Russia’s “Sphere of Influence” Mirage: Historic View of the Black Sea Region

Since the imperial era, the “sphere of influence” concept has been deeply ingrained in Russia.

By Akitsu Mayuzumi


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Michele Ursi

Since the imperial era, the “sphere of influence” concept has been deeply ingrained in Russia. This functioned as a notion and reality not only by unreserved military power but also because a universal philosophy existed behind Russia’s foray, that resonated with people inside and outside the country. By tracking the historical development, we will examine the situation in 2022.

The term “sphere of influence” is often mentioned in reports and commentaries on the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Sphere of influence” is a vague concept, and academically, no clear definition or sufficient discussion has been made. But in the context of international politics, under a rough common understanding, it is widely used to refer to the range a country can have significant influence on politics, economy, and military outside of its borders. This time, the fact that President Putin and the rest of the world had very different views on the extent of Russia’s “ideal sphere of influence” was demonstrated in the most intense form. An inquiry into Russia’s “sphere of influence” seems essential when considering the Kremlin’s future policy towards not only Ukraine but also other former Soviet republics, such as Moldova and Georgia.

In general, the “ideal sphere of influence” is recognized through a complex mixture of state ideology, historical territories, and the actual power within international politics. In Russia’s case, obviously, it is roughly the former territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. However, it has not turned out as Russia wished in the real world, with the Baltic states joining the EU and NATO after the Cold War, and Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia applying for EU membership in response to the current events. It should be noted that historically speaking, Russia’s control and influence over the neighboring regions was never consistent, but a series of ebbs and flows.

Since I specialize in the history of the Black Sea area that includes Ukraine, I would like to trace the history, focusing especially on Ukraine and Moldova and how Russia and the Soviet Union advanced and dominated these regions. While considering the perspectives of both the influencing side and the receiving end, I would like to discuss Russia’s sphere of influence from a historical standpoint.

Russian Empire’s Domination of the Black Sea Region

Because the Russian Empire expanded inland with Moscow at the center, it yearned to move out to sea by seizing the coastal areas. Russia succeeded in advancing to the Baltic Sea during the reign of Peter I and moved full swing into the Black Sea region in the second half of the 18th century under Catherine II. Winning the war against the Ottoman Empire, Catherine II gained the freedom of navigation for Russian ships in the Black Sea, which had been the “Ottoman Lake.” Then on, Russia advances and dominates in the Black Sea region in full gear. The first step was the annexation of the Crimea in 1783. By absorbing the Islamic state of Crimean Khanate, Russia earned its first large piece of territory on the Black Sea coast. This is the origin of Crimea, claimed by Russia as its “integral territory” upon the 2014 annexation.

The Russian Empire encouraged migration to the annexed southern Ukraine. Many migrants from across the Russian Empire settled in the region, called Novorossiya (New Russia). This is the main reason for the many ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. It was during these times, following the three partitions of Poland, when most of Ukraine’s territories were absorbed by Russia. No wonder Putin is a great admirer of Catherine II, who attained such territorial expansion.

While launching on to the Black Sea, Russia also made a full-fledged advance into the neighboring Caucasus and Balkan regions. In the Caucasus, it annexed most of the territories in the first half of the 19th century. But in the Balkans under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Russia chose to expand influence indirectly. Under this policy, the region of the current day Republic of Moldova is the sole exception. The region used to belong to the Principality of Moldavia, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, but was ceded to the Russian Empire as Bessarabia in 1812.

Since the 18th century, Russia pleaded repeatedly to the Ottoman Empire to protect the Christians in their domains, posing as the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the patron of the Orthodox Christians. Some Balkan residents, mostly Orthodox Christians, also expected protection by Russia, and this becomes the pretext for Russia’s Balkan intervention. In the second half of the 19th century, when nationalist movements intensified, Russian-led Pan-Slavism that seeks unity of the Slavic people served as another pretext. Russia became deeply involved in the Balkan nationalist movements and the nation states that were later established.

Thus, the Russian Empire directly dominated the Caucasus and Ukraine, and gained a strong influence in the Balkans by the 19th century. Of course, it had not always enjoyed stable dominance and influence. For example, when Russia lost the Crimean War in 1856, the Treaty of Paris stipulated the Black Sea as neutral territory, closing Russian warships from its waters. With this, Russia temporarily lost its influence in the Black Sea region. Later, in 1871, Russia scrapped the treaty and regained its clout. By the way, although it is on a different level, when we compare the Crimean War and the current Ukraine crisis, there seems to be various similarities, such as the Ottoman Empire and the tug-of-war between Russia and the West over Ukraine, protection of Orthodox Christians/Russians as an excuse to start a war, the unified response by the West, and the definite divide in Europe.

There is no doubt that the scope of Russian Empire’s territories and influence thus established since the second half of the 18th century became the basis for Russia’s subsequent recognition of its sphere of influence.

The Sphere of Influence in the Soviet Era

The Soviet Union, established after the Russian Revolution, inherited almost all the territories from the Russian Empire. Yet, we should note this consequence was not historically inevitable. Russia and the Soviet Union ended up dominating roughly the same territories for almost 200 years from the late 18th century to 1991. Such historical fact led to the Kremlin’s post-Cold War awareness that the dominated areas are its integral territory; the sphere of influence.

Yet, upon a closer look, there were also fluctuations. In its early years, the Soviet Union lost a significant amount of influence in the Balkans, where it was deeply involved during the imperial era. The former imperial territory of Bessarabia united with Romania (which was incorporated into Soviet territory as Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940), and the Soviet clout in the Black Sea region diminished. But Stalin promoted the centralization of power domestically, while abroad, after World War II, he included the Balkan nations as well as the Central European countries that historically belonged to the Western Catholic world, in his camp as socialist states. As a result, the Soviet sphere of influence expanded a great deal from the imperial era, and the Soviet during the Cold War gained the largest sphere of influence in Russian history.

On the domestic side, as Stalin drove out Crimean Tartars, the ratio of the Russian population surged in Crimea, and during Khrushchev’s rule in 1954, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Such seeds of conflict were sown during this time. While Ukraine experienced the government’s political swings of Ukrainization and Russification, it was firmly embedded within the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, in Moldova, the post-war administration tried to strengthen control by mass deportation of people opposing sovietization, but anti-Soviet movements continued to smolder.

With the establishment shaken by Perestroika, East European nations transformed their systems one after another, and left the Soviet sphere of influence. Then, the Soviet Union too, came to an end in late 1991. The former Soviet republics, excluding the Baltic states, joined the newly established Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and attempted initially to maintain the integration of the former Soviet Union. But as is well known, the countries had different levels of commitment. For example, although Ukraine became a CIS member, it issued its own currency and did not join the ruble zone, and carefully avoided confronting Russia it depends on for energy, while approaching the EC (later EU) and NATO, and took a policy balanced between Russia and EU. Of its 40 million population, about 20 percent are ethnic Russians seeking connections with Russia, and such a policy was required to avoid a division with the ethnic Ukrainians oriented towards the West.

Due to space limitations, I must omit the details after the 2004 Orange Revolution, but as a historian, I would like to point out the historic connection between Ukraine and the West. The region west of the Dnieper in the current Ukraine has been occupied by Poland and Lithuania since the late 14th century. Especially when Poland, a Catholic state, dominated many Ukrainian regions in the 16th century, it resulted in an influx of Western culture. After the 17th century, Polish and Lithuanian territories gradually retreated with Russian advancement. Yet their dominance continued until the partition of Poland in the second half of the 18th century. The Galicia region, which was incorporated into Austria by the partition of Poland, became the base of the Ukraine nationalism movement in the 19th century, that had been oppressed by Russian occupation. After the Russian Revolution, Galicia contributed to the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukraine’s first nation state. Such historical connections with the West, is what makes Ukraine a state in-between the West and Russia.

Meanwhile, Moldavia became independent as the Republic of Moldova following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The former country name is in Russian, while the latter is in Moldovan/Romanian. By the way, the Moldovan language is basically the same as Romanian, apart from slight differences. It is a political language created by the Soviet government to prevent the country’s unification with Romania.

As mentioned earlier, this region originally belonged to the Principality of Moldavia (united with the Principality of Wallachia in the mid-19th century to form Romania), sharing almost the same language and culture with its neighbor, Romania. So, some people advocated unification with Romania when becoming independent, as in the interwar period. However, the residents on the east side of the Dniester, consisting mostly of Russians and Ukrainians, opposed to Moldavia’s independence and proclaimed a breakaway independence as Transnistria in 1990. A clash broke out between this separatist “state” and Moldova in 1992, and even after the conflict, a “peacekeeping force,” including Russian troops, remained stationed. Under these circumstances, the movement to unify with Romania lost steam, and Moldova chose to maintain independence and neutrality.

Like Ukraine, in Moldova, the political stance has wavered between pro-West and pro-Russia. As of March 2022, Maia Sandu, who values relations with the West, is Moldova’s president. The situation of having a region, Transnistria, where Moldova has no effective control and Russian troops are stationed, is like Ukraine. Since there are many ethnic Russians in the country, the Moldova government declared a state of emergency immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and is on the alert for a spill-over of the Ukrainian crisis.

The Vulnerable “Sphere of Influence” without Universal Principles

As we have seen, Russia and the Soviet Union up to the Cold War have advanced under a certain mission slogan, such as the protector of the Orthodox Christians, representative of the Slavs, or leader of the communist revolution, to expand territories and the sphere of influence. Even if such missions and roles were often expediencies for advancement and domination, they had a certain degree of universality. The existence of a definite number of people who identified with these claims by the Kremlin helped to maintain and expand its sphere of influence.

Yet, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly established Russian Federation lost the vast sphere of influence from the Soviet era, as former East European countries moved away from its influence and former Soviet republics became independent. Although the following three decades may seem like a brief moment in the long history of Russia, the republics that gained independence had each established a political and economic system with a sovereign nation as the unit, nurtured public awareness, and are run by generations with no Soviet memory. As Russia, aiming to maintain the “ideal sphere of influence,” intervenes into these countries, it fails to present a certain universal principle or role like it had during the Cold War era, but can only uphold a national excuse of protecting the ethnic Russians.

Russia fails to fully present the common values or the necessity and advantages of joining its camp. In contrast, the EU, established after the Cold War with mainly West European members, has succeeded to a certain extent in doing so. Following several centuries of domination by Poland in the early modern period, Ukraine had functioned as Russia’s window to Western Europe after becoming the Russian Empire’s territory. With this historic standing, it is natural for Ukraine to be attracted to the West. In July 2021, prior to invading Ukraine, Putin released an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,“ and indicated that, historically, the two nations are inseparable. Yet, this did not resonate with most Ukrainians, and Russia ended up invading upon the excuse of “protecting Russian nationals in Donetsk and Luhansk from fascists.” The consequence was fierce resistance from the Ukrainians.

If Russia tries to bind a country to its sphere of influence by force while failing to persuade its people about Russia’s mission that is universally acceptable, common values, and the benefits Russia can provide, it would be difficult to maintain the influence in the long term.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 72 March/April 2022 of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Akitsu Mayuzumi earned a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. After serving as an associate professor at the Hiroshima Shudo University and University of Tokyo, he is currently a professor at the University of Tokyo. He specializes in early modern and modern Black Sea regional history, Balkan history, and Black Sea regional studies. He is the author of Between Three Worlds: Western Europe, Russia, and Ottoman, and the Wallachia-Moldova Issue (in Japanese) and other books.


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