Sunday, April 17, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response Part I

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Russian convoy in first weeks of the invasion of Ukraine

by Alex Steiner

Note: This is part one of a three part series.

A new era


When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, a new historical epoch came into being.  It was the end of the post-Cold War period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in August of 1991. Only time will tell what name will be associated with this new epoch but one thing is clear, it is not simply a return to the period of the Cold War that began shortly after World War II.  On the contrary the era we have entered is far more dangerous than the period of the Cold War. At least during the Cold War period there were certain rules of engagement that both sides respected with a few notable and frightening exceptions such as the confrontation that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But there are no such rules that guide conduct among global nuclear powers in this new period.  As one Cold War historian recently lamented,

I sense a period ending. I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after. I fear we may find ourselves missing the Cold War. [1] 

If Putin’s recklessness is one marker of the present danger, so are Biden’s recent rhetorical outbursts. Twice he has denounced Putin as a war criminal, and in a speech in Warsaw, he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power” – an open call for regime change, something that no previous US administration allowed itself to do even in the worst moments of the Cold War. That Biden is a doddering old man who went off script for a moment (only to have his officials and European allies walk back the comment) changes nothing about the fact that the fate of the world is in the hands of reckless imperialists on both sides. This is how world wars begin – and how, via nuclear annihilation, the world could come to an end.

Europe is seeing the largest military conflict since World War II. This coincides with an unprecedented pandemic, a global economic crisis further aggravated by the war, the rise of neo-fascist movements challenging the legitimacy of liberal bourgeois democratic regimes in the West. At the same time the past decade has seen a re-emergence of the class struggle with strikes and massive protest movements throughout the globe. All remaining illusions that we have entered a post-historical period dominated by the Western model of bourgeois democracy no longer burdened by war and class conflict have been shattered.  That is not to say that this happened overnight.  The disintegration of the post-Cold War myth of an “end of history” has been evident for some time , but one can say that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine was the final nail in its coffin.

As with all endings there are also new beginnings.  The end of the post-Cold War equilibrium, the increasing danger of nuclear war, is accompanied by new possibilities of social revolution.  Which road will be taken depends to a great extent on the consciousness of the working class.   This is where the need for a revolutionary leadership arises. While the working class spontaneously moves to socialist consciousness, bourgeois consciousness is also spontaneously reinforced. As old illusions fall away, new forms of bourgeois consciousness emerge.  The role of Marxists is to participate in the struggles of the working class with the goal of raising the level of class consciousness.  In the context of the Ukraine-Russian War that goal becomes concretized to raising the level of international class solidarity between the Ukrainian and Russian working class.

We do not pretend that any groups claiming to be Marxist will have a significant impact on the course of events in the Ukraine. It’s been at least three generations since mass socialist parties were in a position to challenge the bourgeois order. The long period of isolation of Marxists from the working class amidst the general level of the atomization of working class consciousness preclude any immediate impact.  But there is a critical educational program with which Marxists are tasked.  The question needs to be raised, “What should be the proper response to the Ukraine-Russian War ?”

This task takes on added significance because the outbreak of wars typically splits the political left, and this war is no exception. Given that the radical left was already badly fragmented, it would be more accurate to speak of splintering instead of splits.  


The principle of opposition to war


We must start by elucidating some basic principles. A fundamental principle is that we are anti-war.  If we are not anti-war, we are part of the problem.  We recognize as Marxists that capitalism is the ultimate cause of war and that a consistent strategy for opposing war is to fight for the socialist alternative to capitalism. But that principle by itself does not tell us what it means to be anti-war in any specific situation. Unlike pacifists we do not think it is possible to orient oneself with abstract slogans.   Rather it is necessary to locate the path of opposition to war concretely based on one’s assessment of the immediate situation within the context of global capitalism. 


When it comes to the complex situation that we face today in the Russian-Ukraine war, there has been an almost unanimous collective failure to assess the dynamics of this conflict and find the proper orientation. Much of the left have indeed abandoned an anti-war stand in relation to the Russian-Ukraine conflict, while still claiming to be anti-war. It is simply impossible to be anti-war if you are cheering for the victory of one side or the other in the current conflict.   What is happening in the U.S. and other countries, is that given the vacuum on the left of a clear anti-war stand, the right has stepped in to fill that gap.   This is clear enough in the U.S. where the liberal media has fallen into lockstep behind the militarism and the anti-Russian witch-hunt of the Biden Administration. It is not surprising that right wing enemies of the Biden Administration such as Tucker Carlson from Fox News, has taken advantage of the subservience of the liberal media to the war plans of the Biden Administration by appealing to anti-war sentiments. But it is also true that those groups on the left that claim that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is some kind of progressive measure that Russia was “forced” to undertake due to the threats of NATO expansion have equally abandoned an anti-war position.


Who are the principals in the conflict?


To start with it is crucial to determine the nature of the states involved in the conflict. The question of who attacked who first, while not irrelevant,  is not decisive. More fundamental is one’s assessment of the nature of the warring parties involved in the conflict. But before we can even ask that question, we should first be able to identify the warring parties. Strangely, there is not even a consensus on that simple matter. Some groups on the left think the conflict is between NATO and US imperialism on one side and Russia on the other.  The Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people, barely enters into their consideration, being dismissed as little more than a proxy of NATO.   Analysis of the war among much of the left consists in deciding which side, either NATO or Russia deserves to be supported.

To take one example from the American left, Jeff Mackler of Socialist Action writes the following about the divisions in the U.S.:


‘The Ukraine crisis has taken its toll, at least for the moment, on the still modest forces of the U.S. and international antiwar movements, with two poles emerging with counterposed strategic conceptions. In the U.S. a growing minority, perhaps a majority, feels compelled to denounce with equal fervor both sides, Russia on the one, and US/NATO on the other.

In sharp contrast, organizations representing the major antiwar coalitions demand: “No to US/NATO War in Ukraine! No wars with Russia! No sanctions!  No to NATO and NATO expansion” – a central cause of the present crisis – and, “Fund human needs, education, housing, the environment & healthcare not war!”’ [2]


From Mackler’s description of the conflict, one would never know that Russia invaded the Ukraine.  Mackler also reduces the available options for the anti-war movement to denounce “with equal fervor” Russia and NATO or to only denounce NATO and remain silent about Russia. It never seems to occur to him that it is possible to concentrate our fire on NATO, which is certainly a responsibility of those of us living in NATO aligned countries, and at the same time denounce the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.  In contrast to Mackler, who represents a typical position of what can be called the radical left, the narrative unanimously pushed by the mainstream media, in line with the Biden Administration, as well as some groups on the left, completely leaves out any discussion of NATO and decontextualizes Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, portraying it as a simple morality tale of good Ukraine vs. evil Russia.  We will get back to this shortly.

Russian as an imperialist power


In our estimation Russia is clearly an imperialist power, although a second class one in comparison to the U.S. We discussed this previously in a piece written shortly after the initial outbreak of hostilities between Russian and the Ukraine in 2014.


Recently the question of one’s assessment of the Russian state has become a key issue among left wing groups, particularly those claiming to be Marxist.  The reason for this is all too obvious when we consider the events of the past few years in Syria and the Ukraine. In both situations Russia is directly involved in a political and military conflict that places it squarely at odds against forces supported by U.S. and European imperialism.  In the case of Syria tensions have escalated to the point where there is a real danger of a direct confrontation between the Russian and American military. The possibility of the world’s two largest nuclear powers engaging each other militarily brings back memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War.


In such a situation the task of revolutionary socialists is to formulate and fight for a strategy and a program that is opposed to imperialist war and defends the interests of the international working class.  Historically, the response of revolutionary socialists to imperialist war has been the slogan “The main enemy is at home”.  This means that in a conflict between two imperialist powers, it is impermissible to support either one or the other as a “lesser evil”.  The historic responsibility of the working class in the imperialist countries is to work for the defeat of their “own” Imperialist power.  On the other hand, when a conflict emerges between an imperialist power and a colonial or semi-colonial country, it is necessary to defend the struggles of the colonial people against imperialism.   Given this historical background it becomes clear why one’s assessment of the nature of Russia becomes a key theoretical question.  Were we to consider Russia an imperialist power then we are duty bound to oppose Russian imperialism just as strongly as U.S. imperialism.   On the other hand were we to consider Russia a colonial or semi-colonial country oppressed by the great imperialist powers, then we are duty bound to support Russia in its conflict with imperialism.


Given the centrality of the question of the nature of Russia one would think that groups claiming adherence to Marxism and to the traditions of Bolshevism would have done a good deal of theoretical work based on solid evidence before coming to any conclusions about the nature of Russia.  One would think that but one would be wrong.  On the contrary, with few exceptions, most of those groups derive their assessment of the nature of Russia not from any original research or theoretical work but strictly from their political prejudices.  And those political prejudices are roughly divided into two camps.  On the one side there are the traditional social chauvinists who tend to adapt to their own ruling class.  Besides moribund Social Democratic parties these groups include outfits like the ISO who have ties to the trade union bureaucracy.  In the other camp are what some have called “inverted social chauvinists”.  These are groups who oppose their own bourgeoisie but do so by supporting whoever is in conflict with them.  The policy followed by the inverted social chauvinists is sometimes mislabeled as “anti-imperialism”.  In the U.S. the paradigm of inverted social chauvinism is the neo-Stalinist Workers World Party which lets no opportunity pass by for supporting whatever imperialist power or dictatorship is in conflict with U.S. imperialism.  They are guided by the rule, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” [3]


Some groups on the left not only disagree that Russia is an imperialist power, but condemn anyone who takes that position as a stooge of NATO and the CIA.  A typical example is the following diatribe from the World Socialist Web Site aimed at a group who dared to call Russia an imperialist nation,

The IMT’s role amid the current war drive is to repackage with “Marxist” phraseology the propaganda of the US State Department and other NATO countries that they have no intention of militarily intervening against Russia. They seek to lull leftward-moving workers and young people to sleep by promoting illusions in the continued viability of the capitalist system. [4]

The particular target of this statement, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT),  is of no importance.  You can fill in whatever “pseudo-left” organization is the WSWS target of the day. Any group that does not agree 100% with the analysis of the WSWS is by definition guilty of “lulling” unnamed “leftward moving forces to sleep”. As we have previously noted in our essay from 2014, while the WSWS/SEP vigorously denies that Russia is an imperialist power it has no real analysis of what Russia is though it acts as if it is some kind of semi-colonial country.

There are exceptions among Marxists to this cavalier attitude to this important question, namely those who take seriously the theoretical issues involved in assessing the nature of Russia and look to the Marxist theory of imperialism to get a handle on it. A seminal text in this area is Lenin’s work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. [5] While Lenin’s work is certainly not the last word on the subject and imperialism has continued to evolve and take on new forms in the 100 years since Lenin was writing, any serious discussion on imperialism must confront this classic work. We have pointed to what we consider the excellent analysis of Michael Pröbsting on the nature of Russia whose point of departure is a discussion of Lenin’s work when confronted with the economic and political tendencies of the 21st century.  [6]  The upshot of Pröbsting’s investigation is that Russia is indeed an imperialist power, though one significantly weaker than the U.S.

Pröbsting writes,

The characteristic of an imperialist power has to be seen in the totality of its economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus, a given state must – following Lenin’s dialectical advice about examining 'the entire totality of the manifold relations of this thing to others’  – be viewed not only as a separate unit but first and foremost in its relation to other states and nations. An imperialist state usually enters a relationship with other states and nations whom it oppresses in one way or another and super-exploits – i.e., appropriates a share of its produced capitalist value. Again this has to be viewed in its totality, i.e., if a state gains certain profits from foreign investment but has to pay much more (debt service, profit repatriation, etc.) to other countries’ foreign investment, this state can usually not be considered as imperialist. Finally we want to stress the necessity of considering the totality of a state’s economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus we can consider a given state as imperialist even it is economically weaker but possesses a relatively strong political and military position (like Russia before 1917 and, again, in the early 2000s). Such a strong political and military position can be used to oppress other countries and nations and to appropriate capitalist value from them.  

There have been a number of challenges to Pröbsting’s analysis but none of them are convincing.  There are those who challenge Pröbsting’s statistical analysis. [7]   Others claim that Russia does not provide an exact fit into the criteria Lenin discussed for classifying a nation as imperialist. [8]  Still another argument departs from Lenin’s analysis and attempts to define imperialism exclusively in economic terms without any attention to the political and military conditions of a nation. [9] Lenin clearly never intended his analysis of imperialism to be strictly an economic one.  He wrote in the preface to his pamphlet,

This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language—in that accursed Aesopian language—to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a “legal” work. [10]


A common approach of those who deny that Russia is an imperialist power is to compare the economy of Russia to that of the United States – the United States being the example par excellence of an imperialist power.  This approach, which claims to be Marxist and claims to be faithful to Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, is actually a sad caricature of a Marxist analysis of imperialism.  When Lenin characterized imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism”, he had in mind the general features that were then emerging of a global economic system.  How each country fits into that system is a question of its relations with other countries, not whether it meets or does not meet one or more of the criterion for being classified as an imperialist power.  These relationships can be very complex and cannot simply be reduced to the binary opposition between an imperialist aggressor and a colonial subject.  While a relationship of domination of one nation over another is a feature of imperialism, the forms in which that domination is realized can vary tremendously.  Furthermore a nation can be dominated by a more powerful neighbor and at the same time can in turn dominate other less powerful neighbors.  There are different forms of imperialism today. Indeed, even in Lenin’s time imperialism took on different forms and imperialism has evolved in an exponential fashion since that time. One hundred years ago the imperialist “norm” consisted in direct colonial rule.  If you look at a map of Africa from the late 19th or early 20th century you will see that it has been divided up into a patchwork of colonies between the great powers of Europe (and even some not so “great” powers such as Belgium.)  Today, while direct colonial rule still exists, it is a curious exception to the norm. The norm today is the indirect domination of a country that is formally independent but is forced to enter into an unequal economic relationship with one or more predator countries. A good example of this contemporary form of imperialism is the subjugation of Greece by the European Union. Whereas Greece does not fit the stereotypical image of a semi-colonial country, it has in fact been forced to cede its sovereignty in all but name in order to insure the payments of its debts to the European bankers.

Now to return to a consideration of Russia,  those who raise the question, “Has Russia reached the highest stage of capitalism? “,[11]  are asking the wrong question.   They fail to recognize that when Lenin discussed “the highest stage of capitalism”, he was not thinking of it as a measure against which individual countries had to be judged but as a network of evolving relationships into which each country participates in different ways.

If you try to fit Russia into the template of the U.S. economy, then it clearly does not fit.  It is certainly true for instance that Russia does not have a large and highly evolved financial sector.  To many this becomes a kind of acid test as to whether Russia is an imperialist power.  But that is because they are cherry picking certain features of the Russian economy and isolating them.  They are not looking at Russia’s relationship to the world economy and its neighbors as a whole and they dismiss the political and military dimension as well.  If the size of the financial sector were really the decisive acid test, then we would have to conclude that Germany, which has a rather weak financial sector compared to its industrial sector, is also not an imperialist power.  Is that really true?   

Furthermore Lenin recognized that an imperialist power can exist that has almost no financial sector, seemingly challenging his emphasis on the importance of the financial sector for his analysis of imperialism.  But Lenin was not a formalist, recognizing that definitions can be tentative and relative and should not be considered an albatross around ones neck. For example,  Lenin considered Tsarist Russia to be an imperialist nation.[12]  Yet there is no doubt that Tsarist Russia did not fit into the criteria that would have defined it as being at “the highest stage of capitalism.” 

It is clear that these are complicated questions and require serious historical and theoretical work. In addition to a consideration of the economic, political and military dimensions we may also take a look at the ideological dimension  that informs the ruling elite in Russia for it too plays a role in formulating a picture of Russia as an imperialist nation. It should be clear to all but the willfully blind apologists for Putin, that Russia, in invading the Ukraine,  is pursuing its own geo-political interests as much as it is reacting to legitimate fears of being encircled by a hostile NATO.  If anyone doubts that all they have to do is read the speech Putin gave on the eve of the invasion where he expressed unambiguously the war aims of the Russian oligarchs he represents.  It was one of the most reactionary speeches any world leader has given in decades. 

Putin provided a historical explanation of the war he was about to launch in which it was the destiny of the Russian nation to absorb the Ukraine, whose sovereign existence he considered to be an illegitimate product of Bolshevism, specifically of Lenin.  He blamed Lenin for the “crime” of separating Ukraine – and other countries as well - from what had been the Tsarist empire.  He said,

I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

He went on to blame the problem of the Ukraine, i.e. its independence, on the terrible policies of the October Revolution which replaced that “prison of nations”, the Tsarist Empire, with a voluntary union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And yet, it is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.

Putin’s speech was an articulation of a reactionary imperialist ideology known as Eurasianism.  It was born 100 years ago, shortly after the October Revolution, giving voice to a sentiment shared  by those who wished to replace the October revolution with a revived Tsarist Empire. Its current variant was developed by the extreme right wing Russian,  Aleksandr Dugin.  Jane Burbank, a Russian historian, recently summarized Dugin’s philosophy as follows,

In Mr. Dugin’s adjustment of Eurasianism to present conditions, Russia had a new opponent — no longer just Europe, but the whole of the “Atlantic” world led by the United States. And his Eurasianism was not anti-imperial but the opposite: Russia had always been an empire, Russian people were “imperial people,” and after the crippling 1990s sellout to the “eternal enemy,” Russia could revive in the next phase of global combat and become a “world empire.” On the civilizational front, Mr. Dugin highlighted the long-term connection between Eastern Orthodoxy and Russian empire. Orthodoxy’s combat against Western Christianity and Western decadence could be harnessed to the geopolitical war to come. [13]

There is a common thread of fascist ideology that ties together Putin’s espousal of Eurasianism with those white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the U.S. who believe that there is a conspiracy by liberals and socialists and Jews to “replace” white Americans with people of color and immigrants. And it is this ideology that expresses the class interests of the oligarchs around Putin. Moreover,  Putin has expressed this ideology for many years. In a discussion held in 2013, he declared that Eurasia was a major geopolitical zone where Russia’s “genetic code” and its many peoples would be defended against “extreme Western-style liberalism.” [14]

Putin’s speech should have been an eye opener for those on the left who dismissed the possibility that Putin was acting on behalf of the geo-political ambitions of a great power, and not merely reacting to provocations from NATO.  Unfortunately the great majority of those on the left who were not cheerleaders for NATO and the Biden Administration paid short shrift to Putin’s speech.  They claimed that Putin was only reacting like a dog who feels threatened and is incapable of taking positive actions in his own right.  And as we have previously noted, so invested were some left groups with the notion that Russia was the sole victim in this scenario that they framed the conflict as NATO attacking Russia[ .  It is true that NATO provoked Russia,  but that does not make the disturbing fact that Russia has invaded the Ukraine go away.   

[1] I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era, by Mary Elise Sarotte, New York Times, March 1, 2022,


[6] We discussed Pröbsting’s work in the previously cited essay, Russia as an imperialist power, You can download Pröbsting complete analysis here: 

[7] Jan Norden has challenged Pröbsting ’s statistical analysis in, The Bugbear of Russian Imperialism, .   We questioned Norden’s analysis in the essay we wrote in 2015, Russia as an Imperialist Power,

[8] This methodology of challenging the classification of Russia as an imperialist power was most recently formulated by the website Setting the Record straight: Ukraine, Russia and imperialism, Pröbsting  has penned a detailed response, Once Again on Russian Imperialism (Reply to Critics),  We will further examine these arguments shortly.

[9] Michael Roberts, a British Marxist economist has developed a formula for determining whether a particular country is a net exporter of surplus value – and therefore an oppressed country, or a net importer of surplus value – and therefore an oppressor country and thus an imperialist power. See for instance his blog, The economics of modern imperialism, .  Roberts further claims that the political and military dimension of a nation play no role in determining whether it is an imperialist power or not. Rather, adopting a vulgarized approach to historical materialism, he insists that the economy is the “cause” and the political and military dimension are the “effects” solely determined by the economic status of a nation. 


[10] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.


[11] Setting the Record straight: Ukraine, Russia and imperialism,


[12] Pröbsting  has already covered this topic exhaustively.  One example of Lenin’s attitude toward Tsarist Russia appears in the Preface to his study, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.  He explains that when writing his pamphlet in 1916 he had to adopt a bit of subterfuge in order to get past the Tsarist censorship. He substituted a refence to Russia, which would have raised some alarm bells, with a relatively harmless reference to Japan. He writes,


I was forced to quote as an example [of an imperialist nation] —Japan! The careful reader will easily substitute Russia for Japan, and Finland, Poland, Courland, the Ukraine, Khiva, Bokhara, Estonia or other regions peopled by non-Great Russians, for Korea.


[13] The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War, by Jane Burbank, New York Times, March 22, 2022,




Mark said...

You guys are really on top of this war stuff, just like Trotsky. Didn't the invasion start in February? Almost two months ago, better late than never I guess, and this for educational purposes right?

The question of whether Russia is imperialist really boils down to what motivated the invasion? Russia is clearly a superior power when compared to Ukraine, but it is an inferior power when compared with the US and NATO. And the goal of the US should be clear by now, to topple the Putin regime. Wouldn't the natural course suggest that Russia needs to flex its military muscle, no matter how much we might disagree with it?

The US seems unique in its prediction of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, was this the desired outcome all along? In many ways the US can be seen as provoking the Russian response, from the shutdown of Nord Stream 2, to the build up of armaments in Ukraine. Wasn't the "tough on Russia" stance a signature of the Biden campaign? Yet you don't seem to address any of the economic motives in this conflict, shouldn't this be central to a Marxist approach?

I don't see the role of the left so much as cheering for one side or another. If supposed "leftists" are cheering on the Ukraine resistance as a proxy for the US and NATO then that should immediately reveal their class orientation, and should also reveal that these people are not our allies no matter how much we would desire a numerically strong so called "left". We should remember that "left" after all is a term derived from the bourgeois parliament and Marxists are not per se "leftists", but perhaps that is a topic for another discussion. If people that align with us are cheering on Russia, then that is indeed misguided, but I haven't seen that so much myself. Outlets like the Grayzone have been doing remarkable work debunking western propaganda without falling into the trap of siding with the Russian imperative.

Mitchel Cohen said...

Hi Alex,
The article spends most of its ink on trying to prove that Russia is "imperialist", although not as powerful an imperialist power as the U.S. But .... so what? I think you need to add, in my opinion, at least a few sentences -- maybe more -- on why that's even an important question in assessing Russia and Ukraine. The article doesn't now do that. Do you mean that if Russia was not an imperialist power but did exactly the same thing, your judgment would be different?

Jerry said...

The problem with categorizing Russia as an "imperialist power" is that you have to apply those criteria universally. What other countries will have to be considered imperialist according to those criteria? South Africa, Chile, Malaysia, Angola? Are you prepared to go "all the way" as it were?

In any case I think the framing of the question is wrong. It's not merely a question of theoretical categories, separate from the interests of the international working class. That is a scholastic standpoint.

Alex Steiner said...

Reply to Mitchel Cohen,

The point is that what Russia is kind of defines what Russia does. I say "kind of" because the determination is never 100%. There is always an element of contingency and freedom involved in the choices that are adopted. But neither can you entirely disconnect what Russia does from what Russia is. (The same of course applies to NATO.) That is why it is absurd to claim that if Russia was not an imperialist power it could have done exactly the same thing. It's like saying that if an animal is not a carnivorous predator, as for example a lion, it would still kill and proceed to devour the antelope. It makes no sense to think that an animal that is known as a peaceful herbivore will do the same thing as a predatory carnivore. Neither does your statement make sense that if Russia were not an imperialist power it could act exactly the same way.