Is Russia ‘sub-imperialist’?
There has recently been a lot of debate on the topic of imperialism, particularly as applied to the current war in Ukraine. Members of several left and progressive tendencies suggest a number of ways in which present-day Russia might be categorised. Some describe Russia as an imperialist power; others refer to it as a non-imperialist country, part of the “semi-periphery” of world capitalism; others still use the more complex concept of “sub-imperialism”, which emerged from debates on Third World development during the 1950s and 1960s, and describes a state that is dependent with relation to the “core” countries of global capitalism, but acts as an imperialist with relation to weaker countries of its region, seeking to dominate and exploit “spheres of influence” in Central Asia and Ukraine.
As a formulation, sub-imperialism was coined in 1965 by the Brazilian scholar Ruy Mauro Marini, one of the founders of dependency theory. More recently, it has been employed by left scholars including David Harvey, Patrick Bond and Alex Callinicos, often with relation to the political economy of the BRICS countries. For Marini, sub-imperialism is “the form which dependent capitalism assumes upon reaching the stage of monopolies and finance capital”. Harvey speaks of
. . . the BRICS nations as ‘sub-imperial’ powers, featuring the super-exploitation of their working classes, predatory relations regarding their hinterlands, and collaboration (although tensioned) with imperialism, especially as intermediaries in the transfer of both surplus labor values and ‘free gifts of nature’ (unequal ecological exchange) from South to North.
Marini and Bond have demonstrated, in the cases of Brazil and South Africa respectively, that certain nations now part of BRICS collaborate with imperialism and join in plundering their hinterlands, much as Harvey indicates. In this regard, the “sub-imperialist” function played by these countries is relatively straightforward. Callinicos, however, goes much further, substantially blurring the line between the acknowledged countries of the world capitalist “core” and much poorer, dependent states said to collaborate in or expedite the robbery of the global periphery. To Callinicos, “sub-imperialist” states such as “Turkey, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and South Africa” are simply imperialists of a lesser order.
Where in this scheme does Russia stand, as a BRICS nation kept under intense military-political pressure by the world centres of imperialism and with its economy besieged by sanctions? Like the other countries of BRICS, Russia is separated from the countries of the imperialist “core” by a huge developmental gulf. Its GDP per capita is about one-sixth that of the United States and its finance capital is strikingly weak. Russian foreign direct investment is also notably small, as would be expected for a capital-poor country with vast natural resources awaiting development.
Russia is clearly not an imperialist power in the terms of the modern industrial-capitalist imperialism described by Lenin early in the last century. The country’s limited foreign direct investments have either been related to its strategic and diplomatic goals or else have simply been cases of “capitalists being capitalists” — pursuing lucrative openings outside the national borders, despite the lack of any pressures exerted by a non-existent excess of capital at home.
If Russia is to be described as practising “sub-imperialism” with relation to Central Asia and Ukraine, this will have to emerge from a more detailed study of Russian dealings over the years with the parts of the world concerned. We can be certain, though, that the charge of “collaboration with imperialism” will not stick. If the Russian state is to be judged as sub-imperialist, this will have to be the result of an imperialist-like essence as understood by Callinicos.
Spheres of influence? The case of Central Asia
Present-day Russia, it is argued by some, seeks to impose or defend “spheres of influence” adjacent to its borders. The concept of “spheres of influence” dates back to the 1880s and has its origins in the efforts by rival European states to avert inter-imperialist wars by negotiating areas of the world where each power could exercise uncontested colonial plunder. Applied to Russia and present-day Central Asia, the idea is strangely primitive and out of place.
Russia, it should be recalled, has only a middling-sized economy, about as large as that of South Korea. Meanwhile, Central Asia is a vast and diverse region, with a population of 76 million people spread across five countries. These countries share with Russia a common heritage as former republics of the Soviet Union, but all have a lively sense of their particular interests. Exercising any kind of hegemonic leverage over them would be a huge undertaking, for which Russia would be poorly equipped even if it ventured this task.
Further, Russia is not the only regional power that adjoins Central Asia. The transport routes that extend through Central Asia are crucially important to the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative”, and for China, various countries of the region are vital sources of natural gas. In general, Central Asia with its resources of energy carriers and metal ores, as well as its surplus of agricultural products such as cotton and wheat, is a much more natural trade partner for China than for Russia, whose own export offerings tend to compete with those of Central Asia rather than complementing them.
Unsurprisingly, a marked trend over the past decade has been toward rapid increases in trade by the Central Asian countries with China, and in Chinese investment within Central Asia. In the case of the two most populous Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, trade exchanges with China now closely match commercial turnover with Russia. The Central Asian countries have the opportunity to balance between Russia and China in their diplomacy and economic dealings, and as a recent commentary remarks, this has allowed them “to retain a surprising autonomy over domestic affairs”.
Meanwhile, the countries outside Central Asia that come closest to exerting hegemonic influence over the region’s economies are those of Western Europe, along with the United States. Since the 2000s the economies of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in particular, have boomed in response to strong inflows of foreign capital. Of US$28 billion in foreign direct investment that entered Kazakhstan in 2022, the largest sums are recorded as having come from the Netherlands (US$8.3 billion), the United States (US$5.1 billion), Switzerland (US$2.8 billion) and Belgium (US$1.6 billion). Russia and South Korea were recorded as contributing US$1.5 billion each, and China $1.4 billion. In cumulative terms, Kazakhstan’s total stock of foreign direct investment in 2021 amounted to $152 billion. Of this, Russia is reported as having provided $11.2 billion.
The acceptance by Central Asian countries of massive Western investment — which has created a high degree of dependence on US and other Western firms in the vital oil and gas industry — has been offset to a degree by agreements with Russia in the fields of weapons supplies and security provisions. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (though not Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan) are members with Russia of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military alliance. With its goals that include jointly combating “terrorist activities”, the CSTO provides a valued back-up for Central Asia’s authoritarian-capitalist regimes. When fuel price rises sparked mass popular protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022, the CSTO command dispatched a force of some 2500 “peacekeepers”, mainly Russian, to help “restore order”. By the time the force departed several weeks later, a reported 225 people had been killed and 10,000 arrested.
By providing a shield against military intervention in Central Asia by NATO or other anti-Russian forces — not to speak of worker unrest — the CSTO undoubtedly serves Moscow’s strategic interests. Whether the CSTO defends a Russian sphere of influence is much less obvious. The region’s anti-worker despots do not want Western military interference or foreign-sponsored “colour revolutions” any more than Russian leaders do, and in this sense, the CSTO is as much a reflection of the Central Asian governments’ own concerns as of those of the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, the Central Asian governments are at pains to establish that they decide their own foreign policies. In 2022 spokespeople for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan publicly criticised the Russian intervention in Ukraine, and defended Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
... and Ukraine
In a certain sense, Ukraine is necessarily a Russian “sphere of interest”, since countries normally show an intense interest in developments within states with which they share lengthy borders. But if Russia is a “sub-imperialist” country, then Ukraine will be important to it not just for military-strategic reasons, but also as a likely sphere for economic expansion. Is this latter the case?
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia sought amicable diplomatic and trading relations with Ukraine, and for more than two decades this sentiment was generally reciprocated. There were very good reasons for the collaborative attitudes, since in economic terms Ukraine and Russia remained joined at the hip. Numerous large enterprises in both countries were connected via monopolised supply chains to suppliers and customers on the opposite side of what had earlier been a purely administrative border.
In particular, the two countries needed one another as sources of countless specialised manufactured goods. For example, most of Ukraine’s production of locomotives was exported to Russia, and almost all the engines used in Russian helicopters continued for many years to be supplied by the Ukrainian firm Motor Sich. For the Russians to have tooled up to produce substitutes would have been inconvenient and expensive.
Throughout the years from 1991 to 2015, Russia consistently remained Ukraine’s largest single commercial partner. There was nothing notably exploitative about this trade. On both sides, the exchanges included substantial quantities of high-value, knowledge-intensive goods, and while Russia normally recorded strong surpluses on its goods trade with Ukraine, this was mainly because Russia also supplied Ukraine with large amounts of natural gas, along with other raw materials and semi-manufactured products. The patterns of this exchange were thus quite unlike those of the “sub-imperialism” described by Harvey, let alone Callinicos.
If Russian capitalism had indeed sought to impose “sub-imperialist” economic subjection on Ukraine, the picture would have been very different. As well as seeking to crowd local manufacturers out of Ukraine’s domestic market, Russian capitalists would have attempted to take direct control over the major sources of value creation in the Ukrainian economy, especially extraction of the natural resources that made up the “gifts of nature”. Very little of this behaviour was apparent; Russian direct investment in Ukraine remained strikingly small.
In particular, Russian investment in Ukraine was minor even when compared to the very limited sums entering Ukraine from the West. Ukrainian government figures at the end of 2012, one source records, “put Russia well behind Germany and the Netherlands as a source of cumulative foreign direct investment, with a slender 7 per cent of the total.” The most notable Russian investments were in the area of telecommunications, with others in fields such as oil and aluminium refining, ferrous metallurgy and mechanical engineering that provided a close fit with the activity of Russian enterprises across the border.
Russian capitalists showed very little yearning to take over the extraction of Ukraine’s “gifts of nature”. On its European expanse alone, Russia has massive unexploited reserves of the coal, iron ore, manganese, titanium and lithium that make up Ukraine’s key mineral resources. Meanwhile, outside investment in the Ukrainian agro-industrial complex, that historically has dominated the country’s export earnings, was restrained by laws that made foreign purchases of farmland effectively impossible.
Although Ukraine’s economic relationship with Russia was logical and advantageous, many Ukrainians — especially among the country’s big-city intelligentsia — sought ardently to replace it with integration into the developed West. Central to this project was the negotiating of an “Association Agreement” with the European Union. Projected as including “deep and comprehensive free trade” between Ukraine and the EU, this agreement was viewed as a precursor to Ukraine eventually gaining EU membership.
Drafted originally in March 2012, the Association Agreement reflected deep illusions among Ukrainian liberals concerning the role that Ukraine would be destined to play as a relatively poor and undeveloped periphery of a genuinely imperialist bloc. In Moscow, the attitude to Ukraine’s proposed “shift to the West” was sharply hostile. In part, this reflected dismay at the economic adjustments Russia would be compelled to make. But more fundamental to shaping Russian responses was the fact that the Association Agreement explicitly prefigured Ukrainian integration with European security arrangements — that is, with NATO.
The EU’s Association Agreement also featured the requirement for ruthless austerity measures aimed at “stabilising” Ukraine’s heavily indebted economy at the expense of the population. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych concluded that accepting these terms was politically impossible, and in November 2013 postponed acceptance of the Agreement, calling for further discussions. As an alternative, the Putin administration in Moscow offered an emergency Russian loan package, accompanied by price concessions on supplies of Russian natural gas and without stipulations as to Ukraine’s domestic policies. It was after Yanukovych, in December 2013, accepted Putin’s offer that the Euromaidan “Revolution of Dignity” broke out in central Kyiv. Yanukovych was overthrown in February 2014.
Do the events surrounding the Euromaidan vindicate the position that the Moscow authorities were anxious to preserve Ukraine as a Russian “sphere of influence”, and as a result, strenuously resisted its defection? The trouble with posing the question in this way is that it conflates two essentially distinct considerations.
In strategic terms, post-Soviet Russian governments have attached great importance to keeping Ukraine, if not as a friend and ally, then at least as a neutral state without Western troops or military installations on its territory. The Russian goal has been to prevent Ukraine from acting as a fire-base for NATO aggression.
The notion of a “sphere of influence”, however, is primarily economic in character. In classical terms, a “sphere of influence” exists to allow the exclusive extraction of value from a given territory by a particular imperial power. Russian actions with regard to independent Ukraine have not had anything like this nature.
To make an elementary point, Russia has never sought to impede or prevent investment in Ukraine by third countries. Moscow’s economic objections to the Association Agreement, leaving aside the deal’s security provisions, related largely to the fact that the Agreement would have necessitated the ending of free-trade arrangements between Russia and Ukraine, imposing substantial costs on Russian industries.
Following the Maidan, and after the installation in Kyiv of a right-wing pro-NATO government, the economic elements of the Russia-Ukraine relationship were quickly and thoroughly eclipsed by the security aspects, as witnessed by the developments in Crimea and the Donbass. During the same period, Ukraine began swiftly to be incorporated into the European trading bloc. Between 2013 and 2015, Ukraine’s bilateral trade with Russia declined by 68 per cent, and by the end of 2016 the EU collectively had displaced Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Ukrainian imports from Russia, in 2011 worth about US$29 billion, in 2021 amounted to only US$5.8 billion.
Plainly, the Moscow leadership has not been delighted by Ukraine’s economic and diplomatic reorientation. But it should be stressed that Russia has never denied the right of Ukraine to seek economic integration with the West or to join the EU. Where Russia has actively contested Ukrainian policies, this has been on the military-strategic level.
Two failed concepts
As can be seen, the notion of “spheres of influence” has proven useless as a tool for explaining Russian policies both in the case of Central Asia and Ukraine. Again and again, its postulates have been contradicted by the facts.
The inadequacy of “Russian sub-imperialism” as a concept may, perhaps, be regarded as less clear-cut. But in Central Asia, this supposed sub-imperialism has not seen Russia dominating the scene, either by comparison with China or with relation to the countries of the region, which despite Western economic encroachments have kept their self-determination notably intact.
Nor does the idea of Russian sub-imperialism show real explanatory power in the case of Ukraine. Until about 2016, independent Ukraine existed and operated within Russia’s economic orbit, and during that period, it grew drastically poorer. The evidence, however, shows clearly that Ukraine’s long economic slide resulted from the mayhem of its own capitalism, installed on the basis of Western advice and on the neoliberal dictates of lending organisations such as the IMF. It was not the consequence of Russian actions.
For decades, Russian purchases of Ukraine’s advanced manufactured goods were almost alone responsible for keeping the relevant sectors of Ukrainian industry from collapse — a curious “imperialism”, or sub-imperialism if you will. Moreover, Russia throughout much of this period allowed Ukraine to purchase Russian gas at a heavy discount on the price paid by Western customers, again representing strange behaviour for an alleged imperialist.
Ukraine characteristically has recorded strong deficits in its merchandise trade with Russia, but during the years leading up to the Maidan, the trade deficits with Russia were much smaller than those with the West. Further, the deficits with Russia have throughout been traceable mainly to Ukrainian purchases from Russia of relatively low-tech industrial inputs, not of the high-value finished goods typical of imperialist sales to the developing world. In 2021, the main Russian exports to Ukraine consisted of coal briquettes, refined petroleum, petroleum gas, and ammonia. The category of “machines” made up less than 10 per cent of the total, and in dollar terms, was only a little larger than sales of Ukrainian machinery to Russia.
To put Russia’s economic dealings with Ukraine in better perspective, we may reflect in more detail on Ukraine’s experiences since it began its integration with the undoubted imperialism of the West. The years following the Maidan did not see a revival of Ukraine’s economy. An early blow came following the secession of Crimea and its rejoining to Russia, when the new Kyiv government in April 2014 placed a ban on sales of military-related goods to Russian purchasers. The effect was to cripple numerous hi-tech Ukrainian enterprises that had produced components for Russia’s defence sector. Falling world prices for Ukraine’s wheat, iron ore and steel then exacerbated the impacts of reduced trade with Russia, and Ukraine entered a sharp recession. In 2021 its real GDP was still almost 10 per cent below the level reached in 2013.
Even with most tariffs removed, European purchasers showed little interest in Ukraine’s manufactured goods that were unfamiliar and, in technological terms, often behind the “cutting edge”. Sales of the country’s agricultural produce remained restricted, in numerous cases, by continuing EU import quotas. At the same time, reduced Ukrainian import tariffs saw the national market flooded by the sophisticated, attractive products of European manufacturers. Numerous Ukrainian firms were outcompeted and plunged into bankruptcy.
Defying predictions, Western investors did not flock to Ukraine to buy up ruined enterprises, refurbish them and begin turning cheap labour and raw materials into products for Western consumers. Ukraine’s chaotic governmental processes and notorious corruption proved powerful deterrents, and foreign investment remained tiny.
A radical de-industrialisation, under way since the return of capitalism in the 1990s, thus accelerated under “deep and comprehensive free trade”. As the years passed, sectors as important as the car industry and aircraft production ceased effectively to exist. European capitalism was incorporating Ukraine not as a developed country, but as a cheap supplier of low-tech generic goods, of iron ore, steel billets, basic chemicals and chicken meat.
The genuine peripheralisation and plunder of Ukraine, it can be seen, has been carried out by the advanced capitalism of the West. In these circumstances, arguments designed to blame Russia for Ukraine’s economic dilemmas over the years are distracting and unhelpful.
 World Bank data. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_cap
 This may be judged from the scale of Russia’s financial wealth (bank deposits, stocks, bonds, money market funds, and so forth) per adult. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, this figure at the end of 2021 was US$13,683. The corresponding figure for the US was US$468,295.
 https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2023/03/15/china-kazakhstan-bilateral-trade-up-34-in-twelve-months/; https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/russia-and-kazakhstan-2023-24-trade-and-investment-dynamics.html/; https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2023/03/22/uzbekistan-wants-china-relations-to-progress-from-trade-to-investment/
 See: Renfrey Clarke, The Catastrophe of Ukrainian Capitalism: How Privatisation Dispossessed and Impoverished the Ukrainian People. Sydney, Resistance Books, 2022, p. 85.
 Clarke op. cit., p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 84.
 World Bank figures indicate that in 2021 Ukraine’s real GDP was still 41 per cent below its pre-independence peak, recorded in 1989. See: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD?locations=UA
 This is the thesis of the book: Clarke op. cit.
 Ibid., p. 56.