Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian state, but does it pose the threat that advocates of the NATO alliance often claim? John Rees looks at the profile of Russian military power today.
Before we analyse Russian military power today let’s just briefly state the nature of the modern state system.
Capitalism is a competitive system, a point on which capitalism’s critics and defenders agree. Asda competes with Morrisons, and with Tesco, Sainsbury's, Aldi, Lidl, and so on. Exxon competes with BP, Shell, Agip and other oil giants. Ford competes with Fiat, Citroen, Nissan, BMW and other motor corporations. Touch any object in the world and it’s the same story that lies behind its production. This is the free market beloved of Theresa May and pro-capitalist politicians the world over.
That competition never stays simply within the economic realm. States use political, diplomatic, and military power to defend those corporations with which they are most closely intertwined.And so the state system is also competitive.
Rival states use trade deals and arms deals, tariff regulations, military competition, the threat of force, and the use of force to gain strategic, military, and economic advantage.
Of course, not all states are equal, any more than all firms are the same size. Historical development and industrialisation is uneven and the most powerful, often the first states to industrialise, structure the system in their own interests by subordinating colonies and weaker states. This is the nature of imperialism: a closed system of rivalry between major states which involves, among other things, a struggle between major powers as to which will subordinate weaker states to their interests.
The Russian state is built on a modern industrial economy and is locked into this pattern of rivalry, like any other state. That is to say it is an industrialised capitalist economy in competition with other major economies through which it hopes to subordinate lesser powers to its strategic and economic interests. In short, Russia is an imperial power.
This is really not a widely contested view these days. Of course, every establishment (and establishment influenced news corporations, think tanks and academic institutions) pours out material designed to show that Russia is an aggressive and acquisitive state. The imperialists of one country and their ideological supporters are always quick to demonstrate the imperial ambitions of their rivals…just as they are silent on the imperial ambitions of ‘their own’ state.
During the existence of the Soviet Union the nature of the Russian state was contested on the left. Those in the Stalinist tradition and some orthodox Trotskyists argued that Russia was not driven by the competitive engine of the capitalist world market. Others, including many now in Counterfire, argued that Russia was indeed linked to the world market by arms competition and that its foreign policy, especially in the subordination of its East European empire, was imperialist.
But since the fall of the Stalinist regime and the re-establishment of free market capitalism in Russia vanishingly few in a diminished left argue that Russia is qualitatively different from other major capitalist states.
But there is still one serious source of the Russian exceptionalist argument: the notion that because Russia is often, though by no means always, opposed to Western imperialism it is somehow qualitatively different in nature to Western imperialism. This ‘my enemy's enemy is my friend’ argument is clearly false.
Russia is a major capitalist economy with a semi-authoritarian state, though still with a bourgeois democratic carapace (which is not to say free of corruption or a model of civil liberties). It’sgovernment is bent on a foreign policy which advances its interests at the expense of its rivals.
This said, the pro-Russian argument is the weaker of the arguments that anti-imperialists face.
By far the most powerful argument comes from our own government and its allies, and from the majority of Labour MPs (and formal policy stance of the Labour Party). This massively inflates the Russian threat in order to justify British and US imperial strategy. Some sections of the far left, wittingly or not, are so obsessed with ‘Stalinism’(which is a shadow of its previous self) that they give cover to this approach by failing to accurately delineate the strength of Russian imperialism today.
After all it is scarcely a serious analysis to say that ‘all major states are imperialist’ and leave it at that. At the very least any serious account of modern imperialism needs to show which are the most powerful imperial powers and where the dynamic of the system lies. A full account of the imperial system is not possible here, but as a contribution to this project let us take a brief look at the military profile of Russian imperialism compared to its rivals.
As we see from Figure 1, the US defence budget is larger than that of the next 10 biggest defence spenders added together. Russia’s spending is not only smaller than that of the US and China, but also smaller than that of the US’s NATO allies Germany and the UK. If were to compare Russia’s defence spending with that of NATO as a whole it would appear even weaker.
This has meant that many commentators have described the US as the ‘last superpower’. That description underestimates that difficulties and defeats that have beset post-Cold War US imperialism, but it’s a description that contains a degree of truth. Figure 2 illustrates the position over the post-Cold War period. Russian and US spending decreased after the Cold War, but Russian spending decreased by a much greater amount. This reflected the fact that Russia underwent a 40 percent collapse in GDP in the decade after the Cold War, the largest ever peace-time collapse of an industrial economy.
After the initial ‘peace dividend’ rhetoric wore off arms spending increased again, but much more sharply in the US than in Russia. In the US only the onset of the great crash in the late 2000s brought a reduction, but totals remained much greater than in Russia where Putin’s reboot of the Russian state was starting from an historically low base.
The same picture emerges if we look at the comparative ability of US and Russian imperialism to project its power abroad. Russia has undergone an absolutely huge reverse in this respect. NATO’s advance into Eastern Europe after 1989, in flagrant breech of undertakings given to Mikhail Gorbachev by George Bush Snr.’s Secretary of State, James Baker at the time of the reunification of Germany, has achieved what neither Napoleon nor Hitler managed: the surrounding of a territorially reduced Russia by a hostile military alliance. Indeed, when one adds together the loss of its East European Warsaw Pact allies, and the session of the Baltic and southern border states, Russia probably directly administers less land, invasions excepted, than at any time since Catherine the Great was on the Russian throne.
This is why Russian imperialism’s actions have been around its own borders: Chechnia, Georgia, Ukraine. Syria is the exception that proves the rule. Syria is Russia’s only allied state in the Middle East. Iran, sometimes cited as a Russian ally, in fact pursues its own policy which sometimes is aligned with Russian policy, sometimes, critically in Iraq today, with US policy. The US of course has Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and Jordan to name only some of its Middle East allies.
Consequently, Russia was never going to let Assad fall without a fight. The US’s miscalculation was that the Free Syrian Army was capable of giving the Russians that fight with only restricted military support from the US. This is not to justify either Russian or US imperial policy in Syria, merely to accurately state its dynamic. Had the FSA elements of the Syrian opposition and their Western supporters understood this more clearly perhaps they would have been less keen to ally themselves with the US, only to be abandoned by them as soon as it became clear they could not overthrow Assad on the cheap, as the US hoped.
If we look at US military bases internationally, crucial for force projection the same disparity is clear (see the two maps in Figure 3).
None of this should lead us to reverse the judgement that Russia is an imperialist state. Given the chance it behaves in exactly the same way as other imperial states because it is driven by exactly the same competitive imperative. But it is historically in a much-weakened condition and its field of operations is much reduced.
Putin’s whole Presidential project has been to rebuild Russia as an effective economic and imperial competitor on the world stage. In this he has had some limited success. We have nothing in common with that project, just as victims of the Mafia have nothing to gain by backing one warring family against another.
But that argument is double-edged.
Just as we have nothing in common with the Russian state Mafia, we have absolutely nothing in common with ‘our’, even more powerful, Pentagon and MOD Mafia. Nor do we join in with our Mafia when they complain about how brutal their rivals are. That is pure hypocrisy on their part and would be disarming for us.
On the contrary, we are even more critical of our mafia because, as it happens, they are the most powerful and destructive gang on the planet. And because we will not join in the business of strengthening them by joining in their hypocrisy.
Our allies in the fight for a Mafia free world are the anti-war activists and the left in Russia, irrespective of how strong or weak they may be. They are fighting Russian imperialism as the first order of battle, just as we fight our own Mafia here. That’s how internationalism is constructed.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.