Is present-day Russia an imperialist power?

Image: Дмитрий Трепольский


Considerations about the current status of Russia

Russia is often classified as imperialism in reconstitution. Some approaches use this concept to highlight the incomplete and embryonic nature of its imperial emergence (Testa, 2020). But others have used the same statement to emphasize expansive behavior since ancient times. These views postulate analogies with the tsarist decline, similarities with the USSR and the primacy of internal colonial dynamics. These interpretations provide intense debates.


Contrasts and similarities with the past

Approaches that register long-standing continuities see Vladimir Putin as an heir to ancient territorial captures. They highlight three historical phases of the same imperial sequence with feudal, bureaucratic or capitalist foundations, but invariably based on border expansion (Kowalewski 2014a).

These relationships must be defined with care. It is true that Russia's past is marked by four centuries of tsarist expansion. All monarchs expanded the country's radius to increase taxation and enforce serfdom over a vast territory. The conquered regions paid tribute to Moscow and intertwined with the center through the installation of Russian migrants.

This internal colonial modality differed from the typical British, French or Spanish scheme of capturing external regions. The number of appropriated areas was gigantic and formed a unique geographical area, continuous and very divergent from the maritime empires of Western Europe. Russia was a land power with little concentration on the seas. It articulated a model that compensated for economic weakness with military coercion through a monumental empire on the periphery.

Lenin characterized this structure as a military-feudal imperialism, which imprisoned countless peoples. He highlighted the pre-capitalist character of a configuration based on the exploitation of serfs. The analogies that can be made with this past must take into account the qualitative differences with this social regime.

There is no continuity between the feudal structures administered by Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great and the capitalist apparatus commanded by Putin. This point is important in the face of so many essentialist views that denounce the intrinsic imperial nature of the Eurasian giant. It was with this bias that the establishment The western world built all its Cold War legends (Lipatti, 2017).

Comparisons that avoid this simplification show the distance that has always separated Russia from central capitalism. This gap persisted in the modernization cycles introduced by tsarism with military reinforcements, greater dispossession of peasants and different variants of serfdom. The suffocating taxation of this regime fed a waste of consumerist elites, which contrasted with the norms of competition and accumulation prevailing in advanced capitalism (Williams, 2014). This fracture was later recreated and tends to reappear with very different modalities today.

Another sphere of affinities can be seen in the international insertion of the country as a semi-periphery. This position has a long history, in a power that did not reach the apex of dominant empires, but managed to escape colonial subordination. A scholar of this category goes back to the intermediate status, Russia's marginalization of the empires that preceded the modern era (Byzantium, Persia, China). This divorce continued during the formation of the world economic system. This tangle was structured around an Atlantic geographic axis, with work modalities far from the serfdom that prevailed in the universe of the czars (Wallerstein; Derluguian, 2014).

Russia expanded internally, turning its back on this entanglement, and forged its empire through the internal subjugation (and forced conscription) of peasants. By remaining in this external arena, it avoided the fragility of its neighbors and the regression suffered by the powers in decline (such as Spain). But it did not participate in the rise process led by the Netherlands and England. It protected its surroundings, acting outside the main disputes for world domination (Wallerstein, 1979: 426-502).

The Tsarist dynasty never managed to create the efficient bureaucracy and modern agriculture that drove industrialization in other economies. This obstruction blocked the economic leap that Germany and the United States achieved (Kagarlitsky, 2017: 11-14). Russia's imperial dynamic has always maintained a gap with advanced economies, which emerges again in the XNUMXst century.


Contrasts with 1914-18

Some theorists of imperialism in reconstitution locate the similarities with the last tsarism, in Russia's participation in the First World War (Pröbsting, 2012). They draw parallels between the declining actors of the past (Britain and France) and their current exponents (the United States), and between the challenging powers of that era (Germany and Japan) and their contemporary emulators (Russia and China) (Proyect, 2019).

Russia intervened in the great conflagration of 1914 as an already capitalist power. Serfdom had been abolished, big industry was emerging in modern factories, and the proletariat was very poignant. But Moscow acted in this contest as a very peculiar rival. It did not align itself with the United States, Germany or Japan among the emerging empires, nor did it position itself with Great Britain and France among the retreating dominators.

Tsarism was still based on border territorial expansion and was pushed into the battlefield by the financial commitments it had with one of the sides in dispute. He also went to war to preserve the right to plunder his surroundings, but he faced a dramatic defeat, which accentuated the previous setback against the rising Japanese empire.

Tsarism had achieved a survival that its counterparts in the Indian subcontinent or in the Middle and Far East did not. He managed to maintain the autonomy and importance of his empire for several centuries, but he did not pass the test of modern warfare. It was subjugated by Britain and France in Crimea, by Japan in Manchuria, and by Germany in the trenches of Europe.

Many Western analysts suggest similarities between this failure and the current incursion into Ukraine. But there is still no data on this eventuality and the assessments of the ongoing dispute are premature. Furthermore, the parallels should take into account the radical difference that separates contemporary imperialism from its precedent.

In the 1914-18 war, a plurality of powers collided with comparable forces, in a scenario far removed from the current layered supremacy exercised by the Pentagon. Contemporary imperialism operates around a structure led by the United States and supported by alter-imperial and co-imperial partners in Europe, Asia and Oceania. NATO articulates this conglomerate under Washington's orders in major conflicts with the non-hegemonic rivals of Moscow and Beijing. Neither of these two powers is on the same plane as dominant imperialism. The differences in relation to the scenario of the beginning of the XNUMXth century are enormous.

In the last reign of the Tsars, Russia maintained a contradictory relationship of participation and subordination with the protagonists of international wars. Today, on the contrary, it is harshly opposed by these forces. Russia does not fulfill the role of Belgium or Spain as a minor partner of NATO. It shares the opposite place with China as the Pentagon's main target. After a century, there is a drastic change in the geopolitical context.

Today, the old competition from 1914 for the appropriation of colonial booty does not reappear. Moscow and Washington do not compete with Paris, London, Berlin or Tokyo for dominance in dependent countries. This difference is omitted by views (Rocca, 2020) that postulate Russia's equivalence with its western peers in the rivalry for resources in the periphery.

This misconception extends to presenting Ukraine's war as an economic shock to the use of the country's resources. It is said that two powers of the same sign (Vernyk, 2022) aspire to share a territory with large reserves of iron ore, gas and wheat. This rivalry would pit the US and Russia against each other, in a clash similar to the old inter-imperialist clashes.

This approach forgets that the Ukraine conflict had no such economic origin. It was provoked by the United States, which claimed the right to surround Russia with missiles, while negotiating Kiev's membership of NATO. Moscow sought to defuse this harassment and Washington ignored its opponent's legitimate security claims.

The asymmetries between the two sides are evident. NATO advanced against Russia, despite the sudden extinction of the former Warsaw Pact. Ukraine was closer to the Atlantic Alliance, with no Western European country negotiating such partnerships with Russia.

Nor did the Kremlin imagine creating a system of synchronized bombs against US cities in Canada or Mexico. It did not counteract the tangle of military bases that his adversary has installed across Russia's Eurasian borders. This asymmetry has been so naturalized that it is forgotten who is primarily responsible for imperial incursions.

We have already exposed, moreover, the overwhelming evidence that illustrates how Russia does not meet the imperial economic standard in its relations with the periphery. It makes no sense to place it on the same plane of rivalry as the main power on the planet. An autarchic semiperiphery with limited integration to globalization does not dispute markets with the giant companies of Western capitalism.

Economic readings of the current Russian intervention in Ukraine dilute the central issue. This incursion has defensive purposes in relation to NATO, geopolitical objectives of control of the post-Soviet space and Putin's internal political motivations. The head of the Kremlin intends to divert attention from the growing socioeconomic problems, counteract his electoral decline and ensure the extension of his mandate (Kagarlitsky, 2022). These goals are as far removed from 1914-18 as they are from the contemporary imperial scene.


Differences with sub-imperialism

Similarities with the last empire of the tsars are sometimes conceptualized with the notion of sub-imperialism. This term is used to describe the weak or lesser variant of imperial status, which the Russian government today would share with its early 2015th century predecessors. Moscow is considered to have the characteristics of a great power, but it operates in the inferior league of dominators (Presumey XNUMX).

With the same notion, similarities with secondary imperialisms of the past, such as Japan, are highlighted, and these similarities are extended to Putin's leadership in relation to that of Tojo (the Japanese emperor's minister) (Proyect, 2014). Russia is put in the same basket as secondary empires, which in the past resembled Ottoman rulers or Austro-Hungarian royalty.

The country certainly accumulates a dense and prolonged imperial history. But this inherited element only has meaning today when old trends reappear in new contexts. The “sub” prefix does not clarify this scenario.

Contemporary imperialism has lost affinities with its XNUMXth century predecessor, and these differences are verified in all cases. Turkey does not rebuild the Ottoman web, Austria does not retain remnants of the Habsburgs, and Moscow does not resurrect the policy of the Romanovs. Furthermore, the three countries are located in very different places in the contemporary global order.

In all the senses mentioned, sub-imperialism is seen as an inferior variant of dominant imperialism. It may abandon or serve that main force, but it is defined by its subordinate role. However, this view ignores that Russia does not currently participate in the dominant US-led imperial apparatus. It is noteworthy that it acts as a relegated, minor or complementary power, but without specifying in which scope it develops this action.

This omission prevents the differences with the past from being noticed. Moscow does not participate as a secondary empire within NATO, but rather enters into conflict with the body that embodies XNUMXst century imperialism.

Russia is also situated as a sub-empire by the authors (Ishchenko; Yurchenko, 2019) who refer this concept to its original formulation. This meaning was developed by Latin American Marxist dependency theorists. But, in this tradition, sub-imperialism is not a minor modality of a major prototype.

Marini used the concept in the 60s to illustrate the status of Brazil and not to clarify the role of Spain, the Netherlands or Belgium. He sought to highlight the contradictory relationship of association and subordination of the first country to the US dominator. The Brazilian thinker pointed out that the dictatorship in Brasilia was aligned with the Pentagon's strategy, but it operated with great regional autonomy and conceived adventures without Washington's permission. A similar policy is currently being pursued by Erdogan in Turkey (Katz, 2021).

This dependentista application of sub-imperialism has no current validity for Russia, which is constantly hostile to the United States. Moscow does not share the ambiguities of the relationship that, for several decades, Brasilia or Pretoria maintained with Washington. Nor does it show the compromises of this current connection with Ankara. Russia is strategically harassed by the Pentagon and this absence of elements of association with the United States excludes it from the sub-imperial platoon.


There was no Soviet imperialism

Another comparison with the 2015th century presents Putin as a rebuilder of Soviet imperialism. This Cold War term is suggested rather than used in analyzes close to Marxism. In these cases, the external oppression exercised by the USSR is taken as a definitive fact. Some authors point out that this system participated in the division of the world through external incursions and annexations of territories (Batou, XNUMX).

But this view misjudges a trajectory that emerged from the socialist revolution, which introduced a principle of eradicating capitalism, the rejection of inter-imperialist war and the expropriation of the big landowners. This anti-capitalist dynamic was drastically affected by the long night of Stalinism, which introduced relentless forms of repression and the dismantling of the Bolshevik leadership. This regime consolidated the power of a bureaucracy that managed with mechanisms opposed to the ideals of socialism.

Stalinism consumed a great Thermidor in a country ravaged by war, with the proletariat decimated, factories demolished and agriculture stagnant. In this scenario, progress towards an egalitarian society has been held back. But this retreat did not lead to the restoration of capitalism. In the USSR, a property-owning class based on the accumulation of surplus value and subject to the rules of market competition did not emerge. A model of compulsive planning prevailed, with rules for managing surplus and surplus labor tailored to the privileges of the bureaucracy (Katz, 2004: 59-67).

This lack of capitalist foundations prevented the emergence of a Soviet imperialism comparable to that of its Western peers. The new oppressive elite never had the support that capitalism provides for the ruling classes. It had to manage a hybrid social formation that industrialized the country, standardized its culture and maintained great tension with the collective imperialism of the West for decades.

The erroneous thesis of Soviet imperialism is related to the characterization of the USSR as a regime of state capitalism (Weiniger, 2015), in conflict with the United States over the dispossession of the periphery. This equation registers the social inequalities and political oppression prevailing in the USSR, but omits the absence of company ownership and the consequent right to exploit salaried work, with the typical rules of accumulation.

Ignorance of these fundamentals fuels erroneous comparisons of the Putin era with Stalin, Brezhnev or Khrushchev. They do not register the prolonged interruption that capitalism had in Russia. Rather, they assume that some variety of this system persisted in the USSR, and so they emphasize the presence of an unbroken imperial sequence.

They forget that the foreign policy of the USSR did not reproduce the usual conduct of that domination. After abandoning the tenets of internationalism, the Kremlin shunned expansionism and sought only to achieve some status quo with the United States. This diplomacy expressed an oppressive tone, but not an imperialist one. The ruling layer of the USSR exercised clear supremacy over its partners through military (Warsaw Pact) and economic (COMECON) devices. It negotiated coexistence rules with Washington and demanded the subordination of all members of the so-called socialist bloc.

This enforced patronage led to dramatic ruptures with governments that resisted subjugation (Yugoslavia under Tito and China under Mao). In neither of these two cases did the Kremlin manage to change the autonomous course of the regimes that tried different paths from the older brother. A more brutal response was adopted by Moscow in the face of the attempted rebellion in Czechoslovakia to implement a model of socialist renewal. In this case, Russia sent tanks and soldiers to crush the protest.

What happened to Yugoslavia, China and Czechoslovakia confirms that Moscow's bureaucracy enforced its demands for power. But this action was not part of the rules of imperialism, which only came to light after thirty years of capitalism. A non-hegemonic empire begins to emerge in Russia, which does not continue the ghostly Soviet empire.


Assessments of Internal Colonialism

Some authors underline the impact of internal colonialism on Russia's imperial dynamics (Kowalewski, 2014b). They recall that the collapse of the USSR led to the separation of 14 republics, along with the maintenance of another 21 non-Russian conglomerates in Moscow's orbit.

These minorities occupy 30% of the territory and are home to a fifth of the population, in adverse economic and social conditions. Such disadvantages are seen in the exploitation of natural resources that the Kremlin manages for its benefit. The central administration captures, for example, a large part of the oil revenues of Western Siberia and the Far East.

The new supranational entities of recent decades validated this regional inequality. This is why the relations of the Eurasian Economic Community (2000) and the Customs Union (2007) with the partners of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been so contentious.

These asymmetries, in turn, present a double face of Russian colonizing presence in the surrounding areas and emigration from the periphery to the centers, to supply the cheap labor demanded in the big cities. This oppressive dynamic is another effect of capitalist restoration.

But some authors relativize this process, remembering that the legacy of the USSR is not synonymous with mere rule by the Russian majority. They emphasize that the predominant language functioned as a lingua franca, which did not obstruct the flourishing of other cultures. They consider that this diversified localism allowed the gestation of an autonomous body of administrators, which in recent decades divorced with great ease from Moscow (Anderson, 2015).

Internal colonization coexisted, moreover, with a multiethnic composition that limited Russian national identity. Russia emerged more as an empire made up of many peoples than as a nation defined by common citizenship.

It is true that during Stalinism there were clear privileges in favor of the Russians. Half of the population suffered the devastating consequences of forced collectivization and compulsory evictions. A brutal territorial remodeling took place, with mass punishments of Ukrainians, Tatars, Chechens or Volga Germans, who were displaced to areas far from their lands.

The Russians again occupied the best positions in the administration and the myths of this nationalism were transformed into a patriotic ideal of the USSR. But these advantages were also offset by the mixing of emigrants and the assimilation of displaced persons that accompanied the unprecedented post-war boom.

This absorption did not erase previous atrocities, but it altered their consequences. In the prosperity that prevailed until the 80s, the coexistence of nations attenuated the great Russian supremacy. The late colonialism that prevailed in South Africa and persists in Palestine did not exist in the USSR. The privileges of ethnic Russians did not imply racism or apartheid.

But whatever the assessment of internal colonialism, it should be noted that this dimension is not decisive for Russia's eventual role as an imperialist power. This status is determined by the external action of a state. The oppressive internal dynamics only complement a defined role in the global concert.

The subjugation of national minorities is present in countless medium-sized countries, which no one would place in the select club of empires. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia there are numerous examples of the suffering of minorities marginalized from power. Mistreatment of Kurds, for example, does not convert Syria or Iraq into imperialist countries. This condition is defined within the framework of foreign policy.


Complexity of national tensions

Approaches that emphasize the oppressive centrality of Russification also consider resistance to this domination. On the one hand, they denounce the planned export of the main ethnic group in order to secure the privileges managed by the Kremlin. On the other hand, they stress the progressivity of national movements that face Moscow's tyranny (Kowalewski, 2014c).

But these conflicts are not just about Russia's claim to preserve supremacy in areas of influence. Also at stake is the US objective of undermining the territorial integrity of its rival and the interests of local elites, who fight for a share of the disputed resources (Stern, 2016).

For most of the republics that moved away from Moscow's tutelage, similar sequences of officialization of the local language were observed, to the detriment of Russian speakers. This idiomatic renaissance is at the base of the practical and symbolic construction of new nations, in the military, educational and citizenship spheres.

The West tends to foment the fractures that Moscow tries to bridge. This tension deepens the clash between minorities, who often live in close proximity to one another. The population is rarely consulted about its own destiny. Fanatical nationalism encouraged by local elites obstructs this democratic response.

The United States encourages all tensions. First, it sustained the disintegration of Yugoslavia and erected a large military base in Kosovo to monitor the surrounding radius. Afterwards, he encouraged Latvian independence, a short war in Moldova to encourage secession, and a failed attempt by its Georgian president against Moscow (Hutin, 2021).

Dominant native groups (who are conducive to the creation of new states) often revitalize old traditions or build such identities from scratch. In the five countries of Central Asia, jihadism has played an important role in these strategies.

The recent case of Kazakhstan is very illustrative of current conflicts. An oligarchy of former USSR hierarchs appropriated energy resources there in order to share profits with western oil companies. It implemented rampant neoliberalism, suppressed labor rights, and forged a new state by repatriating ethnic Kazakhs. In this way, it leveraged the local language and the Islamic religion to isolate the Russian-speaking minority. It managed to consummate this operation until the recent crisis, which led to the deployment of troops and the consequent restoration of Moscow patronage (Karpatsky, 2022).

Nagorno-Karabakh offers another example of the same exacerbation of nationalism to secure the power of elites. In an enclave of Armenian settlers who lived together for centuries with their neighbors in Azerbaijani territory, two dominant groups disputed the belonging to the same territory. Armenians won military victories (in 1991 and 1994), which were recently reversed by Azerbaijani triumphs. To ensure its custody of the area (and dissuade the growing presence of the USA, France and Turkey), Russia sponsors negotiated exits from the conflict (Jofré Leal, 2020).

Attributing the enormous diversity of national tensions to the mere dominant action of Russia is as one-sided as attributing an invariably progressive profile to the protagonists of these clashes. In many cases, there are legitimate complaints, regressively exploited by local elites in tune with the Pentagon. The simplified impugnation of Russian imperialism fails to capture these circumstances and complexities.


An unresolved statute

Many theorists of the rebuilding empire lose sight of the fact that Russia currently lacks the level of political cohesion necessary for such a reshuffle. The collapse of the USSR did not generate a unified program of the new oligarchy or the state bureaucracy. The trauma caused by this implosion left a long sequence of disputes.

The imperialist project is effectively promoted by sectors of the right, which promote foreign ventures to profit from the profitable business of war. This faction revives the old beliefs of Great Russian nationalism and replaces traditional anti-Semitism with Islamophobic campaigns. It converges with the European right on the brown wave, makes demagogic diatribes against Brussels and Washington and focuses its darts on immigrants.

But this segment, imbued with imperial aspirations, clashes with the internationalized liberal elite, which favors fanatical integration with the West. This group propagates Anglo-American values ​​and aspires to a place for the country in the transatlantic alliance.

The millionaires of this last group protect their money in tax havens, manage their accounts from London, educate their children at Harvard and accumulate property in Switzerland. The experience suffered with Yeltsin illustrates how devastating the consequences of any state management on the part of these characters are, who are ashamed of their own national condition (Kagarlitsky, 2015).

Navalny is the main exponent of this minority deified by the North American media. He challenges Putin with unabashed support from the State Department, but faces the same odds as his predecessors. Biden's external support and the internal support of a sector of the new middle class do not erase the memory of the demolition perpetrated by Yeltsin.

The dispute between this liberal sector, enchanted by the West, and its nationalist rivals unfolds in a vast field of economy, culture and history. The great figures of the past have re-emerged as the banners of both groups. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Alexander II are valued for their contribution to Russia's convergence with European civilization or for their contribution to the national spirit. The liberal elite who despise their country clash with the counter-elite who yearn for tsarism. Both currents face serious limits to consolidate their strategy.

Liberals were discredited by the chaos Yeltsin introduced. Putin sets his prolonged tenure in contrast to this demolition. His leadership includes a certain recomposition of nationalist traditions amalgamated with the resurgence of the Orthodox Church. This institution recovered properties and opulence with official assistance to ceremonies and worship.

None of these pillars has so far provided the necessary support for more aggressive external actions. The invasion of Ukraine is the great test of these foundations. The country's multi-ethnic composition and the absence of a conventional nation-state conspire against such ventures.

Vladimir Putin often declares his admiration for the old “greatness of Russia”, but until the Kiev raid, he conducted foreign policy cautiously, combining acts of force with sustained negotiations. He sought recognition of the country as an international actor, without endorsing the imperial reconstruction propitiated by the nationalists. The continuity of this balance is at stake in the battle of Ukraine.

Those who believe that the reconstitution of a Russian empire has been completed pay little attention to the fragile pillars of this structure of domination. They lose sight of the fact that Putin does not inherit six centuries of feudalism, but three decades of convulsive capitalism.

The limited scale of a potential Russian dominant course is most accurately registered by authors who explore different denominations (developing imperialism, peripheral imperialism) to allude to an embryonic status.

*Claudio Katz is professor of economics at Universidad Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves



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