With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the West – led by the American empire – has tried to press for a belligerent solution to the crisis, speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime only through the language of sanctions and weapons. Refusing to address Moscow’s security concerns regarding the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the core capitalist countries of the Global North have chosen to portray Putin’s government as an ideological pariah that needs to be excluded from the international diplomatic community. This has entailed characterizing the Russian ruling dispensation as “fascist” – an accusation that instantly delegitimizes negotiations with the entity that carries that label.
Western denunciations of Russian fascism are incorrect because they fail to understand the complexity of Putin’s regime. After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russia entered a severe economic crisis. Boris Yeltsin – the man who conducted a coup against the Soviet Union – became the favored puppet of the US and sold off the wealth of his country at ridiculously low prices to a group of oligarchic cronies. The legalized robbery of the nation’s social wealth reversed many of the gains of the USSR. Life expectancy rates dropped, Russian military power suffered drastic setbacks, and economic sovereignty got compromised through privatization, which converted Russia into a playground for Western capitalists.
Yeltsin’s brutal destruction of the Soviet Union was domestically propped by two different factions of the ruling class. State capitalists (insiders) controlled large-scale industry – natural resources, energy, metallurgy, engineering – while private capitalists (outsiders) dominated banking, consumer goods, the media. In “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War,” Tony Wood notes: “One group tended to own physical assets, the other financial wealth. For much of the 1990s, economic conditions favored the ‘outsiders’: industrial production was crippled, and those with access to large reserves of cash had the edge.”
On top of economic advantages, the outsiders benefitted from the political changes that accompanied the downfall of the USSR. In the words of Wood: “Insiders, as their name suggests, tended to be better connected to the regional and national government apparatus, often through informal ties forged in the Soviet era.” The dissolution of the Soviet Union unleashed chaos in the state bureaucracy and disrupted the connections of the insiders. This allowed the outsiders to penetrate state institutions and forge business links. However, the politico-economic dominance began to falter with the rouble crash and debt default of 1998.
The crash meant: a) the disappearance of the economic privileges of the outsiders who owned financial wealth; and b) currency devaluation, which improved Russian domestic production by making imports more expensive, strengthening the insiders who had assets in manufacturing, agriculture, food processing and distribution, etc. “The surge in raw materials prices after 1999,” writes Wood, “hugely accelerated the reshaping of the Russian elite that began with the rouble crash. In 1997, only a few of the top ten oligarchs had interests outside banking or the media. After the turn of the century, almost all of the top ten owed their wealth to metals or mineral resources”.
With the revival of domestic industry and the increase in energy prices, the balance tilted in favor of the insiders, who used their growing economic power to prevent private capitalist interests from accessing state power. Putin represented this shift in class forces, pushing forward a state capitalist agenda that involved recentralizing power in the state and curtailing the political ambitions of outsiders. Unlike Yeltsin’s compradorized system, this kind of statist neoliberalism possesses political and administrative coherence as it is based on the existence of a solid bureaucracy whose consolidated institutional capacity allows it to gain profit from exploitative ventures in extractive sectors.
The relative stability of this arrangement has meant that Putin’s system has a margin of diplomatic leeway in its relations with the West. This leeway has been utilized by Russian rulers to make the country a regional power. In this way, geopolitical power has been used as a way to deal with citizens’ anti-neoliberal sentiments and restore their national pride. As Ilya Budraitskis comments, “Putin’s rule… [is a] kind of amalgamation of neo-liberal practices and pro-market ideas with the spirit of the so-called patriotic opposition to this market transformation.”
Putin’s geopolitical project of reinstating Russia’s international position is driven by the following logic: “to survive, Russia can only be a strong state, that is, a great power abroad, and a quite uncontested regime at home. For that, it needs law and order, unity more than diversity, respect from foreign countries and its own citizens, and a renewed sense of honor and dignity.” These ideological imperatives are satisfied by “anti-Western and antiliberal attitudes, Soviet nostalgia, and a classic, state-centric vision of Russia.”
As is evident, Russia does not have fascism. Instead, it pragmatically operates according to multiple ideologies that can challenge the legitimacy of the US-led world order and thus, help combat imperialist attacks against Russia. Western observers have accused Russia of being fascist because they overemphasize the conservative and authoritarian elements that compose Putinism. What they overlook is the fact that these ideologies are said to be against the excessive liberalism and globalism of the West. Thus, what matters for Putin is a sovereignist position against the West, one that uses patriotism against an interventionist Western liberal order.
The hegemony of patriotic opposition to imperialism means that the normative core of Russian ideology is not genocidal hatred against an Other and a will to create a new xenophobic culture, all of which are essential ingredients of fascism. Rather, the Putinist worldview utilizes notions of Russian uniqueness – whether it be in the form of national history and culture, illiberalism, or Soviet nostalgia – to undermine the current West-centric world system. Far from resulting in fascism, the perspective of a distinct Russian civilization has shown itself capable of acknowledging the country’s multinational and multiconfessional character.
The Duma has repeatedly rejected bills that ask “for the recognition of ethnic Russians as having rights superior to those of citizens belonging to ethnic minorities”. Further, on the international front, the Putinist narrative is accepts “a Herderian perception of the world, according to which each “civilization” or “culture” represents the diversity of humanity and should be celebrated for its uniqueness—hence the active role played by Moscow in any international project based on the notion of a “dialogue of civilizations.”” To conclude, Putin’s geopolitical opposition to the American empire – materially rooted in neoliberal statism – has given rise not to fascism, but to Realpolitik that deploys ideological plurality to contest the West’s hegemonic narratives.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.