The war in Ukraine may be Russia’s most blatant attempt to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighboring state, but it is in keeping with a long history of Russian attempts to dominate its smaller neighbors. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has remained deeply enmeshed in the political and economic affairs of the other post-Soviet states. Perceiving Russia both as a great power in a world dominated by the amoral interactions of great powers and as the heir to a long imperial legacy, the security service veterans (known as siloviki) who constitute the core of Vladimir Putin’s regime regard the idea of dominating the smaller states around Russia’s borders as normal and even natural. As during the Cold War, many of them also see the maintenance of a regional sphere of “privileged interests” as part of a wider strategic competition with the U.S.-led West.1
Russian officials and commentators typically avoid providing a precise definition of where this sphere is located, or what interests precisely Moscow considers privileged within it. In practice, Russian influence radiates out in something like concentric circles, varying according to the respective geographic, strategic, and cultural importance Moscow assigns to its former dependencies. Yet this sphere is not always geographically bounded. Rather, Russia uses a range of hard and soft power tools to project influence within and beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, guided by a sense of its own unique destiny and a commitment to limiting the spread of Western political and social models.
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Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. The views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.