The Monitor's View

Russia is getting its 'sphere' back

Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia – Russia is making progress in keeping its neighbors within its 'sphere of influence.'

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This week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made his first state visit to Ukraine. After five years of cold relations between the two countries, this trip was meant to cement much warmer ties with Ukraine’s new, Moscow-friendly leader.

“Finally,” Mr. Medvedev told journalists, “there is a worthy Ukrainian partner.”

In case you haven’t noticed, Russia is making progress in bringing former Soviet satellites closer to its orbit. Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has worried about Western encroachment on its geographic “sphere of influence.”

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Part of this concern has to do with feelings about lost empire. That’s understandable. Britain, too, struggled with diminution when the sun set on its empire, and there’s much hand-wringing in the US about the limits of its superpower clout.

Another Russian worry is deeply-rooted anxiety about strategic vulnerability. That’s understandable, too. It’s hard to forget the gruesome battle of Stalingrad, or even a cold war.

Still, there’s nothing for Russia to fear in former client states choosing membership in the democratic European Union or NATO alliance, which includes Russia in a special joint council. Moscow, however, still thinks otherwise, and that perspective drives its foreign policy.

To what extent is becoming clearer by the day. By taking advantage of situations or through strong-arm tactics – using its political, petroleum, or even military clout – Russia is getting its sphere back.

The latest example is Ukraine, which in 2004 joined the democratic “color revolutions” that included Georgia in the Caucasus region and later, Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

Since 2004, though, Ukraine’s democratic leadership succumbed to fierce political infighting, and its economy has been slammed by corruption and world recession. This year, elections gave rise to a new president, Viktor Yanukovich, who is much more friendly to Russia. He dropped Kiev’s interest in joining NATO, and last month extended the lease for Russia’s naval base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol until 2042.

(See the Monitor’s new Editorial Board Blog for an account by one of our board’s writers who visited the port.)

In return for the new lease, Ukraine got a big 30 percent price discount on imported Russian natural gas. Ukraine is also talking with Russia about merging its mammoth state gas company with Russia’s – an idea pushed hard by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Yanukovich says he wants a balanced foreign policy. For instance, he aims to continue negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union. During his two-day visit this week, Medvedev acknowledged Ukraine’s neutral status as a “nonbloc state” and said the door was always open to Kiev (Kyiv) to join a Russian security agreement that includes six other Russian neighbors.

Putting it that way is good politics. When Medvedev uses words such as “open door” and “partner,” he’s conveying a mutual willingness for closer ties. It is perhaps an example of a new, less confrontational approach to foreign policy that was recently leaked in a memo originating in Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

But behind the rhetoric lies a mind-set (still thinking in terms of “blocs”), and consequential actions. Ukraine cedes some of its independence when it is indebted to Russia, as it is with energy and the naval base lease.

Moscow has meanwhile been busy elsewhere on its periphery.

In April, Russia supported an uprising in Kyrgyzstan that looks to have produced a more Kremlin-friendly government. Russia didn’t like the ousted leader, who, to its displeasure, kept open a US military base important to the war in Afghanistan.

In truth, the former Kyrgyz government was corrupt and tied to human rights abuses. It deeply disappointed its democratic supporters. Moscow was quick to recognize the discontent, and help it along with a media campaign and higher prices for energy.

Far more forcefully, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The two countries argue over who started the war, but Russia needlessly sent troops almost to the Georgian capital and launched a naval blockade on the fledgling democratic country.

To this list, add other efforts to influence the neighborhood: a customs union that keeps Belarus economically close; energy hardball with Western Europe that exacerbates political splits in the EU; and enough pressure on the United States to get it to reconfigure its anti-Iranian missile defense shield in Europe. The reworked shield is not a bad thing, but the entire episode shows how persistent Russia is about its neighborhood.

There’s nothing wrong with a good-neighbor policy. Inviting friends to play in your back yard is natural, as long as they can go home whenever they want. And as long it’s a real invitation, and not an act of bullying or coercion.

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