Russian Sphere of Influence: What is it? What Could It Be?


By Timo Kivimäki

The Russian demand of ending the expansion of NATO to its borders has raised debate in the international media and academia. These demands have been correctly interpreted as belonging to the broader world view in which great powers are entitled to a sphere of influence in their immediate vicinity. What such spheres of influence are more precisely, has not been defined in the political debate. The reference to “spere of influence” has floated, serving different political objectives of either legitimising or demonising Russian demands. Building political arguments with concepts that have changing and unclear references has confused the debate: is it acceptable for great powers to demand a sphere of influence in their vicinity? Why is it so dangerous if Russia now demands such in Ukraine and elsewhere? What kind of sphere would such a sphere of influence be?

To clarify what the Russian demand means, we will have to start by looking at what exactly does a “sphere of influence” mean. Yet, to help resolve the political dispute related to the Russian demands, we will have to go even further in our conceptual analysis and recognize the nature of political concepts: the sphere of influence is not something that is given to us, but rather, the reference of the concept needs to the negotiated. There is a need to look at what could be an acceptable sphere of influence, as a contribution to a stable, rule-based international order, and what kind of sphere of influence cannot be part of a just international order. To help political argumentation and negotiation this article aims at clarifying the existing understanding on the concept of sphere of influence, and at analysing whether the Russian demand of spheres of influence could be redefined in a way that would be acceptable to the West.

What is a Sphere of Influence?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a sphere of influence as “a territorial area within which the political influence or the interests of one nation are held to be more or less paramount.” Such political influence would naturally take place within another country’s borders, and thus it could have consequences to the target country’s sovereignty. Yet, a sphere of influence is not as extensive compromise to sovereignty as an occupation or colonization, and it is often not defined in formal agreements. On the contrary, Hedley Bull, one of the leading figures of the English tradition of international relations theory, argues in his book The Anarchical Society that informality is often quite functional for arrangements of informal power. An explicit asymmetry could be more difficult to justify for the target of great power influence. According to Van Jackson, a sphere of influence is negotiated implicitly between the influencer and target of influence, and it forms an implicit, unequal, hegemonic “contract.” Yet, the sphere often develops over time.

An important part of the dynamic of sphere of influence is a de facto agreement amongst other great powers of each other’s spheres of influence. In the English tradition of international relations theory, this mutual acceptance has often been assumed to be based on the mutuality and reciprocity. Bull refers to such arrangements as “manifestations of formal justice” between great powers, if each great power accepts equal rights to spheres of influence to the others. Geddes W. Rutherford describes such mutual agreements on spheres of influence as gentlemen’s agreements. The Russian argument referring to the Cuban Crisis of 1962 and the fact that the United States would never accept anti-American military alliances in nearby countries echoes this understanding of formal justice. Paul Keal studied Cold War spheres of influence and concluded that both superpowers had their own, yet different spheres of influence codified in the Brezhnev and the Johnson Doctrines.

Yet, spheres of influence are not just normative arrangements, and the mutual agreement of great powers of each other’s spheres of power are not just arrangements that great powers agree for their moral virtues. Spheres of influence are often based on the realism of geography and exercise of power. They exist in areas where other great powers cannot challenge the “owner” of a sphere of influence. This used to be the Finnish argument during the Cold War era for accepting its position in the Soviet sphere of influence: Finland is small, Soviet Union is powerful, and other great powers are too far from Finland to help if Finland cannot sort out its relationships with the Soviet Union. A different matter is whether Russia can still claim the same power political status as the Soviet Union could. From a power political point of view the crucial question is whether the Western alliance would be capable to defend Ukraine (or Finland, Baltic countries or other Russian neighbors) against Russian aggression.

How should we define acceptable and unacceptable spheres of influence?

While the basics of the sphere of influence can be defined as above, it is crucial for the debate that the concept is defined further. What the NATO, Republican administration of former president Trump and the Democratic Party administration of President Biden reject in the the idea of spheres of influence is not necessarily the same things as the Republican former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Democratic Party presidential Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski support in the concept. Further distinctions need to be made to define what is useful and what is not useful in the concept. Different kinds of concepts of sphere of influence may have different implications on democracy, sovereignty and crisis stability. Thus, it is important to create classifications on the basis of different consequences of such a sphere in order to see what kind of compromises should and should not be granted to Russia in its immediate neighborhood.

Influence as such cannot be the main reason for rejecting the idea of Russian sphere of influence in Russia’s immediate vicinity. We cannot do away the fact that international relations always involve influence. As a greater power than its neighbors (except China), Russia will always have an asymmetrical influence on its neighbors. However, it would be important the define what kind of influence is compatible with the idea of sovereignty, democracy and international stability. This would be crucial for the settlement of the conflict between NATO/US and Russia.

The first issue that the international media has focused on with regards to the Russian demands is the question of sovereignty and democracy. If Russia’s neighbors feel that their existence as independent, democratic, sovereign nations is threatened by Russia’s sphere of influence, they will naturally fight against Russia with all their might and invite other great powers to support them. This would not be optimal to anyone, let alone to democracy and peace. For Russia, good relations with neighboring countries is a defensive benefit even if it then requires Russia to refrain from promoting its offensive security interests in its neighborhood.

In the previous experiences of Soviet influence, we can see two kinds of interferences into democratic sovereignty of neighboring countries. On the one hand, Soviet Union helped keep in power rulers in Eastern Europe that were resented by East Europeans. This was very expensive and it generated the bad will that Russia now has to deal with in Ukraine, and in Russia’s former East European satellite states. On the other hand, in Finland (and some suggest, occasionally in Germany), Russian influence was declared to focus on foreign relations only. Domestic policies were supposed to be ruled out from the asymmetrical interaction. For example, the power of the communist party was often much smaller in Finland than in almost any other Western European country. Yet, in reality, Finnish politicians could occasionally use the Russian influence and threat for their personal benefit in domestic political power play. Furthermore, secrecy in Soviet diplomacy sometimes involved interference that only the opening of political archives revealed afterwards.

Interference into domestic politics is certainly something that Europeans will not accept in Russia’s neighborhood. That kind of sphere of influence should then be explicitly removed from the negotiation table by creating normative obstacles and transparency to rule out the possibility of secret coercion by Russia. Furthermore, the Russian protection of Russian speakers within neighboring countries should be dealt with by non-partisan mechanisms of human rights rather than by a powerful neighbor. It is not fair to declare ethnic Russian Ukrainians or the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine a security threat and discriminate against the Russian language in a country where a considerable minority is Russian speakers. Yet, antagonism between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russian Ukrainians is only escalated if Russia interferes in Ukrainian affairs by “protecting” ethnic Russians: such interference only makes the perception of ethnic Russian Ukrainians as a security threat more real. Such violations against minority or religious rights should be dealt with by the Council of Europe, the UN Human Rights Council or another representative international organization, which cannot be seen as an escalating security threat by the state of Ukraine. Similarly, when an ethnic Russian Ukrainian president that has been elected in elections in which “voting met most international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress that had been made since 2004”, has been ousted in a process that has not complied with the constitution of the country, the situation should not have been the responsibility of Russia to correct. Politicising such processes, and side-lining international institutions that should deal with these issues, only escalates conflict and undermines democracy.

While interference into domestic affairs in the name of sphere of influence is unacceptable, pragmatic international relations set limits to sovereign rights, too. From the Russian point of view, national sovereignty and people’s democratic rights in Russia’s neighboring countries cannot extend to decisions that threaten the existence of Russia as a sovereign country. If this takes place, great powers tend to react, as happened in the Cuban Crisis in 1962, where no international law banned the Cuban acquisition or hosting of Soviet nuclear weapons, and yet, the United States was prepared to go to war to prevent it. Similarly, Russia can be criticised for moving offensive troops to the border of Ukraine or Baltic states, despite the fact that such a move would naturally be within the sovereign rights of Russia. From the perspective of peace, it would be essential if the rules of influence would support defensive security interests at the expense of offensive ones. If the European security architecture is built in a way that no country had existential threats, this defensive security would justify compromises to offensive power and security interests. Thus, if neighboring countries refrained from security arrangements that constituted offensive threats to their neighbors, there would also be less offensive threat and militarized reactions against them. Such logic has, in fact, been recognised within the NATO: Norway, a member of the organisation, has both opted not to host US nuclear weapons, and not even allow NATO troops close to its borders with Russia. According to the country’s Defense Minister Anniken Huitfeldt “It is important for Norway to be militarily present in our immediate surroundings. But very close to the Russian border, we believe that we do it best ourselves, with Norwegian planes and Norwegian frigates. It is fundamental for us.” This is in order not to provoke legitimate defensive Russian security concerns and in order not to shorten Russia’s warning time from the detection of an attack to the arrival of missiles.

The importance of time from an attack to retaliation has guided some scholars, as well as politicians like Kissinger and Brzezinski to suggest that despite national sovereignty and the legal right of states to decide their own security policy, it would be in their own defensive interests to avoid creating existential security threats that would require a fast response from Russia. In such conditions false alarms could trigger a deadly retaliation and threaten the neighboring country’s very existence. The need to avoid shortening warning time from attack was the primary concern of the US National Security Council’s strategy in the Reykjavik Summit-related negotiations with Soviet Union in 1986 on Europe’s security architecture: from the point of view of crisis stability, the US needed to focus disarmament on missiles that could offer the attacker an advantage due to the short time from the detection to the arrival of missiles. President Putin speech emphasised this aspect, too, on the 21st of December 2021, as he complained that Ukraine’s NATO membership would bring US missiles within minutes from Moscow. Thus, from the point of view of crisis stability and defensive security of both Russia and its neighboring countries, it would be possible to argue as Kissinger and Brzezinski do, and suggest that Ukraine should stay out of the Western military alliance.

A Sphere of Influence, or a Sphere of Defensive Interest

Yet, for Ukraine, the situation is now complicated as Russian troops are already in the country and that Crimea has already been occupied by the powerful neighbor. Balancing against such violations of the basic principles of good neighborhood would be natural from Ukraine. Yet, accepting NATO missiles could create a situation that Putin describes. A solution in Ukraine may require that Russia must withdraw its troops from Eastern Ukraine and give up Crimea, while Ukraine needs to be subjected to internationally controlled regime of human rights norms to protect ethnic Russian Ukrainians. Thus, there is a need for negotiations between US and Russia, NATO and Russia and Ukraine and Russia, and a need for a bargain that minimises Russian interference in Ukraine’s (and other Russian neighbor’s) domestic and trade policies, and yet deals with the legitimate Russian defensive security concerns and increases the warning time for attacks against Russia, so that Russia will not be provoked to power political countermoves or tricked to retaliation on a false alarm.

While Russia requires security guarantees from the NATO/US/Ukraine and demands that NATO will not expand any further towards Russian borders, the country could be offered conditions for such guarantees. Finland’s flexible policy towards NATO could offer some ideas once the rules of influence in the Russian neighborhood have been established. Finland and Ukraine could keep their options open towards NATO but commit to non-accession if Russia respects the negotiated rules of neighborliness that forbit Russian interference into domestic policies and international economic affairs. If the neighboring countries violate this agreement and allow such military developments in their territory that constitute existential security threats to Russia or reduce the warning time of a Western attack on Russia, then we would be back to the tense situation with Russian threats and possible military actions against its neighbors.

The solution to the impasse caused by the Russian demand of a sphere of influence could therefore be based on a small alteration of the concepts we operate with: instead of recognizing a power political sphere of influence, the West could recognize a Russian sphere of defensive interests. Since the Russian neighborhood is more essential for the Russian than US legitimate defensive security interests, the vicinity of Russian border should be asymmetrically concerned with Russian rather than US interests. In this way the region near to Russia would be subjected to a well-defined and explicitly limited Russian sphere of interest, not to a power political Russian sphere of influence.

About the Author

Timo Kivimäki

Timo Kivimäki is a professor of international relations at the University of Bath, United Kingdom. In addition to purely academic work Professor Kivimäki has been a frequent consultant to the Finnish, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Malaysian, Indonesian and Swedish governments, as well as to several UN and EU organizations on conflict and terrorism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.