Russia

A NATO of the Mind Limits Putin's Sphere of Influence

Negative attitudes toward NATO may define the Kremlin's potential sphere of influence.

Superpower status again?

Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

The future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may be in question thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump's dismissal of it as "obsolete," but NATO is still useful in at least one sense. Attitudes toward it form the most obvious border between the so-called "Russian World" -- a construct used by Russia to describe its desired sphere of influence -- and that part of the post-Communist world that no longer looks to Moscow for guidance and may never do so again.

A quarter of a century after the Soviet breakup, Russia is laying claim to superpower status again, using many of the same methods perfected during the Cold War. In some ways, it's too late to the party. Its old empire -- both the czarist version and the two-speed Eastern Europe built by the Communists, in which some nations were absorbed into the Soviet Union and others supported as its closest Comecon satellites -- has decomposed too much to be revived. President Vladimir Putin's Russia needed a new idea for restoring Russian power, and it appeared to find one in the "Russian World" idea espoused by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The concept is broad and nebulous. It includes interest in the Russian language and culture, but also adherence to conservative religious values and a cultural confrontation with the supposedly godless and dissolute West. In 2007, Putin set up a foundation to create Russian cultural centers overseas, similar to the U.K.'s British Council or China's Confucius Institute. The foundation, called Russky Mir, now has more than a hundred branches globally. 

"The Russian world is an independent civilization that is capable of promoting certain ideals," legislator Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of Joseph Stalin's foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, wrote in a collection of articles published by the foundation. "The Russian world shouldn't be about memories of the past, but about dreams of the future."

There is a flip side to this vision: The apprehension of countries once ensnared in Russia's orbit and now wary of being dragged back in. As the Estonian intelligence service wrote in its recently released 2016 annual report

Despite Vladimir Putin's declaration that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the Kremlin's goal is not restoration of the Soviet Union. Using modern political, economic and military instruments for restoring its sphere of influence is considered a much loftier purpose.

 The "Russian World," after all, is not only about soft power. It includes what is often termed "hybrid war": If a nation tries to leave its realm, Russia will fight to stop it through propaganda targeted at Russian speakers. It will also use force, as it has shown in Ukraine.

NATO, with its untested but powerful mutual security guarantee, is the only shield protecting potential "Russian World" countries from a forcible reinduction into Moscow's sphere of influence. At least for now, it limits Russian influence to soft power. So, attitudes toward the military bloc are a good gauge of a country's attractiveness to Putin's Russian World project. If NATO is popular in a nation, the Kremlin will still pull all the strings available to it, perhaps even spread some cash or attempt to influence an election -- but it won't work as hard as it will in a nation where a negative attitude toward NATO gives it a bigger opening.

Gallup has released the results of a survey on NATO, taken in Eastern European countries in 2016. Viewed from a "Russian World eligibility" point of view, it provides some predictable results and some surprising ones.

NATO vs. "Russian World"

Answers to the question "Do you associate NATO with the protection of your country, a threat to your country or neither?" (percent)

Source: Gallup

Ukraine, despite three years of war waged on its territory by Russian-backed separatist rebels and, at decisive moments, by Russian troops, still has an anti-NATO plurality. It's easy to see why Putin is unwilling to desist in Ukraine: He still hopes to win the big prize.

The Baltic states, especially Estonia and Lithuania, are not as interesting to the Kremlin. They have pro-NATO majorities; a Russian hybrid invasion would be too costly and pointless for Russia to maintain. Even in Latvia, with its large Russian minority, almost half of the population is pro-NATO, which disqualifies the small nation as a potential part of the "Russian World" for anything but cultural purposes.

It's far more productive for the Kremlin to concentrate on the more anti-NATO post-Soviet states, such as Armenia and Moldova, and on Balkan nations such as Serbia and Montenegro. No wonder Russian activity in these countries has recently been on the increase. Even NATO members Bulgaria and Greece, where significant minorities see the bloc as a threat rather than a protection, are promising arenas for Russian influence-wielding -- whereas post-Soviet Georgia, where the anti-NATO minority is tiny, is probably a lost cause.

It's possible, then, that in trying to reconstruct Putin's strategy, experts are mistaken when they concentrate on post-Soviet nations in the moribund Commonwealth of Independent States as potential targets. The Estonian intelligence report, for example, states that "Russia’s ambition is to strengthen its influence in the CIS area and ensure Russian-controlled integration therein via the Eurasian Union." That's probably obsolete thinking. Russia will seek to play a role everywhere people are not mentally "anti-Russian" enough to believe in NATO as a protective shield, and that includes, at least in the near term, the Balkans rather than the Baltics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

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