Is Russia an imperialist power?

Image: Serg Alesenko


The characterization of Russia as a non-hegemonic empire in gestation contrasts with the image of a power already integrated into imperialism

No one would ask whether Russia acted as an imperialist power in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, it was only discussed whether that country would maintain any relevance. The Yeltsin era led to Moscow's international insignificance and all assessments of imperialism referred to the United States.

Thirty years later, this scenario has changed dramatically, with the resurgence of Russia as a major geopolitical player. This change reopened debates on the pertinence of the imperial category for that country. The concept is associated with the figure of Putin and exemplified by the recent invasion of Ukraine. This incursion is seen as overwhelming evidence of renewed Russian imperialism.

The most recurrent views consider that this brand is indisputable data. They point out that Moscow oppresses its neighbors with the aim of undermining freedom, democracy and progress. They also denounce that the Kremlin is intensifying its aggressiveness in order to expand an autocratic political model.


conventional errors

Mainstream Western governments and media question Moscow's incursions, which it justifies in the field itself. The deployment of troops in Ukraine, Georgia or Syria is presented as unacceptable, but occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya are interpreted as usual episodes. The annexation of Crimea is categorically repudiated, but the land grab in Palestine is warmly welcomed.

This hypocrisy is combined with unbelievable accusations to frighten the population. A gigantic Russian power is described with an immeasurable damage capacity. Moscow's manipulation of the US elections through infiltrations and algorithms has been the most absurd accusation of this campaign.

All diabolical conspiracies are attributed to Vladimir Putin. The media often portray him as the incarnation of evil. He is portrayed as a despot who rebuilds an empire with brutal methods of internal totalitarianism (Di Palma, 2019). Comparisons are never made with the praised plutocracies of the United States or Europe, which impose validation of the dominance exercised by the governing elites.

Liberals often describe Russian imperialism as a disease rooted in the country's authoritarian history. They see it as a society with an ancient compulsion to subdue the territories of others (La Vanguardia.

With this vision, they repeat commonplaces, without advancing in a serious evaluation of the problem. If Russia had the empire gene in its innate constitution, it wouldn't make much sense to study the question further. It would simply be a hopeless case in the face of the well-known virtues of the West.

With the same naturalness that Russia's imperial omnipotence is emphasized, the United States and its partners are exempt from this condition. Imperialism is seen as a corollary of Moscow's autocracy, which the attachment to republican tolerance has avoided in the transatlantic universe. How this narrative is reconciled with the colonial plunder suffered by Africa, Asia and Latin America is an unsolved mystery.

The anti-Moscow diatribes recreate the old Cold War libretto, which pitted Russia's oppressive totalitarianism against the wonders of American democracy. The dead spread across the Pentagon to ensure the profits of this paradise are rigorously hidden. The contrast between American happiness and Russia's dismal survival has persisted as an unvarying myth.

The Kremlin's imperial compulsion is also seen as the country's unfortunate means of dealing with its grim fate. The most extreme Eurocentric views see Russians as a white ethnic group that failed to assimilate into Western civilization and was trapped in the backwardness of the East. Nazi punishment tried to resolve this anomaly by exterminating part of the Slavs, but Hitler's defeat buried the detracting optics for a long time. Today, old prejudices are revived.

To assess Russia's place in the club of imperial powers with any seriousness, such nonsense needs to be shelved. First of all, it is necessary to clarify the status of that country in the universe of capitalism. The validity of this system is a condition of belonging to the imperial cluster. Ignorance of this connection prevents liberals (and their media vulgarizers) from coming closer to understanding the problem.


The Reintroduction of Capitalism

For three decades, the three pillars of capitalism have prevailed in Russia. Private ownership of the means of production was restored, the rules of profit, competition and exploitation were consolidated, and a political model was introduced that guarantees the privileges of the new dominant class.

The adoption of this system was dizzying. In just three years (1988-1991), Gorbachev's attempt at gradual reforms of the USSR was buried. As your model Perestroika rejected socialist renewal and popular participation, a sweeping restoration of capitalism was facilitated. The old elite self-destructed its regime in order to get rid of all the restrictions that prevented its reconversion into a propertied class.

Yeltsin led this fulminating transformation in 500 days of privatization. He divided up public property among those closest to him and transferred half of the country's resources to seven business groups. The new system did not emerge, as in Eastern Europe, from without and under Western influence. It was conceived from above and within the preceding system.

The bureaucracy was transformed into an oligarchy by a simple change of clothes. This same mutation from supporters of communism to champions of capitalism has been seen in all countries associated with the Kremlin.

It is evident that economic stagnation, declining productivity, the inefficiency of compulsive planning, shortages and underproduction determined the malaise that precipitated the collapse of the USSR. But the magnitude of these imbalances was overestimated, forgetting that they never showed the dimension of the financial collapses suffered by Western capitalism. The Soviet economy did not, for example, face an earthquake equivalent to the collapse suffered by banks in 2008-09.

The USSR model was politically buried by a ruling class that reshaped the country. In this alteration lies the great difference in relation to China, which kept its traditional structure of government intact, in a new scenario marked by the presence of capitalists in the foreground.

This difference determines the preponderance of a restoration already completed in Russia and an unresolved dispute in China. State management has been the decisive variable in the return to capitalism. This turn has the same historical reach as the fall of monarchical regimes in the emergence of this system.

Yeltsin forged a republic of oligarchs who seized oil, gas and raw material exports. He introduced authoritarian management of the executive branch and widespread fraud in parliamentary elections. Vladimir Putin contained this predatory dynamic through sustained tension with the new plutocracy. But he did not reverse the privileges of millionaires. To curb private indebtedness, the external deficit, currency tremors and local disinvestment, he introduced controls and contested the decision-making power of the rich.

This conflict was resolved with the arrest of Khodorkovsky, the displacement of Medvedev and the harassment of Navalny. In the midst of these events, Putin managed to extend his mandate and assert his authority. But he validated the privatizations and elitist management of strategic sectors of the economy. He merely placed a limit on the looting of natural resources in order to marginalize the wealthy from direct government control.

This double action is often misunderstood by analysts who put Putin in the simple basket of authoritarian rulers. They omit the strategic role he played in the consolidation of capitalism. This validation required a super-presidential political system, based on bureaucracies and security apparatuses that doubled the size of Yeltsin's legacy. Putin ensures his dominance by manipulating the electoral system and the candidates vying for top jobs.

But this supremacy does not imply a unipersonal model dependent on the temperaments of the first representative. The head of the Kremlin manages by consensus, to preserve the cohesion of the elites. In this moderating role, he avoids confrontation between the 100 families who control the economy. This harmonization requires arbitration, which the president has perfected after two decades of government rule. In Russia, therefore, the validity of capitalism is confirmed as an unavoidable precondition for any imperial statute. But the prevailing variety of this system raises other questions.


A contradictory and uncertain model

For three decades, neoliberal academics have been picking the daisy's leaves, to unravel to what extent the much-vaunted “transition to a market economy” has matured. They never manage to unravel this curious development in a country that has refuted all orthodox predictions of competition and well-being. The promised capitalist prosperity did not emerge from the ashes of the USSR. Bureaucratic-compulsive planning was replaced by a model that shows greater imbalances (Luzzani, 2021).

The usual dynamics of the markets face unprecedented obstacles in an economy of low productivity, lack of transparency and business practices that are at odds with the manuals of liberalism. The weight of monopolies is as dominant as the protagonism of mafias, in a scheme ironically identified with “Jurassic capitalism”.

The course of accumulation is marked by the omnipresence of clans and their consequent forms of personal dependency. A restricted circle of beneficiaries profit from informal appropriation mechanisms, based on state coercion. With these standards, capitalism works in the shadows, in favor of an elite that expands its wealth with limited investment, productive takeoff or expansion of consumption.

Several adversities of the prevailing scheme in the USSR (bureaucratism, corruption, administrative lack of coordination, inefficiency) were recycled in an equally inoperative model. The cultural relations forged after many decades of bureaucratic primacy have been recomposed, generating an inertia that reinforces inequality, without allowing the development that the Soviet Union was proud of. The old adversities of the bureaucratic model converged with the new hardships of capitalism (Buzgalin, 2016).

For thirty years, a raw material export scheme has prevailed, with large companies specializing in the marketing of gas (Gazprom), oil (Rosneft) and natural resources (Lukoil). The weight of the private sector is as remarkable as the enrichment of millionaires linked to these activities. Due to this dependence on exported fuel, Russia has been subject to international fluctuations in oil prices.

This pre-eminence of raw materials contrasts with the primacy of industry under the previous regime. Russia preserves an important technological development, but the opening of imports, disinvestment and simple apathy seriously affected the old productive apparatus and obstructed its modernization. The industry was penalized by a liberal elite of exporters unconcerned with this sector. Small manufacturing production was also affected by the entry of multinational companies, in a context of low internal financing.

The flip side of this credit crunch was the disproportionate foreign indebtedness of the elite that demolished the USSR. Through this mortgage, they precipitated a lack of control of financial flows. The effect of this emptying was the huge flight abroad of the surplus generated in the country.

The gigantic mass of money that the oligarchs scattered in tax havens was withdrawn from accumulation. Russia occupies the first place in the world ranking of expatriate capital, with Argentina in third. The degradation that affects this South American economy illustrates the dramatic consequences of the expatriation of large assets. In 1998, this decapitalization led to a huge ruble crisis in Russia.

Vladimir Putin reacted with drastic changes to counter this neoliberal vulnerability. He blocked the back haemorrhaging and built a huge petrostate, which retains the trade surplus to facilitate safeguarding reserves (Tooze, 2022). This dam counteracts the fragility of a model affected by insourcing. The consistency of this scheme is a big question mark for all economists.


current semiperiphery

Russia is one of the equidistant economies of central and peripheral capitalism. It is a semiperiphery located at the middle link of the global division of labor. Some analysts have compared this insertion to the world position of India or Brazil (Clarke; Annis, 2016). In all three cases, the enormous size of the territory, population and resources weighs heavily. There is also the same distance from the most functional economies to globalization (South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia).

Russia is not part of the club of major powers that command world capitalism. It maintains structural gaps with developed countries in all indicators of living standards, average consumption or the size of the middle class. But equally significant is its departure from the relegated economies of Africa or Eastern Europe. It remains a semiperiphery as far removed from Germany and France as it is from Albania and Cambodia.

Nor does the Eurasian giant act as a mere supplier of raw materials. It asserts its enormous influence by supplying gas to two continents. That's why it competes with other major suppliers in the battle for prices and supply conditions for this resource. But none of Russia's energy companies have the strategic relevance of banks or technology companies in the United States, Western Europe or Japan. The country does not compete in the major leagues of globalized competition and digital capitalism.

Russia's semi-peripheral status in the global stratification differs from the impressive rise achieved by China in occupying a central place in this hierarchy. Moscow did not approach this podium.


US imperial siege

The conversion of Russia into an imperial power is an open possibility, given the country's weight on the world stage. It exhibits an unstable but fully restored capitalism and an intermediate but very important international insertion. Its geopolitical role is determined by the clash with the dominant world structure headed by the United States.

Russia is NATO's preferred target. The Pentagon is committed to undermining all of its great adversary's defensive devices. It seeks the disintegration of Moscow and was close to achieving it in the Yeltsin era, when US banks came to grope for controlling interest in Russian companies (Hudson, 2022). This failed attempt was followed by systematic military pressure.

The first step was the destruction of Yugoslavia and the subsequent conversion of a former Serbian province into the ghostly republic of Kosovo. This enclave now guards the energy corridors of US multinationals close to Russia. NATO has turned the three Baltic countries into a missile catapult against Moscow, but it has not been able to extend this siege to Georgia. He failed in the military adventure that his puppet at the time (Saakashvili) tried.

The Pentagon later focused on the southern border strip, with a wide range of operations located in Transcaucasia and Moldova. In the process, he turned Ukraine into the mother of all battles. Yankee obstinacy against Russia includes an ingredient of inertia and another of historical memory of the experience of the Soviet Union. Demolishing the country that incubated the first socialist revolution of the 2022th century is a reactionary objective, which survived the very demise of the USSR (Piqueras, XNUMX). Despite the categorical pre-eminence of capitalism, the West has not incorporated Russia into its current sphere of operation.

The United States develops an endless succession of aggressions to prevent the recomposition of its enemy. It implements this escalation through a military alliance forged in the post-war period, as if the extinct socialist camp were still standing. NATO recreates the Cold War along the lines of the XNUMXth century and revives old international tensions. Just as the Holy Alliance continued to harass France after Napoleon's defeat (for the simple memory of the revolution), contemporary aggression against Russia includes remnants of revenge against the Soviet Union.


Complicities and reactions

France and Germany participate in the harassment of Russia with their own agenda that gives priority to economic negotiations. Moscow offers energy supplies on very convenient terms for German industries, and Berlin has tried to counter Washington's discontent with this partnership.

The critical point is the work on the gas pipeline built under the waters of the Baltic Sea (Nord Stream 2). 1.230 km of pipelines that directly connect the Russian supplier to the German buyer have already been assembled. The United States has resorted to every conceivable maneuver to sabotage this project, which rivals its sales of liquefied gas. This conflict is one of the main background of the war in Ukraine.

Washington pressed on all fronts and, during the pandemic, managed to impose a European veto on the vaccine Sputnik. It now demands full submission to sanctions against Moscow, which tends to undermine Germany's plans for trade deals with Russia.

Berlin sought to take advantage of the collapse of the USSR to expand its thriving business in Eastern Europe. It sought to take advantage of the trade opening initiated by Yeltsin and aspired to forge a Franco-German axis to mitigate Washington's dominance. The State Department entered into conflict with Russia to neutralize this strategy and managed to drag its partners into the ongoing great crusade against Moscow (Poch, 2022).

The United States has imposed a NATO rearmament that widens the military spending gap with Russia. In 2021, the first power's war budget bordered on 811 billion dollars, with Great Britain investing 72 billion, Germany 64 billion and France 59 billion. These numbers far exceed the 66 billion of the Russian Federation (Jofre, 2021).

The war in Ukraine was also preceded by an intensification of joint transatlantic military exercises. At the Defend Europe 21 (May and June of last year) 40.000 soldiers and 15.000 pieces of military equipment participated, with simulations very close to the eastern borders. Russia tried to stop this advance with several proposals that were ignored by the West. This rejection has been a constant from Washington, which has let Putin down time and time again. The Kremlin leader began his career with a high expectation of coexistence with the United States. After Yeltsin's traumatic experience, he tried to reach a status quo based on the recognition of Moscow as a power. To that end, he issued numerous messages of conciliation.

Vladimir Putin collaborated with the Yankee presence in Afghanistan, maintained cordial terms with Israel, canceled missile deliveries to Tehran and did not interfere in the bombing of Libya (Anderson, 2015). This initial tuning even included a suggestion of association with NATO.

The State Department responded to all offers of peace with increased incursions and Putin lost his illusions of harmonious coexistence. In 2007, he launched a counteroffensive, which he consolidated with victories in Georgia and Syria. He also maintained armistice proposals that Washington did not even consider (Sakwa, 2021).

Russia is harassed with the same impudence that the Pentagon displays to all countries that ignore its demands. But the United States is confronted in this case with a rival that is not Iraq or Afghanistan, nor can it be treated like Africa or Latin America.


External intervention and armament

Russia is a capitalist country that has regained its international influence, but until its incursion into Ukraine it did not have the general traits of an imperial aggressor. Such a format would presuppose the deepening of an offensive geopolitical course that Putin has not yet developed, but which he already suggests.

The implosion of the USSR was followed by warlike tensions in 8 of the 15 former Soviet republics. In all conflicts in its surrounding areas, Moscow employed its military force. From the discreet presence before the destruction of Yugoslavia, it has gone on to a fulminant incursion into Georgia and the current invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is trying to block the passage of its former allies to the western countryside and intends to avoid the destabilization of its borders. An example of this policy was the recent truce it imposed on Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh. It endorsed the recovery of territories that the second contender consumed, to counteract the defeat suffered in 2016.

But faced with the danger of a larger conflagration, Vladimir Putin forced an armistice that displeased his Armenian allies. Moscow displayed its power by imposing an arbitration that postpones the resolution of pending conflicts (refugees, local autonomies, corridors that connect areas populated by both groups).

Equilibrium with all local elites under its strict command guides the Kremlin's intervention in the post-Soviet space. Russia orders its decisions according to the Primakov doctrine, which favors a recovery of the country's weight to oppose the hegemony of the United States (Armanian, 2020). The manager of this conception gained relevance as Putin's precursor, promoting the multipolar project in the face of US unilateralism. He promoted a strategic triangle with India and China (extended to Brazil and South Africa), in order to create an alternative pole to US primacy.

Vladimir Putin followed these guidelines to thwart Washington's unilateral domination, and thereby transform the Kremlin into a co-manager of international affairs. This strategy is very active but does not define an imperial status. Military action is the key ingredient of this condition and Russia's war power has gained visibility. Moscow has 15 military bases in nine foreign countries and asserts its influence as the world's second-largest arms exporter.

This warlike influence does not equally compete with the arsenal of the US adversary. The United States has 800 foreign bases and twice as many Russian arms exports. Of the top 100 companies in this sector, 42 correspond to Washington and only 10 to Moscow. In addition, the defense spending of the 28 members of NATO exceeds by 10 times its Russian equivalent (Smith, 2019).

But the impact of the arms economy in Russia is very significant. It is the only sector exempt from the industrial setback that followed the fall of the USSR. The high competitiveness of this branch already constituted an exception during the decline of this regime and was consolidated in the last decades. Putin did not limit himself to preserving the arsenal bequeathed by the Soviet Union. He reactivated the military industry to secure the country's international presence. This intervention obliges the military complex to extend its functions beyond its deterrent logic. The defensive dynamics of these devices coexists with their use for external interventions.


A non-hegemonic empire under construction

Russia is not part of mainstream imperialism, nor is it an alter-imperial or co-imperial partner in that network. But it develops policies of domination with intense military activity. It is globally hostilized by the United States, but it adopts oppressive behavior within its own radius. How to define this contradictory profile? The concept of a non-hegemonic empire in gestation synthesizes this multiplicity of characteristics.

The non-hegemonic component is determined by the contrasting position of the country in relation to the centers of imperial power. Like China, it is systematically harassed by NATO, and these aggressions place Russia outside the main circuit of domination in the XNUMXst century.

The imperial element emerges in embryonic form. The capitalist restoration in a power with centuries of oppressive practices has already been consummated, but the signs of imperial policies only appear as possibilities. The term empire in the making highlights this incomplete status and, at the same time, congruent with the return of capitalism.

The definition of a non-hegemonic empire in gestation makes it possible to avoid two unilateralities. The first appears with the mere indication of conflicts between Moscow and Washington. The second is the exclusive focus on oppressive tendencies. Russia's dual status – as an empire on the rise in confrontation with the US dominator – is ignored by analysts who opt for the mere description of Moscow's policy. They correctly point out that Russia is the biggest country on the planet, with no possible scope for partnerships with Europe or Asia. It also has a nuclear arsenal second only to the United States.

But Russia maintains a very unbalanced economic development and with great weaknesses in relation to China. It is at the height of a convulsive capitalist restoration, which obstructs its classification in the usual models of imperialism.

Comparisons with Brazil or India do not resolve Russia's imperial status, as this condition is equally controversial in both references. In the XNUMXst century, it is no longer enough to distinguish the dominant central powers from the subjugated peripheral countries. The simple finding of similarities between large semi-peripheral economies also does not shed light on the geopolitical status of each country. US harassment of Russia does not extend to India or Brazil and determines a very different place for Moscow in the global order.

The characterization of Russia as a non-hegemonic empire in gestation contrasts with the image of a power already integrated into imperialism. The semiperipheral insertion, the limited radius of Moscow's military interventions and the small size of Russian transnational companies illustrate differences with an already established statute. But Russia also does not include clear imperial potential due to its capitalist condition and its dominant role in conflicts with its neighbors.

The budding empire faces a litmus test in the war in Ukraine. This incursion introduces a qualitative change in Moscow's actions, the results of which will have an impact on the country's international status. The conflict consolidated the position of opposition of the Eurasian power to Western imperialism, but also reinforced the oppressive behavior of the Kremlin in its border radius. The imperial tendencies that appeared as possibilities took on a new dimension after the military operation against Kiev (Katz, 2022).

The scene of this dispute remains open. But it would be reasonable to imagine that, if Russia is successful in this first large-scale incursion, its current embryonic profile would tend to mature, until it crosses the barrier that separates it from an empire in rule. Conversely, if Moscow faces sudden defeat or becomes bogged down in a suffocating war of attrition, imperial tendencies could be aborted before they are realized. In that case, Ukraine would define whether Russia will consolidate or dilute its leap to imperialist status.

*Claudius 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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