Russian imperialism: Economically weak, militarily strong

There is a debate among socialists over whether Russia is an imperialist power or not. Michael Probsting argues strongly that Russia is imperialist.1, 2 Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis argue that it is not.3

This disagreement flows from the fact that Russia has some of the features we would expect in an imperialist power, but not others. For example, it has a strong military that intervenes in other countries, but it has a low per capita GDP.

Restoration of capitalism in Russia

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He tried to reform Soviet society. Gorbachev said he wanted to "renew" socialism and talked of "socialism with a human face".

But large sections of the intelligentsia, and of the Communist Party and state bureaucracy, favoured capitalist restoration. They became increasingly open in advocating for the privatisation of industry.

Boris Yeltsin became a spokesperson for this trend. In 1990, he became president of the Russian federation, the largest component republic of the Soviet Union. In December 1991 he, along with the leaders of Ukraine and Belorussia, decided to dissolve the Soviet Union.

As president of Russia, Yeltsin pushed through a program of neoliberal "shock therapy". This caused extreme hardship, resulting in widespread discontent and some protests. There was opposition in parliament to some neoliberal measures.

In 1993, Yeltsin carried out what amounted to a coup. He dissolved parliament and sent troops to bombard and storm the parliament building.

Privatisation was accompanied by huge corruption. Bureaucrats stole state property or sold it cheaply to themselves and their associates. This resulted in the creation of a class of extremely wealthy people – an oligarchy or kleptocracy.

"Shock therapy" caused severe industrial decline. The economy went into a very deep depression. Between 1990 and 1996, GDP declined by over 40% while industrial production fell by more than 50%.4

Many people suffered extreme poverty, which affected their health. Male life expectancy fell from 64.9 years in 1987 to 58.6 years in 2001, while women’s life expectancy fell from 74.6 to 72.1 years over the same period.5

The Yeltsin regime was politically subservient to the United States. The US intervened in the 1996 presidential election to help Yeltsin win. At that time, it seemed as if Russia had become a semi-colonial country.

Yet, at the same time, Russia was a regional power, able to dominate most of the other former republics of the Soviet Union. It had military bases in many of these countries. It waged war against Chechnya which, while officially part of Russia, wanted to be independent.


Vladimir Putin was prime minister under Yeltsin. He became president when Yeltsin resigned in 1999.

There was an economic recovery during the early years of Putin’s presidency. This was partly due to a rise in the price of oil and gas, which Russia sold on the world market. But it was also helped by some measures taken by Putin.

Putin improved the functioning of the state apparatus, ensured the collection of taxes, suppressed some of the oligarchs who refused to cooperate with his government, and confiscated some of their assets.

The state sector of the economy was partially rebuilt (though the private sector still remains predominant).

Despite some recovery under Putin, the economy is still weak. GDP per capita in 2015 was "less than half of the US level, significantly behind Malaysia, and similar to the figures for Chile and Argentina", according to Clarke and Annis.6

Russia’s military interventionism

Russia has a number of military bases in other countries. The exact number is a matter of dispute, in part because of disagreements over the status of Crimea. The Russian government sees its bases in Crimea as bases within Russia, whereas the Ukrainian government sees them as foreign bases on its soil.

Most Russian bases are in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, but Russia also has a naval base in Syria, and has military aircrafts based in Syria, particularly at the Hmeimim air base.

The Russian armed forces have carried out military actions outside the borders of Russia.

In 2008, Russia fought a short war against Georgia. Russia fought in support of regions that broke away from Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has long supported the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. In 2011, peaceful protests in Syria were met with violent repression. This resulted in the growth of armed resistance. This in turn provided other countries such as Turkey, with an opportunity to intervene.

Russia supplied the Assad regime with military aid. From 2015 onwards, the Russian air force has been directly participating in the war, carrying out bombing raids on rebel-held towns, causing huge destruction and loss of life.

Since 2014, Russia has been intervening militarily in Ukraine. This intervention was motivated, at least in part, by rivalry with Western powers over influence in Ukraine.

In 2013, the Ukrainian government, headed by president Viktor Yanukovich, decided not to seek membership in the European Union. Instead it sought closer relations with Russia.

In response, there were protests in Kyiv's Maidan square by supporters of joining the EU. The protesters were joined by people concerned with other issues, such as government corruption. Participants included liberals, nationalists and fascists. The fascists played an important role, particularly in the violent confrontations.

Yanukovych fled in February 2014 . Soon afterwards, parliament passed a law depriving Russian language of recognition as an official language of Ukraine. The law was vetoed by the acting president, but its passage by parliament deepened the alienation of Russian speakers, who were the majority of the population in eastern Ukraine. This led to a rebellion in the Donbas region.

In February that year, Russian troops seized control of Crimea. Russia also began giving aid to the Donbas rebellion while it tried to control the movement. Increasingly, Russia intervened to suppress the popular upsurge.

Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky explains what happened in Donbas.7 He says there were "three sides" in the conflict: the Ukrainian government, the Russian government and the local people. The 2014 Donbas rebellion was a response by local people to the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, which most people in eastern Ukraine had voted for. For them the new government in Kyiv had "no legitimacy". They saw it as the product of a coup.

Kagarlitsky says the Donbas uprising was a "popular rebellion". But the intervention of Russia changed the situation. The Russian government "did everything to undermine the popular democratic movement". Many of the leaders of the uprising were murdered by pro-Russian forces. The Donbas "people's republics" are now run by "totally corrupt puppets installed by Moscow".

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and the Donbas forces gradually declined. But in February 2022, Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russian forces have been involved in other armed conflicts, including in Libya and other African countries. Often, Russians fighters are employed by the Wagner mercenary company, but operate with the apparent approval of the Russian government.

A contradictory picture

Militarily, Russia definitely acts like an imperialist power. It has set up bases in foreign countries, intervened in foreign wars and carried out a full-scale invasion of a foreign country (Ukraine).

Economically, things are less clear. The scale of Russia’s finance capital is very modest compared to the United States, western Europe and Japan. Its foreign investments are also relatively modest.

Probsting points out that it is difficult to get accurate figures for Russian foreign investment, because much of it is conducted indirectly via tax havens. But Probsting cites a report by a group of economists saying: "Russian private and state-owned companies were expanding abroad extensively, often buying stakes in large foreign companies … The top 25 Russian companies held $59 billion in assets abroad."8

Only two Russian companies are among the top 100 in the world, according to an article in Forbes in 20219 . This seems like a small number. But the same article says that Britain (an imperialist country, albeit a declining one) only has 3 companies in the top 100. Russia’s low number reflects its economic decline after the restoration of capitalism, but does not prove it is not imperialist.

The Russian economy is dominated by Russian (not foreign) monopoly capital. The same applies to the finance sector.10 Hence Probsting argues that Russia is not a semi-colony of the West.

To sum up, Russia is militarily strong, but economically weak. Something similar could have been said about Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Lenin's book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, contains a table showing figures for financial securities in several countries in 1910. These are an indication of the strength of finance capital in these countries. For Britain, the figure was 142 billion francs; for the United States 132 billion; for France 110 billion; for Germany 95 billion. Japan came eighth with only 12 billion.11

However, Japan had defeated Russia in a war in 1904-5. Japan ruled over Korea, formally annexing it in 1910. Later, Japan invaded China in the 1930s and challenged the US for dominance in the Pacific in the 1940s. Japan lost World War II but became a major economic power in the post-war period.

The case of Japan shows that imperialism is not static. Imperialist powers can rise and fall.

Lenin recognised that the development of imperialism was a process: "Needless to say, of course, all boundaries in nature and in society are conventional and changeable, and it would be absurd to argue, for example, about the particular year or decade in which imperialism ‘definitely’ became established."12

Likewise, the development of Russian imperialism following the restoration of capitalism is a process. Beginning with a weak economy but a strong military, and a sphere of influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union, it has tried to expand its economic and military presence to other areas.

Different kinds of imperialism

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin said:

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.13

But in other writings, Lenin notes that not all imperialist powers display every one of these features in a fully developed form:

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.)14

Lenin spoke of Russian imperialism as "crude, medieval, economically backward and militarily bureaucratic". 15 Clarke and Annis say that this old-style imperialism disappeared after World War I. 

But capitalism sometimes revives phenomena that seem obsolete. For example, slavery in the United States was abolished during the Civil War. But in subsequent years it was partially revived in the form of prison labour. The prison population grew markedly during the final decades of the twentieth century – the era of neoliberalism and the "war on drugs". Thus slave labor became more significant than it had been previously.

Similarly, a form of imperialism which disproportionately emphasises military strength returned after the restoration of capitalism in Russia. 

Lenin said: "The epoch of imperialism has turned all the ‘great’ powers into the oppressors of a number of nations…"16 In my view, Russia today is no exception.

Invasion of Ukraine

There are differing views on Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine. Some say it is due to Putin’s imperial aspirations. Others say it is a response to the expansion of NATO. Kagarlitsky says it is for reasons of domestic Russian politics.17

Kagarlitsky dismisses the idea that NATO expansion is a threat to Russia. He says that Putin seemed unconcerned when the Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, even though they are very close to St Petersburg.

Ukraine’s membership of NATO is not a conventional military threat to Russia. But it is a threat to Russia’s ability to create a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and to intervene more widely. Loss of the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea would reduce Russia’s ability to intervene in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Thus Putin’s imperial aspirations are a factor in his policy towards Ukraine. His talk of a "Russian world" and his claim that Ukraine was artificially created by Lenin also suggest a desire to expand Russia to include most of the territory of the former tsarist empire.

Domestic reasons are also important. Kagarlitsky points out that discontent was rising in Russia. Putin hoped for a quick victory that would boost his popularity. This did not happen, but Putin does not wish to admit he miscalculated. 

Rivalry with US imperialism

The United States sees Russia as a rival for influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and a potential challenger for dominance on world scale. Hence it is willing to give military aid to Ukraine as a way of weakening Russia.

Conversely, some countries that are under attack by the US, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, see Russia as an ally.

Ukraine, facing invasion by a stronger country, has the right to get aid from whoever is willing to supply it. But Western powers are not giving aid for altruistic reasons. Western imperialism will aim to economically and politically dominate Ukraine once the war is over.


Russia is an imperialist power, albeit much weaker economically than established imperialist powers such as the United States, Europe and Japan. It has a sphere of influence in parts of the former Soviet Union, but its dominance is contested by the Western powers. Russia is also trying to expand its influence in the Middle East and Africa.