As Russia massed troops around Ukraine before its February 24th invasion, NATO Gen Sec Jens Stoltenberg reiterated a point made by many US and NATO officials in recent years: “Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours” (https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/news/russia-has-no-right-to-establish-a-sphere-of-influence-nato-chief-says/ and http://www.euronews.com/2022/01/04/nato-to-hold-special-foreign-ministers-meeting-over-ukraine-tensions). Stoltenberg inadvertently perhaps stumbled into a truth. States do not ‘have a right’ to a sphere of influence; at least they do not possess that right a priori. The ‘right’ to a sphere of influence is better thought of as an attribute. This attribute or right must be earned, and typically only great powers have the military and other forms of power requisite for establishing the right to a sphere of influence. Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm demands a sphere of influence as a buffer zone on its Western borders, given the long history of invasion, intervention, and interference Russia has experienced from Europe. It is willing to fight for its sphere of influence and protective buffer zone, as I have warned for a quarter of a century (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/01/10/putins-military-technical-and-other-options-if-strategic-stability-and-ukraine-talks-fail/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/12/a-warning-from-1997-russian-domestic-politics-and-nato-expansion/). In this sense, it is the motivated defender compared to the West, much as Ukraine is he motivated defender against the Russian invader. The difference consists in Russia’s greater firepower than that which Ukraine possesses and in the greater stake and proximity to Ukraine Russia possesses in comparison with the West’s power center, Washington DC.
The father of American realism, Hans Morgenthau, once wrote, “you may cover whole skins of parchment with limitations, but power alone can limit power.” The struggle between Russia and NATO over whether or not Ukraine (and Georgia) will become a member of world history’s most powerful military alliance is a struggle to demonstrate which side has the power to assert its ‘right’, to possess the attribute of a sphere of influence that encompasses Ukraine. For Russia, depriving neighboring Ukraine of NATO membership would establish Ukraine as falling within Russia’s sphere of influence, as evidenced by Moscow’s ability to determine Ukraine’s aligned or non-aligned status. For the West and NATO the ability to draw Ukraine closer to its ‘open doors’ and eventually walk her through them would demonstrate in even more stark fashion the West’s possession of a sphere of influence that includes Ukraine. Whoever succeeds in ‘claiming’ Ukraine by demonstration effect will have an inside track in bringing into its sphere of influence Georgia and any other post-Soviet state or state nearby Russia’s borders (Finland, Sweden, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan).
By invading Ukraine, Putin decided to demonstrate that by virtue of Russia’s power, greater determination, and shorter supply lines it is Moscow that will have Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. He is using force to eliminate any possibility that Ukraine will be within the West’s sphere of influence. Moscow’s ultimate trump card is its nuclear weapons. By virtue of this attribute of great power status, Russia can virtually be assured that the West will not directly involve itself in the conflict. Consequently, it is only Russia that throw the full weight of its military power into the fight for Ukraine. NATO’s only military role comes through its proxy. Western military assistance to Ukraine in the present war is likely the last instance in which the West will be able to treat Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence.
The fact that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy has already signaled to the Kremlin several times that he is prepared to agree to Moscow’s condition that Ukraine restore its neutral status in an article of its constitution as long as it receives a joint Russian-Western guarantee of Ukraine’s statehood. In other words, Moscow has already won a victory — one in the key area of spheres of influence — in the present war.
However, Putin is seeking other goals: Kiev’s recognition of Moscow’s sovereignty over Crimea, Kiev’s recognition of Donbass’s independence, Ukraine’s ‘demilitarization’, and Ukraine’s ‘denazification.’ In pursuing these goals, which would strengthen Ukraine’s entrenchment within Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin risks drawing out the war into a quagmire in which he conceivably could, however unlikely albeit, lose his initial sphere of influence gain–codification of Ukraine’s neutral status in both its constitution and an international agreement involving Russia and the West guaranteeing Ukraine’s statehood.
This raises a sensitive issue. Could the West balk at joining Russia in a treaty codifying Ukraine’s security and statehood in international law in order to force Kiev to continue the fight for its inclusion within the West’s sphere of influence? Would Kiev settle with a unilateral Russian security and statehood guarantee? Zelenskiy recently said Ukraine likely could not accept such an arrangement in the wake of this war? In sum, the sphere of influence issue over which war is being waged in Ukraine is still up in the air, but it is Russia that has the upper hand right now in demonstrating that it has the right to a sphere of influence that encompasses Ukraine.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.