November 14, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 429

Russia: The Self-Contradicting Anti-Imperialist Empire

November 14, 2022 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 429

Since Russia became "independent" in 1991, many attempts have been made to define the country's "national idea," if not its "ideology."[1] These attempts have not been successful enough. Hence, in 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded that only "patriotism," or the citizen's love to Russia, might be qualified as such.[2] Clearly, it was a very strange and self-defeating definition – and even if it might be considered fair enough for domestic purposes, it meant nothing for projecting Russia's soft power abroad. Therefore, the Kremlin has been making many attempts to "codify" the mission of the Russian Federation in today's world.

As Russian leaders inherited a country that for more than 70 years was a side in a global showdown with the Western world during the Cold War, anti-Westernism has been a backbone of Russia's worldview for at least two last decades, especially after then prime minister Yevgeny Primakov condemned U.S. bombardments of Yugoslavia back in 1999.[3]

In fact, in most cases, the Russian leadership (with a short exception for a period of close cooperation with the U.S. during the early stages     of the "War on Terror") has been counterposing itself to the U.S., which has been depicted as the world's most "prominent imperialistic power."[4] This partly explains Russia's strategy of collecting allies from among the brutal dictatorships of the "Fourth World" by reviving Soviet-era cooperation links and providing these nations with rather limited economic aid in order to build an "anti-imperialist force" in different parts of the world.


Russia's Anti-Colonialist Doctrine

This "anti-imperialism" took shape in Russian foreign policy, but as the Western powers undertook no obvious attempts at empire-building, the new doctrine was designated "anti-colonialist." This doctrine took shape in 2003 and developed into its current version by the mid 2010s. Putin and the members of his inner circle invested a very wide meaning into the term "colonialism" (or "neocolonialism," as they put it),[5] believing that even the natural dominance of the Western world and its technological superiority were a sign of this neocolonial order.

This point was clearly reiterated by Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club. He said: "Standardization, financial and technological monopoly, the erasure of all differences is what underlies the Western model of globalization, which is neocolonial in nature. Their goal was clear – to establish the unconditional dominance of the West in the global economy and politics. To do that, the West put at its service the entire planet's natural and financial resources, as well as all intellectual, human and economic capabilities, while alleging it was a natural feature of the so-called new global interdependence."[6]

Putin then added: "For many years, Western ideologists and politicians have been telling the world there was no alternative to democracy. Admittedly, they meant the Western-style, the so-called liberal model of democracy. They arrogantly rejected all other variants and forms of government by the people and, I want to emphasize this, did so contemptuously and disdainfully. This manner has been taking shape since colonial times, as if everyone were second-rate, while they were exceptional. It has been going on for centuries and continues to this day."[7]

According to the Russian President, the West wants to keep its "hegemony" in the world, at the expenses of other countries, showing in this way its "neocolonial" nature. Furthermore, for Putin, globalization is a major tool of the West to continue its colonialism's policies. Hence, in order to confront the West, a nation should confront the Western-style liberal model of democracy (and with it liberal values and the principle of universality of human rights), by embracing "traditional" values, under Russia's lead. Putin explained: "Traditional values are not a rigid set of postulates that everyone must adhere to, of course not. The difference from the so-called neo-liberal values is that they are unique in each particular instance, because they stem from the traditions of a particular society, its culture and historical background. This is why traditional values cannot be imposed on anyone. They must simply be respected and everything that every nation has been choosing for itself over centuries must he handled with care."[8]

Supporting Decolonization While Pursuing An Imperialistic Policy

Under President Putin, Russia tries to depict itself as the heir of the Soviet Union, which was a staunch supporter of the anti-imperialist movements across the world and contributed significantly to the success of decolonization. Hence, Russia wants to be the leader of the effort against the globalization policies that the United States and its closest allies supposedly promote and impose on the wider world. Ten or even five years ago, this concept could have been considered new and seductive. Today, it looks largely irrelevant.

Russia cannot be considered an anti-globalist power since it has benefited greatly from globalization through: expanding its export trades (by 2021, Russia's exports accounted for 24 percent of nation's GDP compared to less than four percent in the late Soviet period);[9] internationalizing its business elites (by mid-2010s, Russian citizens possessed more overseas real estate and offshore accounts than everyone else); and even initiating geopolitical projects that were quite familiar to those launched by the "imperialist" West (Putin openly compared the Eurasian Economic Union to the European Union, as he described the virtues of his prospective enterprise).[10] Russia also masterfully uses the benefits of the global communication means, allowing it to influence numerous trends that emerge in different parts of the world. Furthermore, if the West would ever try to cut Russia off from some of the global networks, the Russian leadership would accuse the U.S. of "marginalizing" Russia, showing the will of wanting to stay in line with global developments.

It is also worth noting that Russia seems not fit to play the role of the "decolonization" leader, as it is itself an aging empire built on the colonization of other peoples and nations over the centuries. Russia (or better the Soviet Union) was a major force that backed decolonization movements in 1960s and 1970s. However, the Communist leaders did not realize that they themselves presided over one of the oldest European colonial powers. As a result of its colonial policies, the Russian/Soviet empire lasted more than any other major Western European colonial power and collapsed on the edge of the 1990s, following all the crucial lines of other empires' demise.

Today Russia is much more united and monoethnic than the Soviet Union was, but it also accommodates many "national" republics and autonomous areas, where the local identities start to crystalize. Moreover, Russia initiated numerous attempts to restore its control over its former possessions, by intervening in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, and by turning its neighboring Belarus into a client state. Hence, it looks irrational to hear about supporting decolonization from a power that pursues a purely imperialistic policy toward its former colonies.

Russia Lowers Expectations From Its Involvement In Global Politics

The "decolonization" rhetoric, nevertheless, points on a significantly new element of Putin's foreign policy doctrine. For the major part of his reign (with a small exemption of the first months of his presidency, when he attempted to "review" the Soviet heritage, as he toured Cuba, Vietnam, and even North Korea in search for Russia's allies), Putin has pretended that Russia is one of the "poles" in an imaginary "multipolar world," and keeps trying to consolidate a "sphere of influence" that corresponds to such a status.

However, in more recent times, things have changed. As China rises to become a powerhouse equal to the United States in many respects, and as Chairman Xi focuses on U.S.-China competition in the decades to come while not mentioning Russia at all, the Kremlin starts to eye less prominent states as its possible allies. In recent weeks, we assisted Putin's talks with Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embaló,[11] who later proceeded from Moscow to Kyiv, dispatching Putin's message to President Zelensky.[12] Furthermore, Russia renewed the initiative of delivering up to 500,000 tons of wheat to the underdeveloped countries free of charge (later it was suggested that these foodstuffs should be sent to those nations that had already established military and security cooperation with Russia).[13]

Russia seems to be lowering expectations about its involvement in global politics, since Putin's attempts to press the West failed both in the energy domain[14] (as Europe seems confident it will survive the coming winter without Russian gas) and in security issues, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems willing to keep the "grain deal" in place even amid Russia's short-lived withdrawal from it.[15]

Russia Is Becoming Part Of The Periphery

Yet, in embarking on a course for cooperating with postcolonial countries, Russia faces several significant challenges.

First and foremost, to become a "pole" and compete with both the West and China, a country should possess vast financial and technological resources. In the last ten years, the United States' aid to the underdeveloped countries amounts to around $40 billion a year,[16] while Chinese loans and investments into the African economies alone run in between $15 and $20 billion annually in recent years.[17]

It is worth noting that the former Soviet Union's non-performed loans accounted for close to $200 billion. However, President Putin himself did his best to eliminate it, and between 2000 and 2014 he wrote off around $165 billion in Soviet-era debts,[18] including those owed by economically solvent nations like Algeria, Angola, Libya, Mongolia, and many others that were able either to service them or to swap them for different commodities of consumer goods needed by the Russians (I would just mention that no write-offs also happened between mid-2008 and 2011, as Dmitry Medvedev held the Russian presidency). Therefore, as Putin dreamt about Russia becoming one of the globe's poles, he wasted the resources that seem to be needed to implement his "anti-colonialism" doctrine.

Second, Russia these days lacks a grand vision for the world's future. All that it delivered in the past decades was the concept of the "Russian world," that might be used in the regions that experienced an intense historical and cultural interdependence with Russia (like the former Soviet nations, or, not so obviously, the Balkans), but looks useless everywhere else. While China approaches the developing nations with its experience and practice of rapid economic growth, industrialization, and globalization, Russia cannot offer anything like this.

China, which has been, if not a colony, then a "peripheral nation" for many decades, shows the world what should be done to overcome such a "colonial" syndrome (the "postcolonialism" that plagued many non-developing countries might be seen, following Edward Saïd, as a state of mind). However, Russia, which was never a part of the periphery is now becoming such a part since it cannot meet its own industrial and technological needs. This is becoming more and more obvious, so there is nothing for the Asian and African states to learn from today's Moscow.

Third, and here we return to our earlier arguments, small peripheral countries these days realize quite well that they should use their status as equal members of the global community of nations. They value their independence and stay for the independence of others – so Russia's war in Ukraine is not seen by the peripheral nations as something that should be supported. The most recent vote in the UN General Assembly saw 188 members, including all the African and South American states, opposing Russia's actions or abstaining from voting,[19] with only Nicaragua, North Korea, and Syria backing Russia and Belarus's position. I would say that it is next to impossible to get small countries on one's side, while trying to destroy your own independent neighbors – above all those that used to be a part of your own empire.


Putin's regime is rigorously trying to find new paradigms to legitimize itself and its current policies. Russia these days is a source of the greatest danger to the global rule-based order, and the Kremlin does its best to recruit allies that might side with Moscow because of their discontent with the West. Russia wants to drive the "peripheral" nations to fight globalization, the power of the U.S. and its European allies, and the Western financial domination of the global economic centers that disturbs the "peripheral" nations. Yet, Russia wants just the decomposition of the current order, not the creation of a more stable and just one.

The Kremlin leader seems unable to realize that to lead developing nations, a superpower needs to have both strategy and resources that may encourage the "peripheral" countries to take its side in a global showdown with competing powers, while those nations who do not want to be involved in any significant confrontation would rather avoid any "external" leadership, as happened with the Non-Aligned Movement created and led by the postcolonial states themselves. A former empire with a collapsing economy, dreaming of its restoration, cannot lead an "anticolonial" movement, and therefore a "new" Russian geopolitical doctrine will yield few results, if any.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.


[1], August 11, 2016.

[2], March 10, 2020.

[3], March 23, 2019.

[4], June 1, 2007.

[5], July 20, 2022.

[6], October 27, 2022.

[7], October 27, 2022.

[8], October 27, 2022.

[9], 2022.

[10], March 10, 2011.

[11], October 26, 2022.

[12], October 27, 2022.

[13], October 29, 2022;, October 31, 2022.

[14], October 4, 2022.

[15], November 2, 2022.

[16], October 2, 2019.

[17],for%2017.5%25%20of%20African%20imports, January 24, 2022.

[18], February 10, 2016.


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