Russia's invasion of Ukraine: a response to Renfrey Clarke


In his article entitled "Ukraine, Russia, Imperialism and National Self-Determination" [1], Renfrey Clarke implies that "developing states" are somehow sympathetic to Russia's actions. He says:

It is notable, however, that strikingly few developing states have joined in the US-led sanctions campaign.

But in fact, strikingly few states have supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Most of the world's states voted for a motion to condemn the invasion: 141 voted in favour, 5 voted against and 35 abstained. [2]

However, most of them did not want to impose economic sanctions on Russia, for two reasons. Firstly, such sanctions would hurt their own economies, by restricting their choice of trading partners. Secondly, there was the issue of Western double standards. No similar sanctions were imposed on the United States over its many invasions of other countries.

Clarke denies that Russia is imperialist, arguing as follows:

What if Russia is in fact a non-imperialist country—in world terms, a relatively poor and backward state?...In the Marxist tradition, imperialism is not simply a cast of mind of especially ruthless capitalist leaders. Instead, it is a deep-rooted economic and social attribute of a definite category of capitalist countries, the richest and most developed.

Tsarist Russia was a "relatively poor and backward state", but Lenin still considered it imperialist, because of its military power, its robbery of national minorities, and other factors.

As I have argued before, Russia today is economically weak but militarily strong. [3] This combination can lead an authoritarian leader such as Putin to use military force to make up for Russia's economic weakness.

Clarke claims that:

The foreign military interventions in which modern-day Russia engaged until 2022 were relatively small in scope, as the “special military operation” in Ukraine was at first intended to be. These interventions were close to Russia’s frontiers, and had clear rationales, primarily border security.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been involved in a number of wars.

There have been two extremely bloody and destructive wars against Chechnya.

There was a brief war against Georgia in 2008.

Russia has participated in the war in Syria. Since 2015, the Russian air force has been bombing rebel-held areas in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, causing large-scale death and destruction.

The Russian private military company Wagner is participating in various wars in Africa, with the approval of the Russian government.

And of course there is Ukraine. Russia began intervening militarily in 2014, and launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Clarke says:

Huge sums were spent by US agencies on reorienting Ukrainian civil society toward the West. With the Maidan revolt early in 2014, imperialism secured the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The deposed president had not been particularly “pro-Russian”, but had balked at demands for a wholesale shift away from trading and technological ties to Russia, and at stringent austerity measures attached to a proposed IMF loan.

The installing in Kyiv in 2014 of an imperialist-backed government armed with neoliberal policies was met with a popular revolt in Ukraine’s heavily industrialised Donbass region, where ties with Russia were strong.

In fact, both the Maidan revolt and the Donbass revolt were complex phenomena. Both included mass protests for legitimate demands. But reactionary forces were involved on both sides, and outside forces intervened on both sides (the US in Maidan, Russia in Donbass). For more details see my previous article on this topic. [4]

While the US promoted the formation of a reactionary nationalist and neoliberal regime in Kyiv, Russia suppressed progressive forces in Donbass and imposed a regime described by Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky as consisting of "totally corrupt puppets installed by Moscow". [5]

Clarke claims that Russia only decided to invade in February 2022, in response to a build-up of Ukrainian forces on the line of demarcation in the Donbass. But Kagarlitsky reports that Russia had been building up its forces on Ukraine's borders for a year.  It had been bringing troops and equipment from Russia's far east in preparation for the invasion.

Clarke says:

If deprived of support from the Russian military, the people of Crimea and the Donbass would continue to resist a return to Ukrainian rule.

There would probably be some resistance. How much is unclear. 

On the one hand, people in Crimea and Donbass were alienated by the discriminatory policies of the Ukrainian government and its attempt to impose a military solution in Donbass in 2014. But they would have also been alienated by Russia's imposition of "totally corrupt puppets" in Donbass, and by its decision to launch the current war, after several years in which armed conflict had been declining. The war has caused massive death and destruction, particularly in eastern Ukraine, whose people Putin claims to be defending.

For many people in Donbass and Crimea the choice between Ukraine and Russia would be a choice between two evils.

It would be desirable to create an international peace-keeping force that would administer Donbass until a referendum can be held to decide if the people want to be part of Russia or Ukraine. The referendum should only be held after Donbass residents who have fled are given a chance to return to their homes.

Clarke supports Russia's demands, which he summarises as follows:

Recognition of the reincorporation of Crimea into Russia; acceptance of Donbass self-determination; demilitarisation (including an internationally-backed guarantee that Ukraine will not be joined to NATO); and “de-nazification”—in practice, suppression of the ultra-right Ukrainian nationalist currents that promote hatred of Russia.

I think there should be referenda in both Crimea and Donbass to ascertain whether the people there want to join Russia or Ukraine.

Ideally both NATO and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation should be disbanded. But even if this does not happen, there should be a ban on the presence of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

As for "denazification" - what about "de-nazifying" Russia? Or, to be more precise, what about suppressing chauvinist currents in Russia that promote hatred of Ukraine? The problem is that Putin himself is the leading proponent of Great Russian chauvinism. He has claimed that Ukraine is not a real nation, but an artificial state created by Lenin.

Clarke admits that:

Surveys have long shown that the underlying attitudes of the Ukrainian masses to social questions are solidly progressive, and election results suggest that the views of the ultra-rightists, despite the strong presence of those currents in the state apparatus, are not widely shared.

This suggests that the Ukrainian people, if Russia had not invaded, would have been able to deal with the problem of ultra-rightism themselves. In fact, they were beginning to do so.

Under Zelenskyi, the influence of the far right in the state apparatus had been reduced (though not eliminated). There had been a growth of feminist and LGBTI movements. The antifa movement had challenged the fascists on the streets.

Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous says:

2010-2018 were the most successful years for the Ukrainian far right. They have been in crisis in recent years and last year has been particularly bad for them. Notably, last summer, following the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (who is considered a patron of the Azov battalion) numerous arrests of right-wing extremists, including members of the National Corps  (created on the basis of Azov) took place. [6]

The Russian invasion has intensified anti-Russian sentiment. This may strengthen the ultra-right. On the other hand, the fact that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians are fighting against the invasion may counter this.

Clarke denies that Russia ever wanted to take over the whole of Ukraine, saying:

Subjugating and annexing Ukraine, and taking on the crippling expense of rebuilding the Ukrainian economy, is something of which Russia simply has no need.

Political leaders often take decisions that are economically irrational. Putin expected an easy victory that would cause little economic damage. But he refuses to admit he made a mistake.


1. Renfrey Clarke: Ukraine, Russia, imperialism and national self-determination

2. United Nations news:

3. Chris Slee: Russian imperialism: economically weak, militarily strong:

4. Chris Slee: The Complex History of Eastern Ukraine:

5. Boris Kagarlitsky interview:

6. Taras Bilous interviewed by Officine Civiche: