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Russia's "Privileged" Sphere of Influence Meets Resistance


Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently laid claim to what he calls a “privileged” sphere of influence in the world. And he rejected the idea of a “unipolar” world, where one superpower – namely, the United States – dominates world affairs.

A Russian Perspective

Russian journalist Masha Lipman, editor of Pro et Contra, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center, says from a Russian perspective the recent conflict in the Caucasus began with Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Lipman says it provided a perfect excuse for Russia’s retaliation. From a Western perspective, however, this retaliatory mission was seen as disproportionate, especially with respect to Moscow’s unilateral recognition of the two breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and its refusal to recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity. Russian soldiers have begun dismantling some checkpoints in western Georgia near the Black Sea port of Poti and outside the region of Abkhazia [9/10/09]. But Russia plans to keep about 7,600 troops inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia for what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says will be “a long time.”

Masha Lipman says the Russian response put into action what former President, and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has been saying for several years – Russia will not allow Georgia or Ukraine to become a member of NATO. Lipman says the West dismissed those concerns, expecting Russia to somehow get over it. But Russia is much stronger now and far less dependent on Western financial institutions, enabling it to act in an “independent fashion” without regard for Western opinion. Furthermore, Lipman says, what happened in Georgia demonstrates the limits of U.S. power. She notes that, when Washington was unable to control its ally – Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili – there was nothing it could do to save him from the consequences.

According to Masha Lipman, Ukraine is also vulnerable. She notes that not only is most of the population of the Crimea ethnic Russian, but Russian speaking as well. And she points to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s decree last month that puts limits on the movement of Russia’s Black Sea fleet from its base in Savastopol – a move widely seen as a response to Russia’s use of its naval forces there in its recent military operations in Georgia. In fact, the Russian foreign ministry accused Kyiv [9/11/08] of providing Georgia with heavy weaponry during last month’s conflict.

A Ukrainian Perspective

Ukrainian journalist Yevhen Hlibovytsky in Kyiv says people there are skeptical of Moscow’s explanation that its primary concern lies with its opposition to Ukraine’s proposed membership in NATO. According to Hlibovytsky, the real reason is that Russia is trying to regain the influence it once had over the former Soviet republics. So, he says, if NATO were not on the agenda, there would be something else. Hlibovytsky draws a parallel between Russia’s humiliation during the 1990s, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and Germany’s humiliation in the 1920s, following World War I. And he suggests that Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland [present-day Bohemia, which is part of the Czech Republic] resembles what has just happened in South Ossetia.

According to Hlibovytsky, the real issue is not about NATO but about “passport wars.” He says there are claims that Russia is issuing Russian passports and granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians in the Crimea and to people in Trans-Dniestria [part of the Republic of Moldova], just as they were doing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Russian journalist Masha Lipman notes that unlike Georgia, there is little popular support for NATO membership in Ukraine, although she notes it has the strong support of President Yushchenko.

A Georgian Perspective

In contrast, according to David Nikuradze of independent radio and television station Rustavi 2, the people of Georgia are “united in opposing Russian dominance” in their region. Nikuradze says, “nobody wants to see another Soviet Union today.” He says it is up to the Georgian people to decide whether they “want to be friends” with the United States, the European Union, or NATO. Nikuradze says the main principle remains that Moscow “should accept” Georgia’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty. And he adds Georgia wants to have the “same relations with Russia” as many other European countries have.

An Azerbaijani Perspective

Georgia’s neighbor Azerbaijan has a different view of geo-politics in the Caucasus, according to independent journalist Shahin Abbasov in Baku. He says President Ilham Aliyev has not taken any public position – either for or against Russia – and the government prefers to maintain what it calls a “balanced” position between the West and Russia.

Earlier this month U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was in Baku, trying to persuade Azerbaijan to back Washington’s position on a proposed Trans-Caucasian oil pipeline, running from Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey – bypassing Russia. But Abbasov says the Azerbaijani president was non-committal. On the other hand, he says public opinion in Azerbaijan is squarely on the side of Georgia. He says that’s because Azerbaijan has its own problems in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where there is an ethnic Armenian majority. What is most critical, Abbasov stresses, is that Azerbaijan is extremely vulnerable to Russian pressure.

A U.S. Perspective

Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried says that Russia must be prevented from drawing a new line in Europe. And Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin has said that Washington needs to strike the right balance between signaling to Russia that its claim of a “sphere of influence” that overrides the sovereignty of its neighbors is unacceptable, while continuing to work with Moscow in those areas where both nations’ strategic interests are aligned.