Anti-imperialism à la Putin. How Russia’s authoritarian regime poses as a resistance fighter against the West

german version

by Ernst Lohoff

published in Jungle World 2022/07 of 17.2.2022

(Translated into English and emended/updated (as of 3/10/22) by Neil Larsen)

“The main enemy resides in one’s own country,” wrote Karl Liebknecht during the First World War, a phrase deeply etched in the collective memory of the left. The impulse of the metropolitan left to refuse to mobilize against the external enemy is no accident. World capitalist society is, after all, a thoroughly imperial order in which power and influence are distributed highly unequally across the world’s regions. Accordingly, the capitalist core states call the tune to which those on the periphery of the world market are obliged to dance; and as a rule they also set the hegemonic terms of interpretation. The US-led war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 still followed this familiar script. However, it also marked a historical turning point. The US and its allies succeeded in bringing down Iraq’s already ailing version of ‘developing world’ capitalist dictatorship militarily in the blink of an eye, but its political reorganization turned out to be a fiasco. The ideological sense of mission with which the West went into its “human rights wars” in the 1990s as a self-appointed world policeman (e.g., Yugoslavia) has since been thoroughly and hopelessly lost.

It is not that the West is no longer in a position to enforce the supremacy of its global economic interests. On this terrain, the Putins, Lukashenkos and Erdoğans have generally and wisely chosen not to challenge the U.S. and the EU at all. Even the victorious Taliban, for example, wasted no time in becoming supplicants of the West after their military triumph last year and asked the German government for humanitarian aid; their outward bearing on the terrain of identity politics, meanwhile, grows all the more martial. Autocrats of all stripes cast themselves in the pose of anti-imperialist fighters and loudly refuse any paternalism of the West, all the while angling to do business with it.

Would that the only price for this strange form of cooperation and confrontation were the loss of Western prestige! Then the whole thing could safely be regarded as second-rate theater, irrelevant to emancipation-oriented leftists. A fool’s paradise that would indeed be, however: for the real victims of such conflict are to be found elsewhere. Today’s authoritarian rulers are playing fast and loose. They seek antagonism with the West in order to secure control over their own populations. Through confrontation with the West, the regimes of “thieves and crooks”—as Alexei Navalny and other opposition figures call the Russian ruling party, ‘United Russia’—aim to regain the legitimacy they have long since lost in Russia and other societies similarly worn down by corruption and human misery.

The ambition is to put relations on the following business footing: The EU and the US are to dispense with talk of human rights and democracy and let the authoritarian regimes retain their dominance and power to dispose however they wish over the fates of their own populations. Then the peaceful reconciliation of interests would cease to be a problem.

In the case of a former great power like Russia, the matter is complicated by the fact that merely keeping its own citizenry in a stranglehold does not suffice the Putin regime. In order to drum the futility of resistance into the consciousness of the Russian population, the latter is pursuing a kind of zero-democracy strategy for the territories of the former Soviet Union. Fearing contagion, Putin’s Russia has turned into a haven of preemptive counterrevolution. Whether it is Kyrgyzstan, Belarus or, most recently, Kazakhstan, as soon as a kleptocracy from the area of former Soviet rule begins to falter, salvation is at hand in the form of Russian political support, up to and including Russian military force. The Baltic states have so far proved too difficult to recapture, and, with the ‘Orange Revolution,’ Ukraine, too, had—until February 24, 2022— escaped Russia’s grasp. This is what had made it all the more important, at the very least, to destabilize it. Whence the pro-Russian breakaway movements in the Donbas and Luhansk, without which the Crimea would never have been annexed—and whence the massive Russian troop deployments and, now, the outright, massive invasion of Ukraine.

In the face of these stark and horrific events, elements within the bourgeois press evoke a ‘neo-Soviet’ imperialism. Quite apart from its anachronism, however, this label obscures more than it explains, if only because it fails to make clear the specific paradox that characterizes Russia’s relationship with its neighbors. For the sharply aggressive policies of Russia’s current rulers spring from the weakness of the regime and are an expression of tendencies toward the disintegration in Russian society. Moreover, the use of the term imperialism suggests that the Russian leadership is concerned with gaining direct control over other countries and their resources in order to strengthen its own economic potential. The reality, however, is that propping up a Belarusian regime hit by Western sanctions and annexing Crimea are more akin to subsidies or investment schemes with no prospect whatever of paying off or making good. And should the Russian leadership actually try to annex Ukraine—as now seems all too horrifyingly possible—it would be utterly ruinous for the occupying power even without Western sanctions.

Parts of the left also like to talk, in this context, about imperialism. In so doing, however, they usually do not mean Russia but the West. The eastward expansion of the EU and NATO is supposed to be the result of a planned land grab. This interpretation projects the rules by which world politics functioned in the late 19th onto the early 21st century. Of course, there are circles in the NATO states and in the EU that have advocated eastward expansion; and of course, there are individual capitalists who have profited from it. But the driving forces for such expansion were by no means to be found in the western metropolitan countries themselves, but rather in the newly and prospective NATO-allied peripheral states themselves. After the collapse of ‘really existing socialism,’ a junior partnership with the US and the EU core states was and is seen by many in the Baltic countries and Ukraine as the only viable prospect—one that has been taking forceful shape in the correspondingly appropriate institutions. In the Western core states, however, this move has by no means met with unanimous enthusiasm. In the EU in particular, the old member states have often viewed the new ones more as a potential burden than anything else. A democratic sense of mission is balanced by fears that the new members might put too great a strain on the club’s coffers and jeopardize the EU’s ability to function.

Meanwhile, elite sectors within the US foreign policy establishment, going back to veteran Cold Warriors such as George Kennan and including former leading State Department officials like William Perry and inner-circle academics such as the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, have long opposed and continue to argue against the eastward expansion of NATO and any direct military challenge to Russian state security needs as contrary to the interests of the US superpower. No one would dream of calling such ideologues “anti-imperialists.” Much less does the Putin-admiring neo-isolationist US ultra-right, from Trump to Fox’s Tucker Carlson rate as a friend of the oppressed, starving and harried populations of Afghanistan, Syria or Subsaharan Africa.

As for NATO itself, it had lost its initial reason for existence with the end of the Cold War’s division of the world into mutually hostile Eastern and Western blocs. It should therefore have either dissolved itself in the early 1990s or offered Russia itself membership. But as long as it continued to exist as a genuinely Western military alliance, it was only logical for countries seeking Western ties to push for admittance into NATO. If one wants to speak of imperialism in this context, then one must also emphasize its paradoxical contemporary form. It arose less from the urge of the old member states for conquest and expansion than from the desire of the “new ones” to join the club of the chosen. Even the United States has now buried its erstwhile dream of a unipolar world. Events in Ukraine may have temporarily assigned to Putin’s Russia the role of America’s public enemy number one in officially sanctioned political and media spheres, where the term “Soviet” still sometimes erroneously slips in in place of “Russian” thanks to the undying, quasi-religious virulence of Cold War anti-communism in the US. And the dire threat of a nuclear exchange with Russia adds considerable gravity and angst to this hideous melodrama. But competition from Russian capitalism is not what scripts Biden’s routine press conferences, nor is it what keeps US banks and corporate boardrooms awake at night—any more than do the Ukrainian (and Russian) victims of Putin’s war crimes and domestic political repression, official hand wringing notwithstanding. US capitalism has neither forgotten nor ceased to focus on its main adversary, and the latter is not in Moscow but in Beijing.

Russian propaganda declares the westward orientation of former ‘really existing socialist’ states to be the result of a systematic “encirclement policy”. In this way, it can appeal to national identity and distract attention from the extent to which Great Russian mafia capitalism à la Putin frightens off broad sections of the population in the successor states of the Soviet Union. However, the Russian government’s aggressive approach confirms its grasp of the underlying contradiction between the true reality of Western interests and the sins for which the West stands publicly accused by Moscow . It is only because the Putin regime knows exactly how limited the West’s interest in its eastern periphery is that it seeks confrontation. Will the calculation work? More than two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the severity of the sanctions imposed by the West and the unusually broad and dramatic unity among Putin’s Western opponents speak against that prospect for now. Even Germany, which has traditionally been Russia-friendly, has made an unprecedented about-face, and the camp of Putin supporters has largely fallen silent for the time being. It is unlikely, however, that such a united front will hold in the long term. Because the sanctions also affect the West itself, and Germany here in particular because of its close economic ties to Russia, the mood could readily change again.

But what this society needs least of all is a radical left that calls for resistance to the West’s human rights warfare ony to join such a newly forming grand coalition of Putin supporters. The forces of emancipation face a very different challenge. The universalism of ‘Western values,’ one that has always, in the end, readily denounced and discredited itself, has, in practice, already been jettisoned. Whether the West eventually opts to come to some accommodation with Putin—which currently seems unlikely—or to continue to play its assigned role of noncombatant antagonist in keeping with Russia’s confrontational script, both stances are united in their cynical orientation according to the principles of ‘Realpolitik.’ The abandonment of a liberal-democratic sense of mission does not at all, however, make the world a better place, but rather an even more cruel and gruesome one. After the collapse of ‘really existing socialism,’ the liberal fairy tale we were told had it that democracy and a market economy would open the way to freedom and prosperity for all members of world society. This illusion has disgraced itself miserably. But this must not mean that the claim to self-determination and to the participation of all in society’s wealth is consigned to the dustbin of history.