What is the myth?
Senior US and European foreign policy analysts have pushed the misconception that Russia is entitled to its own sphere of influence, an entitlement that the Russian leadership appears genuinely to believe in. The endorsement from Euro-Atlantic policymakers furthers the idea that enduring peace in Europe can only be achieved by acknowledging as legitimate Russia’s efforts to establish a defensive perimeter of buffer states.
Yet not only does invoking the concept of spheres of influence without clearly defining the term risk flawed policymaking – and a return to geopolitical approaches reminiscent of the Cold War – but it also has potentially deeply negative implications for the security of states such as Ukraine, whose sovereign independence and territorial integrity are threatened by this outdated model of great-power relations.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The myth has found traction among a range of analysts and policymakers at different research institutes. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute (which was founded by the Republican-leaning Koch Foundation), stated in May 2019 that ‘Washington would be willing to respect a Russian sphere of influence in that region [Eastern Europe and the Black Sea]’. Benn Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, argued in February 2018 that the Marshall Plan, the US’s post-Second World War development aid initiative to European countries, ‘worked because the United States accepted the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate’.
Why is it wrong?
There are three principal flaws in the reasoning that informs this myth. First, thinking in terms of exclusive spheres of influence over a group of states is incompatible with Euro-Atlantic values. To concede that Russia’s ‘defensive perimeter’ argument entitles it to dominate and/or encroach territorially on states in Central and Eastern Europe deprives those states of agency and ignores their own interests. Such thinking is to deny smaller states or entire regions the sovereign right to self-determination. (A similar logic, it should be added, would apply to any attempt on the part of Euro-Atlantic powers to force post-Soviet states out of their natural ‘habitat’ into alignment with the West, in denial of the possibility that some might regard their relationship with Moscow as beneficial – certain residual forms of Russian influence notwithstanding.)
Russian policymakers like to argue that NATO’s enlargement after the disintegration of the communist bloc was a unilateral decision by Brussels against the will of parts of the populations in the Soviet Union’s former satellite states. However, this assertion disregards the fact that the countries in the Visegrad Group were sovereign states that were already integrating into European institutions in the 1990s, and that had explicitly expressed their intention to join an alliance of democratic states. Moreover, as the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region has demonstrated over the past seven years, invoking the concept of spheres of influence can have real and devastating consequences. Ukraine has lost territory to Russia, has suffered enormous damage from the military conflict, and has had its very survival as a state threatened.
The assumption that Russia should have a defensive perimeter, a sphere of influence in its immediate neighbourhood that precludes the presence of any other non-regional power, is stuck in a neocolonialist view of the world.
A second, broader problem is that the myth fundamentally oversimplifies and misconstrues past and present geopolitical dynamics. The Steil comment cited above is not only historically inaccurate, but betrays a common misbelief that Cold War stability was contingent on the mutual recognition of spheres of influence by the US and the Soviet Union. Moreover, while it is true that a bipolarity of great-power politics was more tenable then, such a construct no longer provides a viable framework for conceptualizing relations in an increasingly multipolar world. The assumption that Russia should have a defensive perimeter, a sphere of influence in its immediate neighbourhood that precludes the presence of any other non-regional power, is stuck in a neocolonialist view of the world.
Finally, China’s ever greater economic and, increasingly, military influence in formerly Soviet Central Asia has underlined that Moscow is in fact prepared, albeit reluctantly, to accept a second player in its backyard. Russia’s tolerance of China’s expansion into Central Asia is rooted in the two countries’ political interdependence in their efforts to undermine the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutional architecture that survived the Cold War. This demonstration of Russian consideration for Chinese interests in a shared neighbourhood undermines Moscow’s claim to an exclusive sphere of influence.
What is its impact on policy?
Although senior Western officials have not directly conceded a sphere of influence to Russia, the mere invocation of the term without clarifying its meaning has contributed to the reproduction of the misbelief that spheres of influence have somehow ‘returned’ to international politics. This assumes, of course, that they ever went away. While, as mentioned, the idea of carving up the world bilaterally between East and West is now obsolete, we should understand that in some form or other spheres of influence have dominated great-power politics for more than two millennia. Without attempting to define the term to account for new realities of multipolarity, polycentrism, cyberwarfare and digital globalization, policymakers run the risk of reproducing Cold War-era confrontational attitudes.
A further problem is that realist political doctrines often fail to account for economic and cultural exertions of power. Countries in the shared neighbourhood of Russia and the EU are not only interested in, but dependent on, cooperation with both sides, whether for economic or security reasons or because of sociocultural heritage. For instance, Berlin has an assertive stance towards energy security that is independent of Brussels, and geared towards Russia’s direct supply of gas to Germany through the Gazprom-operated Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This stance, which is supported both by Germany’s federal and regional governments, ignores the grievances such an arrangement creates in neighbours to the east.
What would good policy look like?
A more sober look at the circumstances would contribute to a more constructive debate on Russian foreign policy. Any unilateral projection of the Kremlin’s illiberal governance model on its neighbours should not be acceptable to European policymakers, most of whom are still guided by liberal values.
Any unilateral projection of the Kremlin’s illiberal governance model on its neighbours should not be acceptable to European policymakers, most of whom are still guided by liberal values.
However, a principled stance is not incompatible with an understanding that Russian policymakers are driven by an inherent feeling of mistrust and insecurity. As George Kennan recognized in his ‘Long Telegram’ from February 1946: ‘At [the] bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.’ The West can acknowledge such concerns without appeasing Russia or allowing it to trample on the rights of neighbouring states. Instead, the diplomatic debate should recognize differences between the drivers of the Russian and Western agendas, publicly state these differences rather than pretend they don’t exist, and seek to mitigate them, ultimately to mutual advantage.
More generally, thinking on spheres of influence should be revisited and updated to move the concept away from outdated models of realpolitik. Instead, spheres of influence should be regarded as social structures in which the rules of the relationship are constantly renegotiated and challenged. Such structures have evolved along with global politics, away from a mere material supremacy over a region into negotiations between states. As currently often understood, the term ‘sphere of influence’ implies that smaller states do not have agency; however, the governing elites of such states might actually be receptive towards a hierarchical relationship with a larger state if it were beneficial to the junior partner’s economic or political stability. An asymmetric relationship between two states does not solely have to be defined by the assertion of control and exclusivity; it can also reflect a mutually advantageous partnership.
American academics and policymakers warned in July 2019 that spheres-of-influence thinking in relation to China might create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A similar realization is required for foreign policymakers dealing with Russia. Falling back into Cold War modes of understanding relations between states impairs more constructive dialogue and reflection on Western policies. We need a new approach that:
- Enhances the security of states in Eastern Europe, in a way that falls short of constituting a military alliance at the present time;
- Avoids half-hearted pledges of membership in EU or NATO; and
- Protects all national options that any sovereign state should enjoy.
Russia is not entitled to an exclusive sphere of influence in the territories of other sovereign states. However, we should not assume that Russian foreign policy towards its neighbours is always against the will of the latter per se. Accepting the agency of smaller states in foreign policy decisions, as well as Russia’s natural scepticism towards Western policymaking, will contribute to a more constructive debate around Moscow’s foreign policy motives.