War, fascization, and resistance: Perspectives on Russian imperialism

Russian imperialism

First published at Tempest.

Russian imperialism’s war in Ukraine shows no sign of stopping. This summer and fall we witnessed dueling offensives, first one from Ukraine aiming to free its occupied territories, and a counter-offensive from Russia to seize more territory that is still continuing.

Moscow has just recently launched a massive rocket attack on Ukraine, targeting civilians and infrastructure on the New Year eve. While the Russian border city Belgorod became a target for retaliatory missile attacks. Russia has half a million soldiers on the front line to defend its occupation and will need more for the full offensive that could start in the spring.

Vladimir Putin and the Russian ruling class are determined to prosecute this war to the end. Putin made this clear in his annual public question and answer event “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” on December 14, in which he answered carefully curated questions from the public for several hours.

He said the goal of the so-called Special Military Operation remains the so-called de-Nazification and de-militarization of Ukraine. That means he intends to continue the war until he achieves regime change in Ukraine and the transformation of Ukraine into a Russian semi-colony.

To accomplish this, his regime is trying to stabilize Russian society, stoke political conflict within the US and NATO countries, legitimate his rule through the presidential election in March, and mobilize Russian troops for a new offensive in the spring.

Stabilizing Russian society

The regime has engaged in an intense campaign to stabilize Russian society after the coup attempt led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group last summer. Putin overcame this greatest challenge to his rule through a combination of carrots and sticks.

He offered deals for Wagner mercenaries to come back into the regime’s fold. A few army generals who were close to Wagner were arrested. In the case of Prigozhin himself, Putin had him killed in August in a rocket attack not far from Moscow that blew up the warlord’s plane.

He then broke up the Wagner Group itself, subsuming parts of it into the Russian Ministry of Defense and allowing others to be retained by Prigozhin’s son as well as other private military companies.

The continued existence of these companies may pose a problem down the line for the regime, especially if the war goes badly. That could lead to splits between the state and the companies over military strategy and tactics that could destabilize the regime again.

Also, Prigozhin’s coup showed the existence of the hidden dissent among the army officials. But for now, Putin’s cooptation and repression strategy has overcome the crisis precipitated by Prigozhin.

Putin has also been able to stabilize the economy at least for now. The West’s sanction regime has not damaged the Russian economy as much as expected. The regime and the country’s corporations have created various ways to skirt the sanctions.

They have increased trade and investment through the neutral states like Central Asian ones as well as Turkey, the Arab Emirates, and many others especially in the Global South. These countries have bucked US pressure to abide by the sanction regime.

In addition, Russia’s state oil companies have established new export deals with many countries especially China, which has also kept the economy afloat. So, the sanctions have neither thrown the Russian economy into crisis nor prevented the state from prosecuting the war in Ukraine.

Despite the resilience of the Russian economy, it faces numerous problems. For example, inflation is growing and posing serious economic strains for most ordinary Russians.

In response, the Russian Central Bank just hiked up interest rates to bring it under control. But that may in turn cause the economy to slow down, increasing unemployment, furthering hammering working class people.

To maintain hegemony over the population, Putin has turned to repression and neo-fascist ideology. He has repressed almost all left wing dissent, especially anti-war activists.

At the same time, he has tried to win consent from the population through  Russian ethnic nationalism, demonizing any and all groups that threaten it. For example, he warned that Muslim migrants from Central Asia in Russia threatened the ethnic balance in the country.

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, outdid Putin in such Islamophobia. In a recent speech that could have been given by Trump or Enoch Powell, he warned against the civilizational threat posed by Muslims and migrants in general.

While the regime and Church are using such ethnic nationalism to cohere their base, it could backfire on them. Such bigotry could stir dissent among the country’s some 15 million Muslim citizens, which comprise 10 percent of the population.

Putin has also launched an intense campaign to enforce so-called traditional, family values. He has targeted feminists and LGBTQ people as threats to Russian society.

The regime is on the verge of imposing a total ban on abortion rights in the wake of outlawing it recently in private clinics. It has also announced a total prohibition of LGBTQ groups, events, and even nightclubs.

Putin has at this point been successful in stabilizing Russian society through repression and these ideological campaigns.

Conquering Ukraine

Based on that stability, he wants to escalate the war in Ukraine. His immediate goal is to seize the rest of Donbas region, which has symbolic significance in Putin’s imperial imaginary and his justifications for the war.

The likely spring offensive will unfold in stages. The goal is to take Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, and establish a new front at the Dnipro river.

The plan could be to divide Ukraine into two parts. First, Russia would annex all the territory to the east of the Dnipro. Second, it would attempt to establish the rest of the country to the west of the river as a neutral “de-Nazified” (Russia-dependent) state.

But that would only be a temporary goal. The Russian state remains determined to expand its empire into the rest of the post-Soviet space.

Stoking conflict within the US and NATO

Putin is banking on the rise of the right in the US and NATO to undermine their opposition to his imperial expansionism. During his question and answer event, Putin also stressed that that the West is very much divided on aid to Ukraine.

He specifically cited the conflict between the Republicans and the Biden administration over the proposed aid package to the country. He made it clear that he would welcome a Republican victory, especially one by Trump, in the US presidential election, since the new administration would likely reduce if not stop all support for Ukraine and even withdraw from NATO.

He is also courting the far right in the rest of the NATO countries. He is stoking tensions with Finland, a new member to the pact. Following the example set by Belarus’ President Lukashenko, Putin has welcomed migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other countries and then encouraged them to enter the European Union through the Finnish border.

He is doing this in order to provoke a crisis for the political mainstream and fuel the growth of the anti-migrant far right in Finland and the European Union in general.

He hopes their growth and success will undermine NATO from within. Thus, the Russian official media celebrated the recent victory of far right politician Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections, who ran on an Islamophobic, anti-migrant  platform.

Finally, Putin is attempting to exploit Israel’s brutal war in Gaza for his advantage against the US and its NATO allies, which have armed and supported Israel. Officially, Russia calls for a two-state solution, supports a ceasefire, and UN humanitarian relief.

Of course, this is all hypocritical. Russia is engaged in exactly the same kind of annexationist war in Ukraine as Israel is in Gaza. And, behind the scenes, Putin retains political, diplomatic, and economic relations with Israel.

But it is nevertheless exploiting Israel’s horrific war to rehabilitate itself, especially in the Global South, and weaken the US and NATO. He hopes that will enable him more space to prosecute his own imperialist ambition in Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Mobilization and draft for Spring Offensive

Putin’s commitment to that project will require him to impose a wider mobilization of troops and possibly a draft. He will have to recruit hundreds of thousands of new people to staff the military and carry out new conquests. This could pose big political problems for Putin.

He will not do any of this before the Russian presidential election in March. He and the rest of the state want to sustain a positive mood in Russian society until then.

After the elections, it is very likely they will increase mobilization to the front. At the moment only about 40 percent of Russian troops in Ukraine came from draft, while the rest are so-called volunteers made up of ordinary people who joined the military to make a better living.

Soldiers earn far more than ordinary workers. The official medium wage is about $600, but most people make about $300 a month. In the military, by contrast, soldiers can make between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.

So, for millions of Russians, especially in the desperate provincial industrial towns it, the military is an opportunity to escape poverty. That explains the success of securing so-called volunteers.

In reality it is a poverty draft. But the government uses it to redistribute wealth and establish a large sector of the population that benefits from the war. Of course, many have paid dearly, losing their mental health, limbs, and lives.

The situation for the people who are drafted is and will be totally different. They do not get paid very well and unlike professional soldiers, their term in the military and their tours of duty are not limited.

So, the draft has already provoked some protests, especially from families and relatives of those pressed into military service. They have organized petitions and even sent in hundreds of questions to Putin’s “Direct line” event. Of course, all of these questions were curated out and not posed to him.

This shows the basis for opposition to any new draft. It will likely take the form of spontaneous, self-organized protest. That would provide an opening for building an antiwar movement in Russia.

Rigged elections to legitimate the regime

But all this would only develop after the upcoming presidential election. It of course will not be a genuine one. There will be no true campaigns or debates and the outcome is preordained. Putin will win.

But the election is nonetheless important for him to give his rule the air of legitimacy and demonstrate popular support for him and his war. The Kremlin media is already predicting the best results of his political career.

Estimates are that about 70 percent will turn out for the elections and among those 80 percent are likely to vote for Putin. Of course, we should not trust these figures nor the results of the elections.

The entire process is based on the suppression of the genuine opposition and the exclusion and imprisonment of dissidents like Alexey Navalny. Of course, there will be carefully vetted candidates allowed to run to give the appearance of democracy.

The vote itself will happen over three days in person and electronically. Both will be heavily policed by the state without any oversight by independent observers.

All election monitoring networks have been destroyed. For example, this summer the the biggest network called the Voice was banned and one of its main organizers thrown in jail.

So, these elections are the opposite of free, open, and fair ones. In fact, they are a means for the state to coerce the population into political obedience.

Most people employed in the public sector and state corporations will be forced to vote electronically in their workplaces. If you vote that way, all your personal data is available to the state.

So, both the state authorities and the bosses will be able to monitor votes and “correct” the outcome if needed. Nonetheless, voters will be given the illusion of choice.

There will be other, carefully vetted candidates allowed to run from parties in the loyal pseudo-opposition like the Communist Party. All candidates permitted to run have aggressive, pro-war positions.

No genuine anti-war candidates and parties will be allowed on the ballot. So, they really pose no challenge to Putin, nor do they give voice to any anti-war sentiment. They will run against one another splitting the 20 percent of vote not going to Putin.

The Russian opposition, which is either underground or in exile, is debating how to approach the election. Navalny’s supporters have already called for a vote for any candidate besides Putin.

That’s not a bad strategy. It at least offers people, who are very atomized and afraid, a chance to express their opposition in however distorted a fashion.

Resisting war and fascization

People have every reason to be afraid of the regime. It has crushed any public expression of dissent on the war and driven it underground. It has done the same to any and all activist groupings of any kind.

This is part of the fascization of the regime. It is not just propaganda; it is trying to impose a brutal form of dictatorship and change society in a fundamental way. ​The LGBT ban and restrictions on abortion rights, anti-migrant hysteria and strict censorship against any criticism of the regime are aimed at homogenizing society and turning Russia into a closed “state-civilization.”

In these conditions, the task for the international left remains opposition to Putin’s imperialism, solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance, opposition to Western imperialism, and support for struggle within Russia from below against Putin’s neo-fascist regime.

Ilya Budraitskis is the author of Dissidents Among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics, and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia. He writes regularly on politics, art, film, and philosophy for e-flux journal, Open Democracy, Jacobin, and other outlets. He teaches at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and the Institute of Contemporary Art Moscow.