Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, writing in the International Herald Tribune:
Russia no longer disguises the fact that it wants to recover its sphere of influence. The paradox is that Russia can only achieve this through the use of force, as the model of development it proposes is unattractive to east European societies. And the more Russia resorts to force, the less the chances that it will achieve its sphere of influence.
It is a pity that the meeting last month between Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Western political scientists did not get greater notice. Medvedev not only declared Russia’s desire to have its own sphere of influence, but he also defined the term.
“Our neighbors are close to us in many respects, and are a traditional area of interest for the Russian nation,” he said. “We are so close to each other, it would be impossible to tear us apart, to say Russia has to embark on one path, and our neighbors on another.”
Such words are telling – they indicate that Russia claims the right to co-determine the foreign policy of the former Soviet republics and the direction of their internal development.
To this end, it makes use of the notion of a “sphere of privileged interests,” which first appeared in Russian diplomatic parlance as early as 1939. Moscow’s revival of such claims after the war with Georgia gives them a particular meaning.
At the same time, Russian leaders often repeat that their aim is to create a multipolar world, in which Russia will be one of few civilizations capable of shaping its own field of gravity.
Thus Moscow’s sphere of interests would supposedly follow from the natural attractiveness of Russian civilization.
But how can Russia – threatening the world with a gun still smoking from the shots fired at Georgia – appear attractive to anyone? What attractions are embodied by generals who threaten neighbors, or by Kremlin-appointed lords who trade in gas and oil and threaten others with closing the tap?
Insofar as the speech given by then-president Vladimir Putin in Munich in February 2007 constituted a breakthrough in verbal communication between Russia and the rest of the world, the the Russian-Georgian war was a breakthrough in the sphere of deeds.
Russia not only used disproportionate force, but, in recognizing the independence of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, it also undermined the credibility of its own declarations about respecting the norms and principles of international law.
Initially, Medvedev had placed international law at the top of his list of foreign policy pillars, which included Russia’s efforts to create a multi-polar world order, develop friendly relations with all countries, defend the life and dignity of Russian citizens abroad and protect Russia’s sphere of “privileged interests.” Following the war in the Caucasus, this hierarchy changed fundamentally: Russia’s sphere of interests became the priority.
The question is, what means does Russia intend to use in pursuit of such aspirations? Will Russia only exert political pressure on its “privileged” partners? Will it resort to energy blackmail? Will it also reach for other means, such as issuing Russian passports, or even using force, as was the case with Georgia?
Some recent Russian actions raise concerns in this regard. On Sept. 11, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a declaration criticizing the Ukrainian government for “infringing on the rights of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine and deliberately eliminating the Russian language from the country’s public life.”
It is difficult to find a clearer example of interference in a neighbor’s internal affairs. It would appear that even the organization of the Ukrainian education system can constitute a sphere of “privileged interests” for Moscow.
Russia is taking advantage of the situation that emerged after the conflict in the Caucasus and of fact that the world’s attention is focused on the global financial crises in order to bring Western countries to recognize de facto its sphere of interests in Eastern Europe.
Russia is also suggesting that a rejection of its claims could lead to a new Cold War. Presenting the matter in such terms raises the question whether aggressive rhetoric could be followed by aggressive policy. Moscow nurtures this uncertainty to give the impression that its claims over its neighbors are a matter of course.
A large-scale conflict is not in Russia’s interests, however, so Europe should not give in to Russia. Moscow can destabilize the internal situation in Ukraine and other states neighboring Russia, but in order to bring them permanently into its sphere of “privileged interests” it would have to continually resort to armed force or energy blackmail.
It cannot do this, as it would annul any chance of winning hearts and minds in eastern Europe to the idea of a greater Russian sphere of interests.
Russia’s fundamental problem is that it cannot bind anyone to itself by peaceful means because it has little to offer. The developmental model it proposes is based on the close relationship between the worlds of politics, business and crime.
This is why Moscow’s “true friends” turn out to be dictators of all stripes, and why Russia’s Northern Fleet, in order to demonstrate the lasting nature of Russia’s alliances and make a show of force, has to sail all the way to Venezuela, Syria or Libya.
In eastern Europe, the developmental model associated with the European Union and NATO is tied to hopes for an efficient, citizen-friendly state that does not constitute a threat either to its own citizens or to its neighbors.
If the European Union and NATO retain their ability to export liberty – their principal magnet – Russian dreams of a sphere of interests in eastern Europe will hold sway will never materialize.
Therefore the EU and NATO, the institutions grouping the most advanced countries of the world and the leaders of the democratic model of development, should shape a common position towards Russia. We should not be frightened by Russia.
Let us hope that over time, Moscow will produce a method of communicating with the outer world that will be attractive not only to itself, but also to those who would like to work with it.