the imperial universe

Image: Plato Terentev


The characterization of Russia's international status requires the record that the renewed power harbors some potential variety of imperialism.

Some thinkers exempt the Kremlin from imperial responsibilities for suffering hostilities from the United States (Clarke; Annis, 2016). But this aggression only confirms the nature of the harassers without clarifying the status of the harassed. The fact that Russia is a priority NATO target does not automatically place that power outside the imperial dynamic.

The membership of former USSR partners in the Atlantic Alliance also does not shed light on the profile of the Eurasian giant. Russia's exclusion or participation in the circle of international rulers must be evaluated by analyzing Moscow's foreign policy.


A semi-colonial profile?

The characterization of Russia's international status requires registering that the renewed power harbors some potential variety of imperialism. This starting point is categorically rejected by the authors, who observe that the country is very close to semicolonial dependence. They consider Russia to be a sub-metropolis subject to foreign domination (Razin, 2016).

But it is very difficult to find any data that supports such a diagnosis. It is evident that Moscow acts as a great international player, competing with Washington for the largest atomic arsenal on the planet. All of his actions illustrate an external role, not only in its borders, but also in exalted world scenarios such as the Middle East.

How a semi-colony could establish such a worldwide presence is an irresolvable mystery. It is also not understood what would be the foreign state apparatus that would dominate Moscow – Washington, Berlin, Paris? It makes little sense to present Putin – who is on an equal footing with Biden, Merkel or Macron – as a puppet of these metropolises.

The qualification of Russia as a semi-colony is based on some lost data of great foreign economic impact in certain branches of production or services. But the concept of semi-colony involves the political sphere and presupposes a lack of sovereignty. The main decisions of the Russian administration would be taken by a foreign mandate, following the norm that prevailed in Africa, Asia or Latin America in the XNUMXth century.

The absurdity of this characterization derives from the recreation of an outdated concept. Colonies and semi-colonies formed a domination device of classical imperialism, which lost importance with post-war decolonization. The modalities of explicit dependence were replaced by other forms of foreign control, more suited to the interests of the new local bourgeoisies of the periphery.

Russia does not fit any of the obsolete situations of the last century. Nor does it fit into the reasoning guided by the exclusionary distinction between imperialist rulers and semi-colonial ruled. Not only Russia is left out of this classification. The gross and exclusive division between these two polarities leads to numerous mistakes, such as placing Turkey in the semi-colonial universe or South Korea among the imperialist states. The complexity of the XNUMXst century cannot be addressed by such simplifications.


inappropriate arguments

Other views are more reasonably opposed to Russia's imperial tendencies. They point to Putin's distance from the czars as an index of current Russian distancing from past territorial ambitions. This historical gap is indeed sidereal, but it only confirms that XNUMXst century imperialism bears little resemblance to its predecessors. This divorce does not clarify the current scenario, nor does it clarify Russia's status in the contemporary era.

The extent of the country's military power is a most discussed aspect of settling the imperial statute (Williams, 2014). Some approaches postulate that the huge arsenal persists as a simple inheritance from the Soviet Union. But they omit that this apparatus is not treated by Putin as an uncomfortable legacy, to be eradicated as quickly as possible. This attitude was adopted by Yeltsin and reversed by his successor. During the last two decades, Moscow has modernized its military structure and tends to transform it into a major foreign policy tool.

Some analysts also highlight the limited practical effectiveness of Russia's atomic device. They also consider that the power of the country's conventional forces is very limited in relation to NATO rivals (Clarke: Annis, 2016). But this assessment does not take into account other plans of warlike action. Russia is the world's second largest exporter of weapons, is present in several hot zones, and makes use of its enormous capacity to supply lethal instruments.

It is enough to observe the strong return of the country to the African continent to notice this influence. In Mali, the Russian private security company Wagner recently replaced French soldiers in protecting the territory against two powerful organizations linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh (Calvo, 2021). In the Central African Republic, the same company carried out a similar replacement, after having tested this operation in Mozambique.

Russia's return to the African continent has little economic significance, but arms sales are on an astonishing scale. Almost a third of new equipment acquired by that continent is negotiated with Moscow, and half of African governments have signed military agreements with this supplier (Marcial, 2021). The intervention in Syria provides another visible indication of the importance of the war in Russian foreign policy.


oppressive tendencies

Russia's leading role in the world arms market complements defensive strategies (in the face of US pressure) and direct control actions in border areas. In these forays, Moscow does not help its neighbors, but reinforces its own interests. The suggestion of solidary conduct embellishes the real meaning of these operations.

Just as China trades and invests in the periphery to benefit its companies, Russia employs troops, provides advisers and sells weapons to increase its geopolitical influence. The economic strategy of the eastern giant and the military diplomacy of the rising Muscovite power are not guided by norms of cooperation.

The last vestiges of these principles were buried with the demise of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin has not even articulated any justification for his recent deployment of troops to Kazakhstan. He simply applied the provisions of the Reciprocal Security Treaty (CSTO) to sustain a related regime.

Authors who avoid criticizing this policy of domination usually highlight the conspiratorial presence of Western imperialism. But they underline this interference without mentioning abuses by Moscow-backed governments. They present, for example, the recent rebellion in Kazakhstan as a coup planned by US agencies (USAID, NGOs), which was sensibly crushed by Russian soldiers (Ramirez, 2022).

This interpretation omits the existence of mass protests against a neoliberal government, which eliminated all social safety nets to enrich Nazarbayev's oligarchy. This elite shared the huge profits from oil revenues with Western companies (Kurmanov, 2022).

Oil workers fought against this dispossession in a long succession of strikes (2011, 2016), which were answered with clubs by officialdom. The illegality of the Communist Party and other leftist forces clarifies any doubts about the regressive profile of this government (Karpatsky, 2022).

Russian military intervention to sustain this regime is highly illustrative of Moscow's oppressive tendencies. Opinions that ignore this course tend to reproduce the sweetened image conveyed by official propaganda. They present Russia's actions outside its borders as current data of contemporary military reality. At most they present descriptions that do not clarify the meaning of these incursions.

It is true that the imperial status of Russia has not been resolved, it is in full development and cannot be clarified by summary definitions. The country is hostile to the United States and shares a certain association with China in a non-hegemonic bloc. But at the same time, it gathers growing evidence of oppressive external behavior, which is ignored by indulgent eyes.

Moscow has not yet crossed the line between the gestation and consummation of an imperial statute, but these tendencies are present in many planes. Russia does not act on an equal footing with the United States, but employs behaviors typical of a dominator. The ignorance of this course is a prisoner of binary reasoning, which reduces the division of the world into two fields. This simplification idealizes Russia, forgetting the capitalist nature of the socio-political system that prevails in that territory. This base grants significant imperial potential to a country with a long tradition of leadership in world affairs.


Arbitrations and tensions

Western harassment of Russia has aroused some sympathy for Vladimir Putin in progressive circles. There are sympathetic opinions and even presentations of the Russian leader as a heroic figure standing up to imperialism.

This praise was intensified in the heat of a strong confrontation within Russia with the liberal right, sponsored by the State Department. Putin contradicts the godchildren of the group that buried the USSR, and particularly Navalny, the character idolized by Washington and supported by pro-Western middle segments in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

These sectors consider that Vladimir Putin governs a country inhabited by people who are culturally immature and structurally incapable of acting democratically. With this disdainful view of their own fellow citizens, they redouble the campaigns against “populism”, which the major media propagate across the planet (Kagarlitsky, 2016).

Vladimir Putin has come down hard on this right-wing opposition, banning their demonstrations and jailing their leaders. With this blunt response, he neutralized Yeltsin's successors and united the home front. It relies on sectors that favor stability and base a bureaucratic network based on the underprivileged population. The Kremlin chief also demonstrated a great ability to incorporate opponents and distribute shares of power.

The success of this policy reinforced his image as a leader who dismantles conspiracies. But this effectiveness does not make him an exponent of progressivism. His allegations of repressive behavior are not mere fabrications of the CIA. He was accused of eliminating polonium-bearing opponents in London and ordering the downing of the flight that caused 300 civilian deaths in 2014. He recently banned the organization Memorial, which investigates the crimes of Stalinism (Poch, 2022).

Vladimir Putin presides over a regime that has restored capitalism to benefit the oligarchs, at the expense of the popular majority. His prolonged continuity at the head of the state ensures the privileges of millionaires, who control the most profitable sectors of the economy. The Russian president prioritizes maintaining his authority among different segments of the elite. It works to maintain balance between these factions and periodically renews agreements with parties close or far from officialdom (Fair Russia, New People, United Russia) (Kagarlisky, 2021). With this leadership, he supports a foreign policy of resistance to NATO and the recovery of control of the post-Soviet space.

Until the incursion into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin operated very shrewdly in the international arena. It bolstered the defensive bloc with China, but intensified relations with Beijing's rivals (South Korea, Japan, India, Vietnam) to offset the adverse economic divide with its partner. These movements at the global level make it possible to sustain the prolonged internal supremacy of the Muscovite leader.


the left in front of Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin built his leadership during his initial term from 1999 to 2008. He later secured another term in 2012, and later amended the Constitution to extend his presidency, with amendments that would allow him to rule until 2036. This durability is reinforced by mechanisms of institutionalized fraud, that guarantee favorable results in all polls. Some analysts estimate that in the recent elections he maintained the majority in the Duma by falsifying the electronic voting system (Krieger, 2021).

These anomalies are not only denounced by biased Western observers. They are also exposed by the currents of the left that operate within Russia. They point to the existence of numerous obstacles to the formalization of opposition candidacies and mention the existence of sophisticated devices to add or subtract votes.

But, contrary to the past, Vladimir Putin is beginning to face serious impasses. He won the recent elections with the worst result since 2003 and his handling of the pandemic was widely criticized for the reduced government support for the population. In a scenario of closing companies, loss of jobs and difficulties among migrants from the interior, he favored tax benefits for large companies.

The left within Russia must deal with a president in conflict with the US aggressor, who at the same time consolidates a capitalist regime based on inequality. The erosion of social cohesion and deep political demoralization have so far obstructed mass protests. The negative consequences of the USSR's implosion continue to weigh heavily on a society plagued by frustration and apathy.

But the left's promising results in the last elections introduce a measure of hope to get out of this tunnel. The Communist Party (KPRF) achieved its best result since 1999 and consolidated itself as the second force in the Chamber of Deputies. This organization has oscillated between supporting and criticizing the government, but has introduced an opening towards radical currents inserted in the social struggle. These aspects integrated into their candidate lists changed the tone of the last electoral campaign (Budraitskis, 2021).


Anti-imperialism and the popular subject

Vladimir Putin is also seen with sympathy in progressive sectors for his promotion of multipolarity as a geopolitical alternative to American pre-eminence. But there is little certainty about the context that generates this configuration. So far, the multipolarity is home to a motley assortment of regimes that do not share a common pattern.

This course facilitates a world scenario more favorable to popular projects than the previous framework of US unilateral domination. But the new dispersion of power (or its arrangement around a non-hegemonic bloc) is far from consolidating resistance to imperialism. Multipolarity also does not pave an alternative path for the destructive dynamics of capitalism. This diagnosis should be kept in mind when assessing the international situation.

A socialist perspective demands the abandonment of characterizations exclusively centered on geopolitical events, which demarcate the primacy of one or another power. Left-wing approaches must focus attention on popular interests and battles against each country's ruling classes.

The frequent neglect of social-democratic struggles is a corollary of the replacement of political analysis by its geopolitical equivalent. The first approach emphasizes the role of social forces in the conflict, and the second highlights the dispute between the powers for global domination. From the exclusive attention to these shocks, arises the expectation of progressive conquests by the mere advance of multipolarity. This hope is centered on international arm-wrestling favorable to certain governments, without taking into account the events that have an impact on popular organizations.

Due to this lack of interest in events from below, many rebellions that arise against non-hegemonic bloc governments are misinterpreted. Such revolts are automatically dismissed or identified with external conspiracies. There is a great sensitivity to detecting CIA plots and a complete indifference to recording the legitimacy of protests against authoritarianism and inequality. This tends to prevail among authors who praise Putin, scrutinizing the global scene with the exclusive filter of their confrontation with Washington. They assume that the fate of people is decided in the Kremlin and not on the streets.

Popular action does not open paths to emancipation by itself and is sometimes instrumentalized by imperialism or local elites. But it is impossible to build another future without acting in this field and without disputing the primacy of a socialist project in the universe of the dispossessed. The clarification of Russia's imperial status contributes to this alternative construction.

*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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