Imperialist rivalry and Putin’s Russia

As the conflict inside Ukraine continues, Solidarity looks at Russia’s increasing assertiveness under Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine is being torn apart in a renewed imperial contest between the West and Russia.

Last year Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, was ousted and a pro-Western government came to power. In response Crimea, the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula on the Black Sea, seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia. Eastern and southern Ukraine are on the brink of civil war as pro-Russian militias demand that these areas do the same.

There is a stand-off between two imperial blocs—the US and the EU on one side and Russia on the other. This is a product of a more assertive Russian imperialism built up under President Vladimir Putin over the last decade.

His ability to rebuild the Russian state following the fall of the USSR has allowed Russia to re-enter the world’s imperial games.

Fall of the USSR

When the USSR broke apart it in 1991 it threw Russia into total economic and social turmoil. Economic output fell by 45 per cent—the worst ever economic slump during peacetime.

A program of neo-liberal shock-therapy took a particularly brutal toll, through either the collapse or privatisation of the old state-owned industries. The IMF estimates that Russian state oil assets were sold for less than 10 per cent of their real value. Investment fell by 80 per cent.

This period saw a tiny layer of people, known as the Russian oligarchs, amass huge wealth through the cheap privatisations. Many of them were members of the old Stalinist bureaucracy.

Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch Putin eventually exiled, estimated at one point that 50 per cent of the Russian economy was controlled by a total of seven oligarchs.

A low point came in 1998 when Russia defaulted on its $40 billion debt and the Russian ruble’s value fell by 60 per cent.

The economic collapse also had wide social ramifications. Between 1989 and 1994 male life expectancy fell from 64 to 57.

Social services disintegrated along with the state. There were stories about ambulance workers who would only agree to come out to emergencies if families agreed to pay the petrol costs on arrival. Alcoholism skyrocketed. In 2007 there were 2.3 million registered alcoholics.

Along with the economic and social dislocation came the disintegration of the USSR’s old empire. When its former satellite states became independent Russia lost 148 million of its 288 million population.

During the 1990s the Russian ruling class attempted to reassert control over its former territories, most infamously in Chechnya. President Boris Yeltsin fought a bloody war in 1996 but lost to Chechen separatists. The war was another sign of Russian decline, revealing its military weakness.

Putin’s rise to power

By the end of the 1990s there was a growing ruling class consensus in Russia that the central government needed to be strengthened. The economy had been divided into regional fiefdoms controlled by separate oligarchs. A stronger centralised state was needed to impose order and rebuild the shattered economy and the country’s military capacity.

Vladimir Putin was a former KGB officer inside the old Stalinist bureaucracy. He took on the project of rebuilding Russian state power with the backing of sections of the oligarchy and key media figures.

In the 2000s Putin brought Russia’s profitable energy sector back under state control.

This also coincided with sky-rocketing global oil prices due to Western speculation and the invasion of Iraq. Russia has the world’s largest natural gas reserves and is also the world’s largest oil producer.

Prices continued to rise until 2008 so that Putin oversaw growth of 6-7 per cent a year in the Russian economy. The wealth generated allowed Putin to stabilise the currency and pay off Russian state debt. Living standards also improved, rising back to USSR-era levels and exceeding them in many areas.

This alleviated the poverty ordinary Russians were plunged into following the fall of the USSR, giving Putin high approval ratings.

Putin was happy for the oligarchs to continue profiteering, as long as they agreed not to challenge his hold on political power.

As Mike Haynes, a socialist academic and specialist on Russia has written:

“Private and corporate interests are behind most of Moscow’s major policy decisions as Russia is ruled by people who largely own it…Under President Vladimir Putin’s watch the Russian state has turned into something like Russia Inc with top Kremlin staffers and senior ministers sitting on the boards of various state-owned corporations and taking an active interest in their progress and profits.”

But Putin picked off, imprisoned, exiled or killed any oligarchs that challenged him. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was formerly the owner of Yukos, one of the biggest oil companies during the immediate post-USSR privatisation years. After he began backing the liberal opposition to Putin and spoke out publicly about corruption, Putin threw him in prison. He was only released last year.

Putin’s wider authoritarianism has seen journalists and opposition activists such as Pussy Riot routinely jailed.

Putin has tried to use nationalism and homophobia to deflect discontent away from his own government. He has waged war on LGBT Russians by passing a host of anti-gay laws, leading to a spike in homophobic attacks across the country.

But Russia is about to enter a recession. Public sector workers are a major support base for Putin, partly because he has a policy of yearly wage increases.

But when there is no longer enough money for this to continue Putin will face problems.


The US took advantage of Russia’s weakness after the fall of the USSR to draw former Russian territories into its own sphere of influence. Nine former Eastern bloc countries have become NATO members and ten have joined the European Union.

Following 9/11 the US also set up new bases in central Asia during the war in Afghanistan, dangerously close to Russia’s borders. In 2007 Putin declared, “NATO has frontline forces on our borders.”

Putin’s renewal of Russian power has involved reasserting control in its old empire and attempting to push back against the Western advance. One early act was his ruthless war to regain control of Chechnya. Putin went back in 1999 to finish what Yeltsin couldn’t in 1996. He smashed the Chechen independence movement, slaughtered thousands and left the capital Grozny in ruins.

The war sent a strong message that Russia was not willing to relinquish territory and was a sign that Putin had begun restoring the country’s ability to throw its imperial weight around in the region.

We saw this again in 2008 with the brief and bloody war with Georgia. Georgia is a former Soviet satellite state that became a US ally. In 2008 Georgia attacked South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both breakaway regions backed by Russia, believing it might gain US backing.

But the US was not willing to intervene and Putin used the war to assert Russian authority, humiliating Georgia and openly confronting the West for the first time since the Cold War.

The contest for Ukraine

Ukraine is the new front line in the imperialist contest between Russia and the West.

As European academic Tim Garton Ash has pointed out, with Ukraine, Russian is still an empire. Crimea is a particularly important asset. It hosts a key naval base through which Russia projects power through the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean.

Ukrainian independence after the fall of the USSR was a huge blow to Russian power. In April during a stage-managed interview Putin referred repeatedly to areas in the Ukraine as “New Russia”. This term dates back to Tsar Catherine the Great who first annexed southern and eastern Ukraine into the Russian empire.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea and efforts to foster Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine today signal a renewed attempt to claw back these territories.

The West has denounced Russian intervention in strident terms. But they have been reluctant to take any serious action. Both US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have ruled out sending troops into Ukraine.

Apart from visa and asset freezes against key individuals in the Russian elite the West has been reluctant to put broad sanctions or economic pressure on Russia.

The reason for this is that sanctions would hurt Russia’s European trading partners as much as Putin.

If Russian energy supplies were cut it could throw the EU back into recession. Germany relies on Russia for 50 per cent of its gas imports. BP has a 19.75 per cent stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft. Russian billionaires have invested heavily in the UK.

In the longer term the US hopes to pressure the EU to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. For now all it can do is manage the fallout over Ukraine.

At the heart of the conflict in Ukraine is inter-imperialist rivalry between two capitalist power blocs. This involves both geopolitical concerns over control of the region, and economic motivations over control of resources. Under Putin, Russia has been able to reassert itself as a player on the stage.

But neither imperial power has any concern for the interests of working class people. The popular mobilisations in Ukraine have so far generally revolved around support for one or other of the imperialist camps.

Inside Russia there have been growing challenges Putin’s hegemony. In 2011 Russians held the largest protests since the 1990s against electoral corruption. Recently 50,000 marched in Moscow against Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Such movements from below can unite workers regardless of which language they speak and will be key to posing an alternative to the imperialism of both Russia and the West.


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