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The Folly of Russia’s ‘Sphere of Influence’ in Eastern Europe

Lachlan Forster | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

In the wake of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, academic John Mearsheimer experienced a surge of relevancy online.

His 2015 lecture, given in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, entitled ‘Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault’, has over 29 million views on YouTube and searches for his name spiked in April 2022. One of the leading thinkers within the realist school of thought in international relations, Mearsheimer’s interpretation of the Russo-Ukrainian War—as having been caused by the United States overstepping the boundaries of Russia's, ‘sphere of influence’—has resonated with a wide spectrum of European political figures.

Mearsheimer’s personal ideology of ‘Offensive Realism’ dictates that the anarchic international order, which lacks any supreme authority that can justly determine and enforce geopolitical laws, makes conflict between large states inevitable as they are pre-disposed to expand their influence in search of wealth and power. But with the emergence of nuclear weapons, war between large states became an apocalyptic scenario.

This lead to the creation of the ‘sphere of influence’. The concept views smaller nations as poker chips that belong to the closest large state, who maintain an influence over their politics.

During the Cold War for example, South America and Western Europe were American chips, just as Eastern Europe and Central Asia belonged to Russia. The divide gave each superpower a level of confidence in their geographical security. Just as America did not interfere when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the USSR did not interfere when the US empowered the Pinochet regime within Chile in 1973. Neither of these events were received positively by the opposite superpower, but the trade off in avoiding a nuclear war was to respect the sphere of influence.

However, with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the Russian Federation from the ashes of the USSR, the former Soviet sphere of influence became muddled. Having gained independence, states that were once confidently Soviet poker chips like Poland, Czechia, Hungary, and Slovakia began to shift westward, joining NATO and allying themselves with the United States.

The switching of these nations is where Mearsheimer’s reading of the Ukrainian crisis gains popularity. He sees this switch as a violation of the delicate balance that the Cold War had created to avoid conflict. With former Soviet satellites having joined NATO and Ukraine potentially following this same path, Mearsheimer maintains that Russia felt threatened and was left with no other option than to secure its borders through aggressive action.

This opinion is common place in the European political debates regarding Ukraine. Former UK Labour MP George Galloway, French socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Irish MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly are just a few of the most outspoken advocates for Mearsheimer’s reading of the war, placing blame on NATO enlargement specifically for threatening Russia and forcing Putin’s hand to invade.

However, this reading of the Russo-Ukrainian war, in spite of its sudden popularity, is fundamentally flawed. The interpretation of smaller nations as poker chips without agency, who by the laws of geography are relegated to simply tow the line with the nearest superpower, is an absurd concept which robs nations of their right to determine policy.

It should not be forgotten that the USSR was an empire and the nations within its sphere of influence were colonies, subjected to consistent cultural, religious and political subjugation. In considering this, it becomes painfully difficult to justify why a nation like Poland, which was invaded and occupied by Russia three times within the 20th-century, shouldn’t pursue membership of NATO but instead remain aligned with Russian policy, in the name of maintaining a balance between superpowers.

Indeed, Russia’s pursuit to reaffirm its sphere of influence has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the Russian military backed Transnistrian separatists in Moldova during 1992, Poland, Czechia, and Hungary became concerned about their security and initiated the process of joining NATO to secure themselves from the potential of Russian aggression.

After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Albania and Croatia joined NATO the following year. In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden have sought NATO membership with the former having ascending in April and the latter to soon follow. In seeking to rebuild its former sphere of influence, Russia justifies the westward turn of Eastern European nations by proving itself to be a threat to their freedom.

Although Mearsheimer paints a picture of a balanced world free from nuclear confrontation, it shouldn’t be forgotten that for Russia to feel as secure as it did during the Cold War, the price is robbing sovereignty from Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbours. The decision whether to join NATO, turn westward, or maintain a close alliance with Russia should have been the decision of the Ukrainian population.

It would be unacceptable to ignore international standards regarding sovereignty in order to restore an oppressive Cold War dynamic across Eastern Europe, solely to the benefit of Putin’s regime.

Lachlan Forster is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. A student of international Relations and History at the University of Melbourne, Lachlan is currently in Malaysia on a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. He is a contributing writer with the Young Diplomats Society and Asia in Review, and has also been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Undergraduate Journal of History, and Farrago.


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