Letter From the Editors
As Fyodor Lukyanov explains this week, the concept of “sphere of influence” fell out of favor after the cold war. In fact, Moscow was reprimanded for failing to understand the idea of globalization, which refutes artificial obstacles, and special rights and privileges. But then it turned out that “competition is open and free only as long as it benefits the Western masterminds of globalization. But if a possibility emerges that the outcome may be different, this is quite another matter.” Lukyanov goes on to argue that the existence of such spheres is the norm, just not in the colonial or neocolonial senses. Instead, “large countries that are centers of influence bear responsibility for states of a different caliber that are in the sphere of that influence. This is not a matter of philanthropy, but self-preservation.”
Taken in this light, Vladimir Putin’s recent actions within the post-Soviet space may make some sense. But are his motivations as innocent as self-preservation? Or is he up to something more sinister, like trying to put the Soviet Union back together again?
Take, for example, Kazakhstan, which a CSTO force led by Russian troops entered in early January, ostensibly to deal with “external forces,” and “20,000 bandits and terrorists.” In an interview with Republic.ru, however, political analyst Aleksei Malashenko asserts that “what we saw [in Kazakhstan] was an attempted revolution, a revolt.” He says that Tokayev would not have been able to handle the unrest on his own and that Putin would have had to get involved at some point to prevent a negative impact on the region in general.
So this intervention seems to have been handled “rationally and elegantly,” as Malashenko put it, particularly since it was carried out at the request of Tokayev himself. However, political analyst Valery Karbalevich warns that it creates a dangerous precedent whereby “later troops could be sent in somewhere at the request of, say, the people instead of the president,” or “at the request of healthy forces,” which is what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the CSTO presence in Kazakhstan was Aleksandr Lukashenko. As Anton Khodasevich reports, in a speech to soldiers returning from the peacekeeping mission Lukashenko explained that the “current events in Kazakhstan and what happened in Belarus in 2020 are links in the same chain.” Both cases were “yet another attempt at external interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states” designed to “destabilize the situation around Russia’s perimeter” and “weaken Belarus’s main ally.”
But who exactly is responsible for all this outside interference? For Putin, the threat emanates from the West. At his annual press conference, Sergei Lavrov took potshots at Washington and its allies, accusing them of dragging their feet in responding to security treaties Russia submitted in December and even going so far as to say that the principles on which the EU has built its Russia strategy are reminiscent of “political Kama Sutra.” Emphasizing that Russia’s priority is obtaining legally binding guarantees that NATO will not expand to the East, Lavrov warned that if Russia’s proposals are rejected, Putin will have to decide how to reliably ensure Russia’s security on the basis of proposals from the military. Lavrov did not clarify the kind of response this would entail.
Aleksandr Golts writes in Republic.ru that, for their part, the US and NATO have no intention of discussing “the idea of turning the post-Soviet space into a zone of Russia’s privileged interests. Ditto for the possibility of other former Soviet republics, as well as NATO member countries, abandoning a part of their sovereignty.” And so the stalemate endures, and the question remains: Can Vladimir Putin use his extensive resources to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence from Soviet times? Given the contrasting – and even competing – interests of countries within this sphere in the age of globalization, this task may be too complex, even for him.