holmes in his latest article tend to contradict Clarke and Annis’ picture of Russia as a poor, backward country. Holmes refers to an article by Ben Aris, who says  Russia’s nominal GDP of $2 trillion underestimates its economic strength: “Looking at GDP in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms removes price level differences and allows a better comparison, especially of living standards, between countries. In these terms Russia has just overtaken Germany to become the fifth wealthiest economy in the world, worth $5.3 trillion.” [8] Aris also says that Russia has a “large industrial base”, which is a big advantage in war. In the past, I have said that Russian imperialism is economically weak but militarily strong.[9] Perhaps it is not as weak economically as I thought.

The rise of Russia as an imperialist power indicates that imperialism is not static. In Lenin’s time, British and French imperialism were challenged by the rising power of German imperialism. Today Russia and China are challenging US dominance. 

China presents a mixed picture, combining semi-colonial and imperialist features. On the one hand, much of China’s industry is producing goods under contract to US and other Western transnational corporations. In this respect it resembles a semi-colony. On the other hand, China is investing increasingly in Africa and Latin America to obtain raw materials for its industries, a pattern traditionally associated with imperialist powers.

Russia is weaker than China economically, but stronger militarily and increasingly acts like an imperialist power abroad. This leads to rivalry with the dominant imperialist powers of the United States and Western Europe. 

This inter-imperialist rivalry played a role in creating divisions in Ukrainian society, with various Ukrainian politicians favouring alignment either with Russia or the West. This is explained by Yuliya Yurchenko in her book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital.[10] These divisions prevented a united fight by working people against the corrupt oligarchic regime. Instead there were two rebellions: the Maidan rebellion against the Viktor Yanukovych government and the Donbas rebellion against the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. These are discussed in my article, “The complex history of eastern Ukraine”.[11]

Russian intervention played a key role in turning this conflict into a civil war. Igor Girkin, a former officer of Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) who led a small armed group into Donbas in 2014, boasted of having triggered the armed conflict in that region. Later the Russian regular army moved in. This culminated in the full scale invasion in February 2022.


[1] Dave Holmes: Ukraine: US proxy war in crisis

[2] Cited in Holmes, above

[3] Cited in Holmes, above

[4] Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis: The Myth of Russian Imperialism

[5] Chris Slee: How should socialists respond to Russia's war on Ukraine?; Chris Slee: Russian imperialism and the invasion of Ukraine

[6] Lenin Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 115-116

[7] Adam Tooze: The Sudan crisis

[8] Cited in Holmes, above


[10] Yuliya Yurchenko, Ukraine and the Empire of Capital. Review by Chris Slee

[11] Chris Slee: The complex history of eastern Ukraine