Ukraine and Russia’s spheres of influence

Within the last fortnight or so, official and unofficial observers’ sights have been focused on the tussle between Russia and the European Union (EU) for influence over a Ukraine locked between them and internally divided within itself. The tussle has ended, at least temporarily, with Ukraine maintaining its privileged relationship with Russia, originally derived from its long incorporation into the Soviet Union or USSR.

The struggle between the two external protagonists, is a leftover from the dissolution of the post-1917 Soviet Union itself, and a gradual reorganization of relations between the countries under its strategic influence, with the European Union seeking to draw the ex-Comecon countries into its own economic, and therefore strategic and diplomatic sphere of influence.

In that regard, the EU has had a certain success with countries like Poland, the Baltic states and parts of the former Yugoslavia becoming members of what is, in effect, a political and economic system in which countries are required to adhere to the economic, and increasingly diplomatic-political policies of that organization. Russia has watched this process for some time, but has occasionally indicated a concern with the efforts of the EU, which Putin undoubtedly defines as a considered policy orientation towards diminishing Russia’s sphere of influence in a post two-sphere world originally oriented towards either the United States or the Soviet Union.

In the case of certain countries, this Russian concern has been more intense than in respect of others, as indicated in Putin’s apparent belief that there are countries in the old Soviet system which have had a more concentrated relationship with Russia, and with which, in his view (and not only his view in Russia), some form of privileged relationship should be maintained. And in some measure he links this perspective to what he feels is a similar one now held by the European Union states in respect of countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Putin’s perspective has occasionally been demonstrated, as in respect of efforts by the European or Western powers to insist that Georgia should also be within their sphere. Russian governments have seemed to believe that that country has a special and historical relationship with it whether it be the pre-1917 Russia, or Soviet Russia or the Russia of the present day. And followers of Russian diplomacy will know, of course, that Joseph Stalin, the founder of the Soviet Union was actually borne in Georgia, and that Nikita Khruschev was virtually schooled as a Soviet official through his eventual leadership of the Ukraine, before he ascended to full power in the Soviet Union.

It might also be surmised that the reaction of President Putin, a former KGB official, to the attempt to draw Ukraine into the EU’s sphere, is not solely a matter of US-EU-Russia competitive post-Cold War strategizing. Clearly for Putin, the re-arrangement of the world that is going on in this period of economic globalization, is one reflected in Europe by the EU’s determination to have a substantial, institutionalized, influence over a significant part of the whole continent. And this cannot be allowed to be pursued at the expense of what he perceives to be an encroachment on traditional spheres of influence of the old or the new Russia, such encroachment, in his view, resulting in a diminution of the influence and strategic reach of Russia as a traditional major power.

Ukraine would appear to Russia to be a particular example of what must not happen, Putin’s position being not dissimilar to his refusal, in 2008-9, to accept Georgia’s attempt to rearrange geopolitical relations there, including that country’s attempt to join NATO.  This situation was exacerbated, in Putin’s view, by the fact that in both examples, those two countries have had longstanding cultural links with Russia, either in its present-day form or in the form of pre-1917 imperial Russia or the post-1917 Soviet Union.

Looked at in this way, it would appear that Putin believes that the EU attempt, undoubtedly supported by the United States would, in strategic terms, widen the EU’s sphere of direct influence over the whole European continent. And his view must be that this is not dissimilar to other Western efforts to take advantage of their influence in the new arena of international economic relations dominated by the influences of globalization, to widen the EU’s own influence at Russia’s expense.

Putin appears to be determined that Russia should itself remain a global power, as new powers seek to arrive on the scene, whether economic or political, as is evident in the case of China; or as older powers appear to be reorganizing their approaches to global changes, as in the case of the US’s position vis-à-vis events in the Middle East. Putin’s own recent diplomatic interventions in the Middle East, particularly on Syria and Iran, have reflected this posture.

So, it would appear, from Russia’s perspective, changes in various spheres of global relations require a certain strategic superiority at his country’s base, the changing European continental sphere being the relevant base in one case; just as Putin is also busy seeking to reorganize relations within the Asian sphere (in immediate respect to Russia’s Asian borders), as he observes China seeking to rewrite some of the strategic rules in that arena.

Obviously for Putin, the European base must be secure. But for the European Union, at the same time, current post-1990’s changes in Europe must be an opportunity for strengthening its influence over countries on the continent that appear to be in a state of transition and need resources to give effect to their efforts.

The culturally-divided nature of Ukraine – culturally facing both East and West simultaneously ‒  has brought this conflict of perceptions, and therefore necessary actions, to a head, between the traditional Great Powers of Western Europe, and the traditional Great Power of Eastern Europe and beyond.

In the case of the Ukraine, the West has been betting on its superior capacity, particularly in the economic sphere to draw that country, and others previously in Russia’s sphere of influence, into the West’s won sphere of influence, cooperation and strategic diplomatic planning. There seems to be an assumption in the EU that Russia, over the long term, does not have the economic capacity to withstand the West’s influence and drawing ability.

From that perspective, they have tried to put Putin to the test. Putin has felt forced to respond. It is a long-term struggle, and we are therefore yet to see the denouement.

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