Staunton, March 25 – The suggestion by the late Russian political scientist Aleksey Salmin that the Soviet system consisted of “five concentric spheres of influence” provides the basis for understanding Vladimir Putin’s policies because the Kremlin leader is seeking to restore all five of these “rings,” according to Paweł Kowal
Kowal, a former Polish diplomat who served in the European Parliament and is now a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Europe, describes Salmin’s “five spheres” in a detailed article in The New Eastern Europe and how Putin is proceeding to advance Russian interests in each (neweasterneurope.eu/articles-and-commentary/2300-the-five-rings-of-the-empire).
According to Salman, Moscow was at the center of five concentric rings of influence: the RSFSR which is now the Russian Federation, the former Soviet republics, the Warsaw Pact states and other communist regimes, and “the fifth ring of imperial influence [which] included communist parties” as well as groups and individuals in non-communist countries.
Kowal argues that the post-Soviet Russian leadership in general and Putin in particular view the world in the same way and are acting, sometimes in the same way and sometimes in new ones, to restore Russian power and influence to what they were before the revolutionary changes of 1989-1991.
Moscow’s response to Chechnya first under Boris Yeltsin and then under Putin reflected the Kremlin’s desire to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet empire from spreading into the Russian Federation. “While the Soviet Union had collapsed,” Kowal continues, “Russia’s imperial power did not.” Confusing the one with the other leads to “misinterpretations.”
The Russian regime felt compelled to block Chechnya from seceding because “what was at stake then was not a small territory but the principle that not even a small part can be detached from the Soviet/Federal Russian core,” the Polish analyst says.
“Obviously,” he continues, “the issue of maintaining Russia’s imperial structure was not limited to geographic territory. The structure of the security services, the military and economic connections were all maintained.” And “just as the second (Soviet) Russian empire was built on the scheme of the five rings … the third (Putinist) empire is being rebuilt on the same lines.”
Understanding Putin’s approach to achieving that goal is easier if one recalls the work of two Soviet diplomats in early 1991. At that time, Valentin Falin and Yuli Kvitsinsky “prepared a special doctrine which could be seen as a continuation of the Brezhnev one.” They argued that Moscow could “maintain its influence in Central Europe in the long-term” via “economic pressure, propaganda and espionage.”
Putin’s approach to the former union republics and to the former Warsaw Pact states is driven by this conception, Kowal says, as is his involvement in conflicts like Syria far from Russia’s borders and his “revival of a network of political parties in the West which cooperate with Russia.”
“Today, the former fifth ring of the empire plays a similar role to the one it did in the past. Political victories in the West are, like during the Cold War, one of the key elements of Russia’s imperial power. [But] unlike Soviet times, these parties are not communist but are largely populist and nationalist with a wide plethora of views.”
“The common denominator of these parties, however, is that they aim to weaken the unity of the EU, increase skepticism towards the West and undermine transatlantic co-operation,” and “Russian oligarchs play a key role here as well … a new factor … that did not exist in the past, but which gives the Kremlin additional strength when it comes to investing in the West, not to mention bribing western elite.”
“The first political party of this kind to receive financial support from Moscow has been France’s National Front. … In fact, the ability to meddle in the internal politics of the old democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, is a huge asset in the rebuilding of Russia’s power.”
According to Kowal, “it is most likely that its effectiveness has already exceeded the levels known during Soviet times.” He adds that “The turning point in the history of the far right Comintern (or, as Czesław Kosior has called it, the ‘Putintern’) was the 2014 illegal seizure of Crimea. Support for the annexation by a western organization can be interpreted as a symbolic joining the Putintern club and paying a tribute to the Russian president.”
The Polish analyst notes that “the Kremlin has masterfully exploited the potential offered by social media and the relative pacifism of western states that allow politicians to creep towards the Kremlin narrative.” Russian oligarchs and their money play a key role. Indeed, their month “has turned out to be one of the most toxic elements poisoning the liberal economic system.”
“The West, for the moment, appears helpless in tackling these challenges. Confronting Russia has to start, first and foremost, with a cleaning of its own backyard from Putin’s influence.” And there must be a recognition that what Putin is doing is not just rebuilding “a strong Russia.”The Kremlin leader’s goals are much broader, but they are “not grounded in a sustainable economy or sound social policies.” To counter them, Kowal argues, the West must recognize this reality and move quickly to reinforce democracy where it is under threat and to “cleanse” its own house of Putinist agents of influence given their now nefarious influence.