Russian Imperialism on the March

After the Soviet Union

Since the collapse of the USSR the USA has celebrated “the end of history” by trying to cash in on a “peace dividend” which allowed it to mop up the peripheral areas of the former Soviet Empire. The US-led war in Afghanistan was preceded by the establishment of air bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The US was even more quickly into the Ukraine and the Caucasus where support was given to anti-Russian movements to further weaken the Kremlin. The result was that there were five wars in the Caucasus in the 1990s and the Russians were unable to have a decisive say in any of them. In response, all they could do was support one side or another or promote even smaller separatist movements, such as that in Abkhazia, to add to the general chaos. Yeltsin’s Russia could not even end the resistance in Chechenia and suffered a further military humiliation in the retreat from Grozny in 1995. All this was set against the background of so-called economic liberalisation which allowed gangsters and former bureaucrats (often the same people) to take control of swathes of the Russian economy whilst the pensions and wages of the population in general plummeted. Russia, it seemed, was in no position to fight back. It was forced to look on as former satellites states like Poland and the Czech Republic were welcomed into the EU and NATO. Under Yeltsin the country was opened up to foreign capital, but this capital was only interested in exploiting Russia’s huge natural mineral resources, particularly oil and gas.

The Revival of Russian Imperialism

Under Putin, who came to power in 1999, things have changed. Low interest rates on the global financial markets combined with high energy prices have seen an economic revival based almost solely on gas and debt. Real wage levels across the economy have revived to 1990 levels for the first time (though their distribution has, like everywhere else increased the gulf between the working class and the rest). On the basis of this fragile economic recovery, Putin has once again asserted the Kremlin’s control over the state and society. Surrounded by loyal former KGB agents (the so-called siloviki), he has either recruited the former gangsters who had control of the economy (like Abramovitch) or had them exiled (like Berezovsky), gaoled them (like Khordokovsky), or had them killed. The media is totally controlled by the ruling elite and anyone who tries to ask awkward questions (like Anna Polikovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko) are simply bumped off.

But what has most clearly marked his Presidency is the revival of Russian imperialism. It did not look as though this would happen in his early days. The US process of eating away at the former Soviet Empire seemed to be carrying on. 2000 saw the victory of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the Rose revolution in Georgia, both inspired by Western intelligence agencies. Since then the two of them - under Yushenko (Ukraine) and Saakashvili (Georgia) - who have strong links to US “free market” organisations, have taken their countries into the Western orbit. However, Putin has from the very beginning sought to re-establish the power of the former Tsarist and Stalinist empires. This was made clear whenhe provoked a new war in Chechenia (by first getting the secret service to plant bombs killing workers in Moscow flats which were unconvincingly blamed on Chechen “terrorists”) and then virtually destroying Grozny. And after 9/11, when Western leaders began to attack human rights abuses in Chechenia, Putin responded that these were a necessary part of the war of the “war on terror” against Islamic extremism.

Nor did he take the West’s offensive in the Ukraine lying down and, using the weapon of gas delivery, he has mounted a counter-offensive by cutting off Ukrainian gas supplies until the payment was raised to world market levels (and not delivered at the old subsidised Soviet rate). Gas then became the chosen battleground of Russian imperialism everywhere.

The Power of Gas

The main area in which Russia has fought back against its encirclement has been in the area of gas supply. The Ukraine was the first to realise that it could not simply ignore Russia if it wanted to maintain supplies of this vital economy but the realisation of the significance of gas for promoting Russian power had already been noted in the Kremlin. In 1989, Gazprom had been set up when the old Soviet Ministry of Gas was privatised. In 1996, Gazprom’s shares were floated and, two years later, Eon of Germany (which owns Powergen in the UK) bought a stake in the company. This was the first step in a policy of cooperation with Western supply companies which would take Gazprom this year to having supply agreements with 12 European countries including France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Gazprom has also bought shares in a number of western gas suppliers. The Kremlin though, whilst taking advantage of the open access to the Western share market, is quite determined to make sure that Western companies don’t operate so freely in Russian territory.

In 2001 Putin appointed his close ally Alexei Miller, Chief Executive of Gazprom. This was the start of another Gazprom policy of harassing Western companies to change the agreements it had previously entered into at a time when Russia was in desperate need of capital. Shell was told that its pollution record was too bad to maintain its operations on Sakhalin. This seems a bit of a joke given the track record of the Russian state but eventually Shell capitulated and gave Gazprom a greater share of the operation in return for retaining its licence to operate. The same happened at Kovykta with BP and its subsidiary TNK. BP was allowed to carry on operating after selling Gazprom $3 billions worth of future supplies for around $700-900 million (see Financial Times, 23-4th June 2007). It was just one more step in the Kremlin’s takeover of the energy sector. And, with this new source of power, the Kremlin has sought to demonstrate its political power. In serious terms it has already begun the imperialist fight back by shifting some of its dollar holdings into euros last December, which immediately led to a further fall in the dollar. More significantly, it sent out a signal to other energy suppliers (such as the OPEC members) who also followed suit. As we have explained many times, this is a direct blow to the US since it is dependent on the holdings of dollars abroad in order for the money it prints to finance its twin deficits to avoid at the very least massive inflationary repercussions in the US.

A Dangerous Game

Putin has also become more aggressive on the political stages of the world. He deliberately spoke in provocative language before the G8 summit in May against the US latest missile project, the so-called missile defence shield. Ostensibly, this is aimed against some unnamed and obscure threat from terrorists in the Middle East but the siting of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic has become another symbol of the US attempt to surround and isolate Russia. Although there is widespread scepticism as to whether the system will work, Putin chose to cause a public diplomatic row about it in order to demonstrate that the time for pushing the Kremlin around is over.

A similar situation has arisen over Kosovo where Russian opposition in support of their Slav Orthodox allies in Serbia has so far blocked the UN intention of declaring Kosovo independent. Putin has made it quite clear that it will do everything in its power to support Serbia and destabilise Kosovo, if this goes ahead without some deal with the Kosovo Serb minority. Putin has already made it clear that the new Russian imperialism is a dangerous enemy. He has suspended gas supplies and launched an “electronic blitzkrieg” against Estonia after a monument to the Soviet dead of World War Two was removed in Tallinn on the orders of the Estonian Parliament.

In this, and in so many other gestures, Putin is playing the nationalist card in order to ensure both a parliamentary victory for his supporters in the December Duma (parliament) elections and for his chosen successor in next year’s Presidential elections. Putin has a loyal following amongst youth through the quasi-fascist Nashi movement, and there is no doubt that his defence of the USSR’s record in the Second World War has increased his popularity. His re-installation of the old Stalinist anthem as the Russian national anthem is all part of the same ideological process. Soviet imperialism is to be admired because it made Russia respected. Now Putin aims to restore that position. This all underlines the main theme of the article which follows, that we are in a very “distinct and unstable phase “ in the history of imperialism. The one certainty is that under a decaying capitalism system further imperialist rivalry and conflict are inevitable


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