Russian leaders have consistently articulated a policy of maintaining close links with and influence within Russia’s neighboring area. However, a major challenge in analyzing this objective is that the limits of Russia’s interests are not well defined. Some sources highlight the use of the term near abroad to describe the region in which Russia seeks the most-direct influence and control. But the near abroad does not have an uncontested geographic range. Russian analysts and accounts characterize the near abroad as countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltics, noting that Russia no longer has significant influence or interests in the Baltic states. At the same time, Russia is active in the Baltic states, especially through its engagement with the Russian minority. Further, Russia has degrees of influence beyond the former Soviet states to the rest of the former Communist world, especially with Slavic-speaking countries, such as Bulgaria and Serbia. Hence, it may make the most sense to describe the geographic extent of Russia’s desired influence as a set of concentric circles, with greater desired (though not necessarily achieved) interests in the more central circles.

Sphere 1: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine

Sphere 2: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova

Sphere 3: Baltic States Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Sphere 4:

  1. Ex-Warsaw Pact (Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania)
  2. Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia)

Russia’s belief that it is a great power and its concern about maintaining a buffer from foreign invasion may inform its interest in its neighborhood, but this desire for regional influence most likely runs even deeper than strategic concerns alone would suggest. Russian and Western analysts cite a longstanding “imperial” identity, drawing from Russia’s imperial expansion in the 16th through 19th centuries and the record of the Soviet Union. Russian identity is also connected with the other post-Soviet states, including Central Asia, given their shared Soviet past and use of the Russian language. Russia’s link, responsibility, and leadership over its region are currently articulated as part of Russian policy through the term Russkiy Mir, or Russian world, meaning support for Russia’s “compatriots.” Still, there is a great diversity of the countries and populations that might fall under the Russkiy Mir, and there is no single definition of what defines or limits Russia’s desired links with countries or individuals. Potential shared attributes may include, among other elements, the ethnic Russian population, Russian-language speakers, adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church, citizens of the former Soviet Union and their dependents, and Slavic-language speakers. The reach of the concept of the Russkiy Mir may thus be quite broad, and the identification of shared links and connections may be politicized and adapted based on other Russian foreign policy goals.

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