Setting the record straight: Ukraine, Russia & imperialism


Chris Slee published an article in LINKS on March 17 entitled “Putin’s war: a tragedy for Ukraine and Russia, a gift to US imperialism”. This took the form of a reply to an earlier LINKS article written by Dave Holmes, “Key issues of the war in Ukraine one year on”.

Slee’s article is structured as a response to arguments that Holmes put forward. At the same time, it is informed by a series of basic positions that we shall list as follows, and use as a basis for our discussion. Slee maintains that:

  • Present-day Russia is an imperialist state.
  • The war is a product of Russian expansionist aggression. This aggressive Russian intent was already manifest in the eight-year Donbass war that preceded the current conflict.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been counterproductive, serving merely to isolate Russia and strengthen NATO.
  • The best outcome would be for Russia to abandon the war and withdraw its forces, or failing that, for the Russian forces to be defeated.

Russia is not an imperialist country

In his latest text, Slee refers back to his article, “Russian imperialism: economically weak, militarily strong”, carried by LINKS in July last year. In that article, he cites a number of aspects of Russia’s economy and statecraft that he views as supporting his arguments. Russia, Slee notes, 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”. 

For a country to be categorised as imperialist, it is not enough for it to display “some of” the features of imperialism. Even the possession of “a strong military that intervenes in other countries” is nowhere near enough on its own. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a relatively huge army, used with US encouragement to attack Iran. That does not mean, however, that Iraq was imperialist.

Social categories never exist in unalloyed form, and in such matters it is necessary to look for a preponderance of features, with quantity becoming quality. In their 2016 article, “The myth of ‘Russian Imperialism’: in defence of Lenin’s analyses”, Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis argue that if a country is to be described as imperialist, it needs to display a dense “clustering” of characteristics typical of the imperialist world. In Russia’s case, the “clustering” is overwhelmingly around non-imperialist markers. Here is how Clarke and Annis sum up their conclusions:

Russia is not home to an advanced capitalism, or to a broad, prosperous middle class. Its monopolies tend to be puny alongside those of various countries that are clearly part of the semi-periphery [of world capitalism], let alone the corporate monsters of the imperialist centre. Russian industrial production has lost much of its past diversity, and its overall technical level is decidedly backward, while in a pattern reminiscent of the least developed areas of the periphery, the extractive sector accounts for a notably large share of output. Russia’s foreign trade has a markedly dependent character, and the country exports mainly basic commodities for which prices are often depressed. Conducting little trade with poorer areas of the periphery, Russia does not benefit significantly from unequal trading exchange. There is no overall surplus of capital in Russia, and while the country nonetheless exports capital, this is for perverse reasons [essentially, capital flight] and despite a near-catastrophic lack of investment in infrastructure and productive plant. With its real foreign investment concentrated in countries of the [world capitalist] centre, Russia plays little direct part in the quintessential imperialist activity — the export of capital to the periphery and the extraction of profit from developing-country labour and resources. Russia’s finance capital is small and weak, and the largely criminalised, chaotic nature of the Russian financial sector rules out any possibility that this sector might play a hegemonic role within the economy. No possible doubt can remain here: in the terms that Lenin defined, present-day Russia is not an imperialist power.

More might be said about the actual net flow of value between Russia and the countries of the imperialist “core”. Labour productivity in Russia is about a third of that in the US. When Russia trades with Western countries (and these exchanges have historically made up the bulk of its foreign commerce), it exchanges a relatively large quantity of Russian labour power for a much smaller quantity of the Western counterpart. A kind of “value syphon”, a mechanism of unequal exchange implicit in the structures of production and trade, operates to limit capital accumulation in Russia and to keep the country relatively poor.

Russia’s economic interactions with the imperialist centre are therefore typical of countries of the capitalist periphery. In these circumstances, to call Russia “imperialist” on the basis of its participation in the war in Syria, or its inheritance of a number of military bases outside its territory from the USSR, is to break fundamentally from the longtime methodology of the left.

The fact that Russia is not part of the imperialist world has enormous implications for the way the conflict in Ukraine must be interpreted. As a non-imperialist state, Russia does not suffer from a relative surplus of capital, driving its capitalists to seek military expansion outside the national borders to annex new fields of investment in the exploitation of resources and labour. Indeed, Russia already has vast unused natural resources of its own, that would yield very agreeable profits if the necessary capital could be had. It follows that the country has no economic cause to go to war on Ukraine. 

War not a product of ‘Russian aggression’

The reasons behind Russia’s “special military operation” are in fact profoundly defensive. One would not guess this from the commentaries in the Guardian or the Washington Post, but historians have demonstrated it compellingly. Putin and his associates did not want a war with Ukraine, and until the very last days exerted themselves diplomatically to avoid it

Along with Boris Kagarlitsky, who explicitly discounts imperialist threats and pressures as a factor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Slee ignores the relentless escalation, dating back to the 1990s, of imperialist menaces against Russia. There is not even a mention in Slee’s latest article of the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, or of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest where the NATO countries pledged to further extend their alliance to Ukraine and Georgia. Nor is there anything about the creation by NATO in Ukraine from 2014 of the second-largest standing army in Europe, trained to NATO standards and equipped with large amounts of modern weaponry. 

We may contrast this with the 2022 essay by British historian of Russian affairs Geoffrey Roberts, “The immediate origins of Putin’s preventative war on Ukraine”. Roberts details the NATO/Ukrainian threats that multiplied against Russia from 2014. Apart from weapons and training, these moves included changes to the Ukrainian constitution to make seeking NATO membership compulsory; the adoption by Ukrainian President Zelensky of a “Crimean Platform”, pledging to secure the return of Crimea to Ukraine by any means necessary; extensive NATO military exercises on and around Ukraine’s territory, including 32-nation naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea; and late in 2021, the massing of as many as 60,000 Ukrainian troops opposite the Donbas front.

The most acute Russian forebodings, however, evidently related to the prospect of Western missile systems being stationed on Ukrainian soil, and to suggestions that Ukraine would seek nuclear weapons. “If US and NATO military systems are deployed in Ukraine,” Putin is reported to have noted to his military chiefs in December 2021, “their flight time will be only 7–10 minutes.” The final trigger for war, Roberts suggests, may have been a speech by Zelensky to a security conference in Munich on February 19, 2022, in which the Ukrainian president threatened to re-acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Ukraine has a highly developed nuclear power industry, and possesses the knowledge base for bomb construction. Zelensky’s threat drew no Western protests.

At that point in February 2022 shelling across the Donbas line of contact, which had declined in previous years, was reaching a renewed height, with thousands of explosions recorded. The majority of the shells were reportedly fired from the Ukrainian side.

As late as mid-February 2022, the Russian side still had not explicitly abandoned the Minsk peace accords. Throughout the period from 2014, the Russian leadership had called persistently for implementation of these agreements, under which Donetsk and Luhansk would remain within the Ukrainian state while exercising a degree of self-rule. This was at the same time as Ukrainian governments persistently blocked the process. As former German chancellor Angela Merkel was later to reveal, the French and German partners in the accords had never intended to allow the process to go ahead, viewing the accords as a device to buy time for Kyiv. In the meantime, Ukraine was being armed up

The Moscow authorities acknowledged the death of the Minsk process only in the last days before the invasion, when the Russian foreign ministry formally recognised the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

From 2014, the Russian government mounted repeated diplomatic campaigns for a peace conference aimed at constructing a new architecture of international relations for Europe. Each time, the appeals fell on deaf ears. As late as December 17, 2021, Geoffrey Roberts recounts, Russian diplomats presented a series of written proposals on security guarantees to the US and NATO. These proposals too were contemptuously dismissed.

By late February 2022, the Russians had clearly come to view the Western alliance not just as implacably hostile and expansionist, but also as completely untrustworthy. No promise the US and its allies made, the Moscow leadership evidently recognised, was likely to be kept. With Zelensky now talking of acquiring nuclear weapons, Putin and his associates appear to have concluded that they were in an exceptionally dangerous lose-lose situation, and that if action were not taken, the danger to the country could only become progressively worse. It was at this point, Roberts surmises, that the decision to invade Ukraine was taken.

Roberts considers that despite the shelling and the massed Ukrainian troops, there was not enough evidence to conclude that a large-scale Ukrainian attack on Donetsk and Luhansk was imminent. Russia’s invasion, Roberts argues, thus had a preventative character. As explained later by Putin, the “special military operation” was launched to avert a dire medium-term threat to Russia’s national security. 

Readers can assess the ethics of Putin’s decision as they choose, but two points need to be made.

  • First, if the NATO powers were not actively seeking a war, it is hard to see what else they can have anticipated. They had not baulked at placing Russia in a position where armed conflict was the logical outcome.
  • Second, there is no way that the United States, if subjected to a fraction of the threats Russia was enduring, would have refrained from military action for weeks, let alone years.

The Donbas war

In his March article, Slee makes a series of comments on the fighting in the Donbas between 2014 and 2022. The thrust of his remarks is to try to delegitimise the struggle by the rebel territories against Ukraine, and to imply that the Russian response to the Donbass revolt was driven by imperialist ambitions. 

For readers seeking to understand the actual development of the Donbas struggle, we recommend the detailed 2016 study by Renfrey Clarke, “The Donbass in 2014: Ultra-Right Threats, Working-Class Revolt, and Russian Policy Responses”.

As his argumentative substrate, Slee takes a quotation from Taras Bilous, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian organisation Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement): 

Perhaps the best framework to explain the war in the Donbas is that of the conflict between two nationalisms, in which people of different views, including the left and the far right, took part on both sides.

As a “framework”, this explains nothing. It passes over such salient political facts as that the Donbas had been a key base of electoral support for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by a US-backed coup in February 2014. Whatever their thoughts on Yanukovych, the Donbas population can only have viewed his ouster as a repudiation of their political rights. Bilous’s “framework” also fails to mention the attempt by the new right-wing authorities in Kyiv to ban use of the Russian language that most people in the Donbas provinces spoke. Equally lacking is any mention of a powerful material inducement for the population to revolt against Kyiv: the prospect that the new pro-Western regime would sharply downgrade economic relations with Russia. These ties were particularly close in the Donbas, and many workers depended on them for their jobs.

In essence, all that Slee has to say about the historical setting for the Donbas revolt is this: “In 2014 the people of Donbas had legitimate reasons for opposing the post-Maidan Ukrainian government.” Valid as these reasons may have been, Slee seems to regard them as at least offset by the iniquities soon to be unleashed on the Donbas by the Russian side: “[The Donbas population] also distrust and fear Russia … there was also intervention in Donbas by the Russian state and reactionary Russian nationalist groups.”

To bolster this argument, Slee quotes Bilous further:

On the pro-Russian side, the main three actors were: the grassroots movement, which emerged as a reaction to Maidan’s victory; the regional elites who tried to use the separatist movement to maintain their power, which they saw threatened by the new post-Maidan government; and Russia, whose actions have intensified violence and deepened the gap between the warring parties.

The real pre-2014 Donbas elites — locally-based oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov and Serhii Taruta, along with lesser figures around them — swiftly threw in their lot with Kyiv after the revolt began, and departed from the regional scene. Meanwhile, Slee’s judgement that the Donbas population broadly “distrusted and feared” Russia, and that the effect of Russian actions in the region was to intensify violence and deepen divisions, is bizarre. The real source of the violence, apart from Western imperialism, was the Kyiv authorities and the ultra-right, oligarch-funded Ukrainian militias. From mid-April 2014, successive Kyiv governments conducted an “anti-terrorist operation” against the Donbas uprising while refusing to negotiate with rebel leaders. Armed conflict began in mid-May 2014, and had been under way for some three months before involvement in the fighting by Russian government forces became significant. The Russian government role during this initial period was minimal even though prominent figures among the Donbas rebels actively sought Russian participation. 

As Slee indicates, various Russian nationalist groups — Cossack squads, and in Luhansk, some of the precursors of the Wagner organisation — were active in the Donbas from the early months of the insurrection. The suggestion that these groups were an important factor, however, is far-fetched. The Donbas revolt was genuinely broad, spontaneous and popular. It did not need interlopers to set it off, and numerous testimonies show that the great majority of those who took part in it were local people.

As indicated, and contrary to Western media reporting, the initial Russian government response to the revolt was cautious and restrained. After Crimea, Moscow officials had no need of an added complication in their relations with the West, and seem also to have doubted that the rebellion would survive. During the early months of the fighting, few Russian weapons reached the rebels, who remained poorly armed. 

By the time significant numbers of serving Russian military personnel entered the fight in August, the rebels were close to defeat. The decision to send Russian troops appears to have been prompted by the immense popularity of the revolt with the Russian public; allowing the rebels to be crushed would have cost Putin a great deal of political credibility. 

Once a burst of fighting that lasted until February 2015 had stabilised the front, the Russian authorities kept the DPR and LPR forces only modestly supplied, denying them the capacity to do more than hold the line. The key Russian focus was diplomatic, centred on the Minsk accords.

The Donbas revolt suffered from grave deficiencies of leadership, and Slee places considerable stress on the fact that over time it underwent a near-complete political degeneration, losing all democratic content and answering to Kremlin dictates. This is true, but in critical respects it is not the point. While the Russian-controlled Donbas authorities were corrupt and denied the population democratic rights, they did not persecute local residents for speaking Russian or for having non-Ukrainian ancestry. Given a choice of Donbas or Ukrainian corruption and repression, the evidence clearly shows, residents of the Donbas favoured the local variety. Making the stakes for these residents unnervingly clear was persistent Ukrainian shelling across the “line of contact”, routinely targeting civilian settlements and at times, featuring anti-personnel “petal” bomblets.

Russia isolated?

Slee is on somewhat firmer ground when he argues that the Russian invasion of Ukraine 

… has undermined opposition to NATO in other European countries, and caused Sweden and Finland to apply to join this US-led alliance. It has provided a pretext for increased military spending in western Europe. 

Kremlin leaders undoubtedly understood that expanded military action against Ukraine would incur politico-military and economic costs. That they chose to bear these costs testifies to the seriousness with which they regarded the strategic threat posed by NATO actions in Ukraine, and to the fact that they saw the potential of diplomatic means as having exhausted itself. 

Sweden and Finland have small but capable militaries, and the prospect of these forces being included directly in NATO planning, as well as the possibility of NATO missiles being stationed on those countries’ territory, would have caused Russian strategists much hard thought. The truth, though, is that in military terms Swedish and Finnish neutrality ceased long ago to be much more than a formality. The commanders of these countries’ armed forces have for decades coordinated their strategies closely with their NATO counterparts.

Meanwhile, in assessing the political blowback that Russia stands to suffer from the war it is important not to fall into NATO-centric thinking, or to assume that votes in international bodies will translate into real policy alignments. Early in March 2022, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Russian invasion, with a vote of 141 in favour, 5 against, and 35 abstentions. The abstentions included China, India, Iran and South Africa. Many of the votes in favour can be seen as reflecting the strong reluctance of developing-world states to seem to prejudice the principle of non-intervention, one of their few protections against imperialist assault.

A more realistic pointer than this vote to opinions among the world’s governments is the fact that the subsequent US-NATO attempt to enlist support for additional sanctions on Russia was an embarrassing failure. No more than a handful of developing countries were prepared to lose trade in order to punish Russia for resisting NATO threats. Former colonies, we may reflect, know what it is to have imperialism beat up on them.

Among the populations of the developing world, the “isolation” of Russia has been non-existent. An October 2022 Cambridge University study that harmonised surveys in 137 countries concluded that of the 6.3 billion people who live outside the West, 66% felt positively about Russia. The breakdown was reportedly 75% in South Asia, 68% in Francophone Africa, and 62% in Southeast Asia.

It is true that the Ukraine war has allowed Western propagandists to trumpet the supposed virtues of NATO among first-world populations that were growing sceptical of the alliance. But this “revival” of NATO’s fortunes has taken place amid an accelerating erosion of Western dominance. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) now have a larger combined GDP than the G7 states, not to mention 4.5 times the population. The imminent demise of “dollar hegemony” seems destined to hasten the eclipse of Western power.

Feeding into this process, Russia’s defiance of imperialism is likely to speed up the decline of Western hegemony, not to forestall it.

Syria and other questions

In presenting his arguments, Slee makes a number of other remarks and characterisations that deserve comment. Russia’s military presence “far from its borders” in Syria, he implies, can be cited as evidence of imperialism.

For Russia, the Middle East is not a distant region but the “near abroad”, a traditional focus of Soviet and then Russian foreign policy. The Russian military bases on the Syrian coast are especially important for allowing Russia to maintain a naval presence in the Mediterranean, as a partial counter to the much larger NATO forces. Russian foreign policy officials are also concerned by the presence of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East, given the region’s proximity to Russia’s own Islamic minority in the North Caucasus.

None of this demonstrates that Russia is an imperialist power, simply that it has an interest in its own defence. Further, it must be stressed that while Syria is militarily dependent on Russia, the relationship does not include economic subjugation. Russian investment in Syria is significant, but by no means massive or dominant. What Russia and Syria have is primarily a military alliance, resting on the advantages this has for each.

Slee also makes a number of references to the nationalist ultra-right in Ukraine and Russia. These are only fragmentary remarks, but their thrust is quite misleading. “In my opinion,” Slee states, “Russia under Putin is closer to fascism than Ukraine under Zelensky. The Putin regime severely represses dissent and promotes Great Russian chauvinist ideology.” 

Putin is a social conservative with a repressive bent and a weakness for mystical philosophising on Slavic brotherhood. That is something deeply unpleasant, but it is not fascism; the Russian president and his administration are not, for example, conspicuous either for exclusivist racism or for the cult of violence. Strictly speaking, Putin’s ideology is not Great Russian chauvinist either; a careful reading of his speeches shows that while he laments the waywardness of the Ukrainians, he rejects attempts to forcibly bring them within the Russian national fold.

There are fascists in Russia, but they have never been more than a tiny, despised current. Ukraine, where thoroughfares in large cities have been renamed for Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, is different. On the whole Ukrainians have little time for fascists, giving them fewer than 2% of the national vote in recent elections. Nevertheless the main ultra-nationalist current, the Svoboda (“Freedom”) party (originally the Social-National Party) has been able in recent years to win mayoral elections in a series of provincial capitals in western Ukraine. 

The key strength of Ukrainian fascism, and the main reason it remains a potent danger, is its strong and continuing implantation in the army, security forces and police. For the foreseeable future, Ukrainian workers and progressives will have cause to fear this network of violent extremists within the state apparatus.

Surrender to imperialism?

In discussing the prospects for peace in Ukraine, Slee suggests the appetites both of imperialism and of its allies in the Ukrainian ruling class would be satisfied if the Russians were to retreat to the pre-2022 line of contact outside the city of Donetsk:

Russia should withdraw immediately and unconditionally from territory seized since February 24, 2022. Then there can be negotiations about Crimea and Donbas.

The way to peace, Slee seems to argue, is to start by making a massive, unforced concession to global capital. But imperialists do not respond to demonstrations of weakness with displays of magnanimous goodwill. To the contrary, they see themselves as empowered to multiply their rapacity and aggression. We should reflect that neither the NATO countries nor their proxies in Kyiv have shown cause for anyone to expect them to keep the promises they make. Meanwhile, the civilian population of Donetsk would take particular exception to restoring to Kyiv’s forces the ability to shell them from close range. 

In the same vein, Slee seems to endorse a statement by Kagarlitsky that the best outcome for Russians in the war would be for Putin — that is to say, the Russian state — to suffer defeat. Kagarlitsky argues:

If this regime gets reconsolidated again after what happened, it’s going to be the most tragic outcome for Russia . . . So in that sense, the defeat of Putin is definitely a better outcome for Russian society and for the Russian people than his victory.

The loathing for Putin felt by many people in Russia’s big-city middle classes shines through this statement. But so too does the naivety concerning the West — and refusal to believe that Western governments could do anything malevolent — that is so characteristic of that layer of Russian society.

It should not be necessary to point out that the actual consequences for Russia of a comprehensive defeat by imperialism would be catastrophic. The Western agenda for the country would at best include regime change and a return to the interference, dependency and plunder suffered during the Yeltsin era. At worst, it would feature a loss by Russia of all meaningful independence, and conceivably, national breakup.

The peace proposal that Slee offers in his article — peace through surrender to imperialism — is thus not a peace proposal at all.