Imperialism of our times: understanding the Russian war on Ukraine

Russia’s imperialistic military operation in Ukraine has been precipitated by the US-led NATO’s imperialistic expansion into Eastern Europe. Both should be opposed by progressives, anti-imperialists and all right-thinking people.


RUSSIA’S invasion of Ukraine could best be characterised as an imperialist aggression and a direct abridgement of Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for this stands on two predicates: first is on the chauvinistic claim that Ukraine is a ‘bogus’ country that should be part of greater Russia. He pins the blame on the flawed fantasies of national self-determination espoused by the Bolsheviks under the former Soviet Union’s founding head of government Vladimir Lenin. Secondly, the unabated march of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO] closer to the borders of Russia has made Putin, and rightly so, wary of military encirclement.

A history of broken commitments

On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, a declassified document showed that the United States [US]’s then Secretary of State James Baker had assured then Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev against the eastward expansion of NATO. The note, dated February 9, 1990, pithily read “not an inch eastwards”. In December 1989 during the Malta Summit between then US President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev, Bush had promised that the US would not take advantage of the upsurge in the East European states to jeopardise Russia’s security. The famous Bonn Cable of 1990 also reiterated the strategic thinking of the then West German foreign minister Hans Genscher that the expansion of NATO must not ‘lead to an impairment of Soviet security interests’.

Despite all this, the imperial advance of NATO led to the inclusion of former Soviet states under its ambit. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher justified NATO’s continuation and expansion by saying that “you don’t cancel your home insurance policy just because there have been fewer burglaries on your street in the last 12 months”. The need to ‘preserve the strategic balance of Europe’ became the prime purpose of the alliance. It also graduated from a military alliance to an institutional expression of the transatlantic community of States sharing similar values.

The role played by the International Monetary Fund [IMF], which is the chief cat paw of international finance, vindicates the Patnaiks’ argument about the imperialism of international finance.

In 2019, Ukraine made the mistake of writing the membership of NATO into its constitution, which angered Russia, along with the passage of a law in 2017 that made Ukrainian the sole language of instruction beyond primary school level. This was done to pander the ultranationalist sentiments within Ukraine, even though Russian is the native language of 30 per cent of Ukrainian citizens. The act fed into Russian chauvinism among ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and also angered the other national minorities: Hungarians, Jews and Tartars. Ukraine also failed to implement the 2015 Minsk II accords that mandated more autonomy to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Ukrainian government had a clear inkling of Russian aggression because earlier in 2008, to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, Putin directed an invasion in support of secessionist movements in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, hemming them to claim independence. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine, violating the Budapest Memorandum on security assurances (1994) wherein Ukraine gave up 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that committed Russia, US and Britain “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against it. The United States escaped opprobrium over its refusal to get involved on ground to prevent the annexation by citing that the Budapest Memorandum was not a legal but a political commitment.

Also read: Russia-Ukraine conflict: has international law failed?

The role of finance capital

Putin is neither a Boris Yeltsin who had openly espoused the principle of non-interference in the erstwhile Soviet republics, nor someone who espouses the ideals of the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks. As alluded to earlier, his blaming of Lenin to give Ukraine the right to self-determination in post-Czarist Russia clearly alludes to the Czarist imperial imagery. Since Russia remains economically weak when compared to the US and the European Union [EU], therefore the imperial imagination has limited room for operation apart from the regions which were once part of the Soviet Union. This endeavour is fuelled by the imperial expansionism of the US-led NATO.

A lot of literature on the nature of contemporary imperialism has emerged lately. Chief among them is Marxist economists Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik’s ‘A Theory of Imperialism’ (2017). Their focus is on the practice of income deflation which is done by the advanced economies of the temperate countries on the countries of tropical regions through a huge procurement of tropical goods, which could not be produced in the temperate landmass yet are extremely necessary for their survival. Whilst presenting their arguments, the Patnaiks discount the geopolitical nature of imperialism that unfolded during the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century wherein each nation-State represented the financial interest of the ‘nation’ and was engaged in a zero-sum game with other contenders, forming the classical context of ‘inter-imperialist-capitalist rivalry’. They even go to the extent of prognosticating that given the ‘international’ nature of finance capital which knows no nations and boundaries, we have entered an era that marks the end of inter-imperialist rivalry and wars.

So does the current conjuncture of crisis which is pregnant with the possibilities of a major war and, worse still, a nuclear conflagration between the US and Russia disapprove of the thesis proffered by the Patnaiks? The answer is both yes and no.

The role played by the International Monetary Fund [IMF], which is the chief cat paw of international finance, vindicates the Patnaiks’ argument about the imperialism of international finance. The fact is that the deposed President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, was in negotiations with the IMF for trade integration with the EU; the former demanded a host of austerity measures which Yanukovych was reluctant to undertake. He turned towards Russia, which led to his overthrow in the 2014 Maidan coup by the US with the aid of far-right elements. The new government that came to power pandered to the demands of the IMF and accepted a loan of $ 17.5 billion, which resulted in the cutting of gas subsidies for citizens to almost half — a move that caused hardships for the common Ukrainians.

Putin will deny a democratic regime to the people of the breakaway regions, just the way he has denied it to his fellow Russians for more than two decades.

In response to the Russian invasion, the IMF Managing Director has guaranteed emergency funding of $ 1.4 billion to Ukraine on top of $ 700 million disbursed in December. Once the dust of war settles down, Ukraine would have to foot the bill through the selling of natural gas, its chief mineral, to the metropolitan capital. The Patnaiks’ insistence on the power of international finance is also on a solid footing when facts such as Britain’s insistence, even in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February 2014, to exempt the city of London from EU and US sanctions from Russian financial transactions are brought to the fore.

Also read: International Monetary Fund played a crucial role in precipitating Ukraine war

It is on the geopolitical front where the Patnaiks argument suffers from its own blind spots. States under capitalism are, if not instrumental to the latter’s operation, nonetheless crucial for capitalism’s smooth operation. This remains so even today wherein the capitalist State sets the terms for international trade and cross border investment flows. The capitalist State also functions to lure away States from buying crucial commodities from other States. For instance, the US has insisted that the crucial Nordstream II pipeline would be halted in the wake of further advances by Russia whereas Germany, for which the pipeline is extremely crucial, was initially nimble-footed before ultimately relenting to pressure and halting it last month. This is so because the US has been producing and selling natural gas to Europe since last year and is desperately looking to expand its export portfolio which already includes China, Japan and South Korea as top buyers.

The question of whether and to what extent the US would risk going for it is up for grabs but cannot be sufficiently asserted because a lot depends on conjunctural factors as the crisis unfolds.

Secondly, what remains unexplained under the monochromatic scheme of imperialism of finance capital is the growing market for arms and armaments. Simply put, if nations are not going to fight one another for the sake of the mobility of finance capital, then why are they amassing armaments, both nuclear and conventional? The explanation could not be provided by simply alluding to deterrence needs or the existence of a military-industrial complex.

By 2020, the cumulative global defence expenditure stood at nearly $ 2 trillion, marking an increase of 2.6 per cent in real terms. The US expenditure marked an increase of 4.4 per cent whereas that of Russia was marked by an increase of 2.5 per cent. Last week, in the wake of the current crisis, China announced a whopping 7.1 per cent hike in defence spending in response to the encirclement attempts by the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS.

Also read: Treaty obligations and the geopolitical consequences of the nuclear race

Russia is no liberator

As reports of a Ukrainian compromise with Russia and a relenting on NATO membership are coming out, Russia, in a typical imperialist fashion, has allegedly demanded that the war will end only if Ukraine recognises its breakaway eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent States, and Crimea as Russian territory. Currently, Crimea is under the influence of Putin’s right-wing and ultra-nationalist party United Russia. Out of 75 members in the State Council of Crimea, 60 belong to it. Ukrainian parties are banned from operating here. In a highly undemocratic fashion, Russia has also ensured that legislators electing the chief executive are limited to candidates chosen by the Russian President. And in the legislative elections, legitimate opposition forces are denied registration before the voting begins, leaving voters with the choice of either abstaining or endorsing pro-Russian candidates. Following the far-right recipe of branding opposition as terrorists, the Russian government has put opposition leaders such as the left-wing leader Yevgeniy Karakashev and Oleh Prykhodko behind the bars under the charges of terrorism.

The fate of Donetsk and Luhansk is going to be the same. Putin will deny a democratic regime to the people of the breakaway regions, just the way he has denied it to his fellow Russians for more than two decades.

With this, the bogus American attempts at fomenting democracy have come a full circle.

Also read: Ukraine: a conflict soaked in contradictions and new patterns in war and media

To conclude, progressives and anti-imperialists across the globe must gird up their loins. They must not shy away from calling out Russian imperialism as much as they do American imperialism because imperialism is not a matter of magnitude.

Italy had four colonies in Africa, much less when compared to those of Britain and France; it was imperial, nonetheless. Similarly, Russian imperialism might appear as a midget when compared to the vastness of American military bases across the world, but it is guided by the same chauvinist expansionary agenda of abridging the right to self-determination of other nations and States.

I dedicate this article to the memory of the great Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad (1941 – March 9, 2022). Rest in power, comrade! You will be dearly missed.

(The views expressed are personal.)

The Leaflet