When Western Anti-Imperialism Supports Imperialism. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn March 3, 2022

The invasion of Ukraine has been a shock not just to Eastern Europe, but to the post World War II international order.  While the fundamental tenets of postwar geography—that national boundaries would not be moved, that each country had the right to territorial integrity, and that every nation-state could govern its own territory without interference—might have been weakened before, now they have been quite literally blown up.

Making sense of these world-historical changes will take time. A recent article on FocaalBlog by geographer David Harvey argues that the post-Cold War policies of the West played an important role in pushing Russia towards the current war in Ukraine.

Harvey argues that the West’s failure to incorporate Russia into Western security structures and the world economy led to Russia’s political and economic “humiliation,” which Russia now seeks to remedy by annexing Ukraine. By focusing on Western imperialism, however, Harvey ignores the politics of the USSR’s successor states as well as regional economic dynamics. It is Russian neoimperialism, not the West’s actions, that motivates the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Harvey’s argument rests on the idea that in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Western institutions inflicted grave “humiliations” on Russia. He argues that “the Soviet Union was dismembered into independent republics without much popular consultation.” But this begs the question of consultation with whom. Estonia declared national sovereignty in 1988, and both Latvia and Lithuania declared independence from the USSR in 1990–all of them before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 (Frankowski and Stephan 1995:84). All three of these countries were independent prior to 1940, and, like Ukraine, were forcibly incorporated into the USSR; all three saw declarations of independence after 1988 as a restoration of previous national sovereignty.  Georgia, too, elected a nationalist government in 1990 and formally declared independence in 1991.

Like Ukraine, Georgia claimed a restoration of national sovereignty that was held prior to forcible incorporation in the USSR in 1921.  Like Ukraine, each of these countries held referenda on independence which passed with over 74% percent of citizens voting to leave the USSR permanently.

Ukraine’s own referendum passed with 92.3% of the population voting “yes”  (Nohlen and Stover 2010:1985). There was thus plenty of consultation with the people who mattered–the citizens of countries formerly colonized by Russia who demanded the right to decide their own futures. Why Russia should have been consulted on the independence of nations that had been incorporated into the Russian empire and the USSR by force is unclear; colonizing countries are rarely asked for permission when their colonies declare independence.

Second, Harvey argues that Russia was “humiliated economically.”  He writes,“With the end of the Cold War, Russians were promised a rosy future, as the benefits of capitalist dynamism and a free market economy would supposedly spread by trickle down across the country. Boris Kagarlitsky described the reality this way. With the end of the Cold War, Russians believed they were headed on a jet plane to Paris only to be told in mid-flight ‘welcome to Burkina Faso.’”

Harvey blames the collapse of the Russian economy in the early 1990s on the Western-led practice of so called “shock therapy,” or rapid marketization, saying that it resulted in a decline in GDP, the collapse of the ruble, and disintegration of the social safety net for Russian citizens. But an explanation of economic collapsed based solely on “shock therapy” negates the internal dynamics of state-socialist economies, which were already in free-fall as the supply-constrained planned economy succumbed to its own internal contradictions (Dunn 2004:Chapter 2).

As the Hungarian dissident economist Janoś Kornai aptly showed, soft budget constraints, which allowed state socialist enterprises to pass their costs onto the state, and thus prevented them from ever failing, led to intense cycles of shortage and hoarding.

In turn, endemic shortage led to limited and low-quality production, which in turn led to more shortage and hoarding. All of this disincentivized investments in industrial modernization. Why invest in modern equipment or production methods, when a firm could sell whatever it made, and when there was little incentive to improve profit margins?

It was the Soviet economy that kept Soviet industry technologically behind, not the West. The result of the dynamics of state-led planning meant that when Soviet industries were exposed to the world market by shock therapy mechanisms eagerly adopted by reformers in their own governments, they were not at all competitive. Thus, the deindustrialization of the USSR was a product of state socialist economics

Shock therapy, too, was largely a local production rather than one led by the West, despite Jeffrey Sachs’ relentless advocacy of it. The point of shock therapy was not just to make East European economies look like Western economies as quickly as possible. Rather, local non-communist elites argued that it was a tool to prevent a Communist restoration.

They argued that if the Communist nomenklatura, which controlled both politics and production, was allowed to dismantle state owned enterprises and repurpose state-owned capital for their own private gain, its members would oppose political reform or seek to regain political power (Staniszkis 1991). As Peter Murrell, an ardent critic of shock therapy, writes, shock therapy was thus pushed most heavily by East Europeans:

    “These reforms were condoned, if not endorsed, by the International Monetary Fund; they were strongly encouraged if only weakly aided, by Western governments; and they were promoted, if not designed, by the usual peripatetic Western economists.” (Murrell 1993:111).

The result, as we now know, was the destruction of state-owned enterprises, the rise of mass unemployment, and the creation of oligarchs whose wealth was founded on formerly state-owned assets

But this was not the result of policies pushed by the West, but rather of the devil’s bargain necessitated by internal political dynamics in Soviet successor states, including Russia.  As Don Kalb points out in his response to Harvey, “When all modernist projects had collapsed in the East, as it seemed in the mid 1990s, the supposedly universalist Western project of democratic capitalism was simply the only available project left. The post-socialist East was happily sharing for a while in Western hubris.” This was as true about free-market ideologies as it was about the political support for NATO that Kalb discusses.

Third, Harvey decries the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, citing this as a further humiliation as well as a security problem. His formulation of this problem is odd: he seems to assume that NATO expansion is entirely a question of relations between the Western powers and Russia, which can make decisions on behalf of smaller countries without consulting them.

Nowhere in all this are the security imperatives of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, the three countries who wanted to join NATO at the Bucharest Meeting of NATO in April, 2008, each of whom had legitimate reason to fear Russian invasion (Dunn 2017).

The right of smaller countries to decide their own foreign policy and to join alliances for their own strategic reasons is entirely absent from Harvey’s account. This absence of the Ukrainian state as an actor in determining the country’s future is an implicit acceptance of Putin’s claim that the former Soviet republics are rightfully in Russia’s sphere of influence.

But imagine this argument applied in a different context: Should Canada’s security interests give it the right to occupy upstate New York? Is Arizona rightfully in Mexico’s sphere of influence, given the dangers that US military adventures might pose?

Both of those propositions are obviously untenable. Yet the same argument, which is most often made by Vladimir Putin, is taken by many on the Western left as a legitimate basis for Russian action in Ukraine (Shapiro 2015, cf. Bilous 2022).

The notion that the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine again now are defensive actions on the part of Russia is deeply wrongheaded. They are pure aggression.

They are first of all aggression towards the peoples and territories forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

As the experience of Chechnya shows, Russia is willing to utterly destroy places and people that seek to leave the empire (Gall and DeWaal 1999). Russia continues to signal that willingness with the presence of the Russian 58th Army in South Ossetia for the past 14 years, where it has been poised to overrun Georgia at the first sign that it is unwilling to be controlled by Moscow (Dunn 2020). 

Likewise, the current invasion of Ukraine is not defensive. There was no realistic possibility of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future, and Ukrainian sovereignty posed no credible threat to Russian security. (As German Chancellor Olaf Schultz said, “The question of [Ukrainian] membership in alliances is practically not on the agenda”). The invasion of Ukraine is about Russian control of what it believes is its historical sphere of influence, rather than any particular defensive imperative.

David Harvey clearly believes that his analysis is anti-imperialist. But it is in fact a pro-imperialist argument, one that supports Russian irredentism and the restoration of empire under the guise of a “sphere of influence.” (As Derek Hall points out in his response, nowhere in Harvey’s argument does he condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)

Russian imperialism has always worked on different principles than Western imperialism, given that it has been largely non-capitalist, but it is imperialism nonetheless, in cultural, political and economic senses of that term.

Blaming the West for “humiliating” Russia occludes Russia’s own expansionist ideologies and desires for restoration of empire, and justifies the violent military domination of people who can and should decide their own destinies. 

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Refugee Studies, Indiana University.  Her work has focused on post-Communist Eastern Europe since 1992.  Her first book, Privatizing Poland (Cornell University Press 2004) examined the economic dynamics of post-socialist property transformation.  Her second book, No Path Home (Cornell University Press 2017) looked at the aftermath of the 2008 Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia and the effects of Western humanitarian aid on IDPs.  Dunn also serves on the board of two refugee resettlement agencies.


Bilous, Taras. 2022. “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv”, Commons, February 25, https://commons.com.ua/en/letter-western-left-kyiv/

Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2020. ” Warfare and Warfarin: Chokepoints, Clotting and Vascular Geopolitics”. Ethnos https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00141844.2020.1764602

Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen.  2017. No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Dunn, Elizabeth C. 2004.  Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business and the Remaking of Labor.

Frankowski, Stanisław and Paul B. Stephan (1995). Legal Reform in Post-Communist Europe. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Gall, Carlotta and Thomas De Waal. 1999. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York; NYU Press.

Hall, Derek, 2002. “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Response to Harvey.” https://www.focaalblog.com/2022/02/28/derek-hall-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-a-response-to-david-harvey/

Kornai, Janoś. 1992. The Socialist System. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Murrell, Peter. 1993. “What is Shock Therapy? What Did It Do in Poland and Russia?” Post-Soviet Affairs 9(2):111-140.

Nohlen, Dieter and Philip Stöver (2010) Elections in Europe: A Data Handbook, Baden-Baden: Nomos

Shapiro, Jeremy. 2015. Defending the Defensible: The Value of Spheres of Influence in US Policy. Brookings Institution Blog, March 11. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/03/11/defending-the-defensible-the-value-of-spheres-of-influence-in-u-s-foreign-policy/.

Staniszkis, Jadwiga. 1991. .Dynamics of the Breakthrough in Eastern Europe: the Polish Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite as: Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2022. “When Western Anti-Imperialism Supports Imperialism.” FocaalBlog, 3 March. https://www.focaalblog.com/2022/03/03/elizabeth-cullen-dunn-when-western-anti-imperialism-supports-imperialism/

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