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.