little green men

Contending With—Not Accepting—Spheres of Influence

March 05, 2020
Steven Pifer

This op-ed is part of a new debate from Russia Matters and is written in response to "US Embrace of Great Power Competition Also Means Contending With Spheres of Influence" by Paul Saunders.

In a recent article for Russia Matters, Paul Saunders argues that, since the United States now views great power competition as its principal national security threat, it must contend with the struggle for “spheres of influence.” True, Washington has to deal with efforts by Moscow to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. That does not mean, however, that the United States should accept the legitimacy of the Russian efforts. Doing so would require denying agency to countries on Russia’s borders, countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, that wish to forge their own course. Doing so could also ultimately set back the prospects of Russia’s own development.

Mr. Saunders writes that great power competition by definition means that, given unequal distributions of power, will and influence around the world, the United States will face countries, such as Russia, that can muster more of these factors in certain regions. Washington “cannot unilaterally determine the future course of events” in those areas, and “attempts to do so could lead to costly conflicts that are often most destructive of those whom we are seeking to protect.” Mr. Saunders does not write so explicitly, but his article’s line of argument implies the United States should accept Moscow’s effort to shape a sphere of influence. That would be a mistake.

Mr. Saunders’s article appears to equate U.S. and Russian efforts to expand influence. He writes that “Washington sought to expand the NATO alliance, largely to ensure that the new and prospective members would never again fall within a Russian ‘sphere of influence.’” First, that incorrectly describes the motives for NATO enlargement. The Clinton administration launched the enlargement process with the primary aim of underpinning the democratic and market economy transitions underway in Central Europe in the 1990s. U.S. President Bill Clinton also sought to assure Moscow with NATO agreements not to place nuclear weapons or substantial conventional forces on the territory of new members and a bid to build a cooperative relationship between NATO and Russia, a bid that unfortunately failed.

Second, enlargement was demand-driven. Countries sought to join NATO and undertook substantial reforms in order to do so. Contrast that with how Russia has sought to expand influence with its neighbors since the Soviet Union’s collapse: subversion, energy cut-offs, trade disputes and military attacks. Contrast also the desire of Central European states to join NATO and the European Union with the at best tepid interest of Russia’s neighbors in Moscow-led organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union.

Mr. Saunders assigns blame to the United States for Russia’s conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine.  “These two nations lost important parts of their territory to Russia in part because U.S. leaders, officials, policy elites and journalists promoted, supported or tolerated policies that ignored both Russia’s toolkit and its resolve along its borders.” Washington has supported NATO’s “open door” policy as well as the right of Georgia and Ukraine to deepen their relations with the West.  But does that justify Russian military action in response? In 2014, when Russia illegally seized Crimea and sparked conflict in Donbass, NATO membership for Ukraine simply was not an issue; the focus in Kyiv was on drawing closer to the European Union and signing an EU association agreement. Moscow launched war because of the post-Maidan government’s proclaimed interest in signing a trade agreement.

Mr. Saunders argues that “influence” is “not domination, much less control.” It is difficult to see how what Russia wants in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova is not an effort to dominate. To be sure, the Russians do not seek to rebuild the Soviet Union, as they do not want to subsidize the economies of other states. The Kremlin, however, does seek relationships in which neighbors first check with Moscow before making decisions that the Kremlin decides could affect Russian interests, and then defer to Kremlin wishes. That includes how far countries such as Ukraine and Georgia go in their relationships with institutions such as NATO and the European Union.

Yes, Russia has interests and will pursue those interests. But accepting Moscow’s assertion of a sphere of influence means denying that countries such as Ukraine have interests of their own or a right to determine their own domestic and foreign policy courses. It may well be true that Russians care more about what happens in and to Ukraine than Americans do, but Ukrainians care more than anyone. They should have agency and the right to pursue their preferences. Do we really want to accept a world in which the views and desires of little or smaller countries are sacrificed to the preferences, however legitimate or illegitimate, of their larger, more powerful neighbors?

Moreover, accepting the Kremlin’s effort to build a sphere of influence would ultimately be to Russia’s own detriment. As long as Moscow pursues such a sphere, including by using military force to occupy and stoke fighting in neighboring countries, it will further alienate those countries. Few things have done more than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy over the past six years to consolidate a Ukrainian national identity, to alienate and push Ukraine away from Russia and to promote broad support among Ukrainians for joining NATO.

The Kremlin attaches priority to building a 19th century-style sphere of influence (admittedly, some senior American politicians also think in such terms). The longer that Moscow pursues that goal, the more troubled it will find its relations with its neighbors. And it will also set back Russia’s ability to develop into a more normal country—one that respects the rights of the individual and seeks to promote economic opportunity and a great economy—rather than base national legitimacy on autocracy, an aggressive nationalism and a desire to force its great power status on its neighbors, whether they like it or not.

Washington has no choice but to contend with Russia’s great power aspirations and desire for a sphere of influence. It should not, however, accept that push for a sphere of influence.

Photo shared under a Pixabay license. 


Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer is a William Perry Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.