Setting the Record straight: Ukraine, Russia and imperialism

by Robert Montgomery and Davey Heller, 9th March 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war has evoked feelings of shock, incredulity and powerlessness. These sentiments fuel confusion, disorientation and panic which can lead to demoralization and despair.  As the media rains down an incessant barrage of anti-Russian atrocity stories, many politically naive people will react with revulsion. We saw this expressed when 100,000 rallied in Berlin to demand an end to the invasion. This is entirely understandable. But what is less understandable is that Marxist groups are echoing the same narrative as the touts of the imperialist media.  By a large majority the Marxist groups oppose the invasion as they view the war as a conflict between two imperialist powers fighting for domination of Ukraine at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty. 

The majority joins the minority of Trotskyist groups in extending critical support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is because we classify Russia, not as imperialist, but rather as a nationalist and dependent bourgeois regime in conflict with imperialism. We support Russia’s right to defend its national sovereignty against NATO imperialist aggression on its borders, up to and including the use of military force.  We extend military but no political support to the reactionary, nationalist Putin regime. In fact, we call for the Russian working class to oust Putin and the oligarchs he represents. 

Trotsky argued that it was not the political character of the bourgeois regime that determined whether it should be supported in a conflict but the combatant’s relationship to imperialism. In 1935 for example, Trotsky called for military victory of the Ethiopians over the Italian invaders despite the feudal nature of the Selassie regime. At the same time he gave no support to the dynastic Selassie regime.

Similarly, Trotsky wrote in 1938 that if there was a conflict between the semi-fascist Vargas regime in Brazil and Great Britain

“I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil”

We believe that if the Russian ruling class is defeated by imperialism, it will only mean a “double chain” for the Russian working class under its own undemocratic ruling class and imperialism. We also believe that a victory by Russia against imperialism would be a blow against imperialism everywhere.

Whilst utterly rejecting the “Greater Russia” chauvinism of Putin the issue of Ukraine’s self-determination does not overturn the critical support we give Russia’s invasion. Since the 2014 Maiden Coup, the Kiev regime has functioned as a virtual puppet government and spearhead for US imperialism’s encirclement of Russia which poses an existential threat. In addition, it is very difficult to ascertain the perspective of the Ukrainian working class when it has been divided by the violent civil war that followed the 2014 coup.  The armed fascist forces united around the extreme anti-Russian Banderite form of Ukrainian nationalism have not only served as key forces in the 2014 Coup and as the main battering ram against the separatist Republics but they have also worked with the Ukrainian state to repress the left.

What is imperialism?

To address the claim that Russia is acting as an imperialist power in Ukraine we need to begin by asking what imperialism is. But first, we need to clarify what imperialism is not.

Imperialism is not:

  • a policy which political leaders can change at will.
  • “a state policy of extending power and dominion by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas” (Oxford English Dictionary), or “a policy or practice by which a country increases its power by gaining control over other areas of the world” (Merriam-Webster). By such definitions Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia or even the Aztec, Inca and the Mughal Empire in India could be added to the list of imperialist powers. 
  • when a dependent capitalist nation invades another one as when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Ethiopia invaded Eritrea, or El Salvador invaded Honduras in 1970.

And in the present context, when we use the word ‘imperialist’  as a term of abuse, or as a synonym for a large trading nation, even one possessing nuclear weapons, we rob it of all scientific value. 

Imperialism is capitalism at its highest stage of development.

With the concentration of production into giant monopolies, Lenin saw the economic basis of imperialism. The concentration of capital into monopolies is the inevitable outcome of ‘free competition’ between capitalists. As the concentration of capital grows, the lesser capitalists are eliminated and the economy is increasingly centralized. A small group of big firms enjoy monopoly power, and increasingly are integrated with the state. The concentration of capital and the dominance of finance capital are more pronounced features of capitalism in the current global imperialist era.

The largest capitalist firms in the world are now larger than most countries. The tenth largest company has annual revenues over $200B, and only 40 countries have a greater level of GDP than this single firm.

The US is the hegemonic imperialist power today with the annual output of just 300 firms equivalent to almost 50% of GDP.  The US boasts nearly one-third of the leading Fortune 500 global firms, the same as its next three imperialist rivals together. Apple is now the most profitable company in the world.

US economic hegemony is under threat, both from its own contradictions and from the rising economic strength of China. The US has been stymied by a combination of semi-colonial and lesser capitalist states acting in concert as we saw recently in Syria. It failed in its regime change war in Syria due largely to Russian and Iranian military assistance. 

US insistence on its supremacy within the imperialist bloc is exacerbating rivalries among its leading members especially the US and Germany. Socialists and communists should welcome the relative weakness of the US, while acknowledging the heightened dangers of war that it brings to the international working class.

In the post-Soviet 1990s, a triumphalist US proclaimed the doctrine of a “uni-polar world order.” The US would be the sole world power and would accept no global or regional opposition to its hegemony. Additionally, it asserted a willingness to fight two major wars simultaneously.  

Since the 1999 US/NATO war on Serbia, US imperialism and its allies has waged murderous neo-colonial wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria that have killed and displaced tens of millions of people, laying waste to entire regions of the world. Imperialism is the mortal enemy of all humanity. Its set-backs and defeats should be cause for celebration as they represent an advance for all humankind and the struggle for a socialist future.

In “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” Lenin stated ““without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features”. These were:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; 

(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; 

(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; 

(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and 

(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. 

Taken as a whole Lenin’s five criteria delineate the features that define a capitalist country as imperialist. But he does not define the economic forces that drive imperialism to expand. 

Monopoly capitalism suffers from a permanent tendency to an over-accumulation of capital arising from the concentration and centralization of capital itself.  As the over-accumulation of capital increases, the ratio of profits to total capital invested declines. Because the rate of profit comes under most pressure in sectors with the highest organic composition of capital (the most highly productive and capital intensive), the average rate of profit falls and new capital investment is deferred. The longterm crisis of falling profit rates engenders a search for more lucrative outlets for capital investment. Over-accumulation of capital at home drives the export of capital to less developed, lower wage countries where higher profit rates are found due to the lower levels of technology used.

A key answer to permanent over-accumulation is a frenzied search for new fields of capital investment. Most importantly, this entails a drive to export capital. Under globalized capitalist production, for any volume of output produced there are only two sources of additional profits. Capitalists either increase the rate of surplus value extracted from the working class, or redistribute surplus value at the expense of other capitalists, both domestically and on the world market.

The drive to increase the rate of surplus value plays a decisive role in the dynamics of imperialism today. 

Is Russia imperialist? 

Has Russia reached the highest stage of capitalism?

A 2000 US State Department report found that:

“Russia’s physical infrastructure reflects the legacy of Soviet-era priorities and relative Soviet autarky, ensuring that the transition to a new, more globalized economy will be difficult… a large proportion of Russian capital stock will have to be written off over the next decade. Investments have been made in industries in which Russia is unlikely to ever be internationally competitive, either because of poor quality or because the capital stock embodies technologies incompatible with international standards. Considerable capital has been invested in remote regions where neither the government nor private industry is likely to provide funds for upkeep or modernization. Demonetization, lack of institutional capacity, and inadequate property rights protection discourage investment in both public and private spheres.” (

Correction notice: Original version of the article said report was from 2020 not 2000

This picture is one of a backward, stagnating capitalist country not investing in new roads, ports, bridges, schools, hospitals or physical and human capital of any kind. The Russian economy is living off of outdated capital stock constructed before the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. So much for Russia having reached the “highest stage of capitalism.

What about Lenin’s five criteria? 


Monopolies do dominate the economy. They are concentrated in heavy industry and generate 40% of total sales. Russia’s monopolies did not emerge from a long process of capitalist development where expanding market production leads to a high degree of concentration and centralization of capital. Russian capitalism was erected on the remains of a collectivized, centrally planned economy in which whole industrial sectors and distribution chains were controlled by a single state owned enterprise. When the USSR collapsed, a clique of venal Stalinist bureaucrats bought up these properties for a nickel on the dollar and milked them as cash cows. The monopolies contribute a large share of the GDP but they are not large by US standards. Beneath the monopolies is a scattered mass of very small firms. Russia’s monopolies are not controlled by finance capital. They are exporters of commodities not capital. The only thing they have in common with western monopolies is high GDP share. 

Finance Capital

Russia has only two of the top 100 banks in the world whose total worth is less than half that of the three Brazilian banks on the list. Banks are a small part of the economy (4% of GDP) and play little role in directing it. Russian capitalism is not under the domination of finance capital.

Export of capital

Russian total foreign investment is 21% of GDP — more than Brazil and Mexico, less than Chile, and the same as South Africa. And much of the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is not invested in foreign countries, but is capital parked in offshore tax havens as suggested by the fact that inflows and outflows of capital balance every year. Rather than having a large surplus of capital seeking outlets for more profitable investments, Russia has a capital shortage and is a net importer of capital. (See Michael Roberts graph). Russia exports raw materials, agricultural products and energy; and, it imports manufactured goods. Russia exports commodities not capital.

Graph by Michael Roberts

Membership in an association of capitalist powers which share the world, Russia:

  • is excluded from the OECD the club of leading capitalist countries 
  • was accepted into the WTO only in 2012, a decade after China
  • was kicked out of the Group of Eight leading global powers
  • is encircled up to its borders by NATO, the imperialist military alliance.

Russia is not in the association of the leading capitalist powers.

Judging by Lenin’s five criteria, Russia is not imperialist. On the other hand, is Putin building a new Russian empire exploiting the resources of the post-Soviet states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia as Michael Probsting claims:

“Russia’s monopolies are investing in mostly semi-colonial Central Asia and Eastern Europe, as well as in Western imperialist Europe and in the semi-colonial Balkans. From these figures we can conclude that Russian monopolies derive significant extra-profit from their foreign investments in the semi-colonial countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia.”

But we can’t conclude this. Probsting does not disaggregate his Russian FDI total to show what amounts are invested in each region. In another table, Probsting contradicted his own claim by showing that less than 4% of Russia’s foreign investment went to Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And much of the capital outflows from Russia are not real foreign investment at all, but rather funds parked in off-shore tax havens.  Here is the breakdown of where Russian foreign investment flows: 

  • Ukraine 1.2%;
  • Rest of former USSR 3.1%
  • European Union 64% of which Cyprus accounted for 43% in 2012 (Aleksei Kuznetsov, “Russian Multinationals FDI Outflows Geography: the Emerging Dominance of Greater Europe,” European Researcher [Vol. 67:1-2, 2014])
  • British Virgin Islands 12.8% (2012)

Far from encouraging foreign investment, the Russian government has been appealing to bring this “flight capital” home, to no avail. (Moscow Times, 18 August 2013).

In Central Asia much of the Russian investment is concentrated in the petroleum industry, including in the giant Tengiz oil field operated by a consortium led by Chevron and Exxon and the mammoth project at Kashagan. The latter is led by a consortium of Eni (Italy), BP (Britain), Statoil (Norway), Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total S.A. (France). The Russian Rosneft and Lukoil only have minor fields producing far less than the Austrian OMW. (OECD Investment Policy Reviews, Kazakhstan 2012: Foreign Direct Investment in Kazakhstan (2012). )

Tengiz oil field: U.S. European imperialists are exploiting Central Asian resources. (Photo: New York Times.)

What about Ukraine?

In the net, Russia does not appropriate value from Ukraine, rather it transfers value to Ukraine.

“The simple fact is that Russia today supports the Ukrainian economy to the tune of at least $5 billion, perhaps as much as $10 billion, each year. This subsidy is not limited to cheap gas, but also includes Ukraine’s heavy manufacturing and defense industries.” (Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes, “Ukraine: A Prize Neither Russia Nor the West Can Afford to Win”)

 We will leave the final word on Russian imperialism to the economist Tony Norfield who combines economic size, foreign assets, international banking, foreign exchange, and military expenditures in a single graphic. Russia is just behind S. Korea and ahead of Belgium.

In summary Russia is not imperialist. It is a mid-range capitalist economy comparable to Brazil, Iran, or South Africa. On balance Russia transfers more value to the world economy than it appropriates from it. Ultimately Marxists must oppose the reactionary capitalist Government of Putin and fight for it to be replaced with a workers government based on socialist internationalism. However, as a dependent capitalist state Russia has the fundamental right to defend its national sovereignty against imperialism. Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine in the context of its increasing encirclement by imperialism. Biden’s signed statement in November 2021 supporting Ukraine’s right to join NATO signaled to Russia that the US was drawing the noose of encirclement firmly around Russia’s neck  in Ukraine. This deliberate provocation triggered the invasion, which though offensive tactically, was strategically defensive. The war has quickly become a proxy military and economic war by Imperialism against Russia. This is why Marxists must support Russia’s right of self-defence against imperialism and extend military support as it fights imperialism in defense of its own national sovereignty.. 

Useful Sources on the debate of whether Russia is imperialist?

The Driving Forces of Imperialism, Ernest Mandel
Is Russia imperialist?, Stansfield Smith

Russia reacts to imperialist encroachment, Bolshevik Tendency
Who owns the Russian stock market
Russia as a Great Imperialist Power, Michael Probsting
The Myth of Russian Imperialism, Clarke and Annis 
Is Russia Imperialist?, Sam Williams
The Bugbear of “Russian Imperialism”, The Internationalist
HM2 – The economics of modern imperialism, Michael Roberts
Russia’s Physical and Social Infrastructure: Implications for Future Development National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the US Department of State. 

Stephen Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia. Updated edition Pub. 2000 by W. W. Norton & Company

Robert Montgomery

Originally from Boston, he has been active in antiwar and labour struggles for almost fifty years. He has functioned as an independent Trotskyist since leaving the SWP (US) in the 1970s. A historian he has published numerous articles on US labor history. A union activist he has served on numerous action committees and was local president of a municipal library union. He is a retired medical radiographer.

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