Russia is working to form an understanding with regional powers outside the former Soviet sphere in order to facilitate its plans to expand its influence in key former Soviet states. These regional powers — Germany, France, Turkey and Poland — could halt Russia's consolidation of control if they chose to, so Moscow is working to make neutrality, if not cooperation, worth their while.
Today's Russia cannot simply roll tanks over the territories it wants included in its sphere of influence. Its consolidation of control in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia would be difficult, if not impossible, if Moscow faced opposition from an array of forces. Moscow's resurgence in its old Soviet turf is possible because the United States is distracted with issues in the Islamic world, but also because regional powers surrounding Russia are not unified in opposition to the Kremlin.
Moscow is working to cultivate an understanding with regional powers outside the former Soviet Union that are critical to its expansion: Germany, France, Turkey and Poland. If these countries committed to halting Russia's resurgence, Moscow would be stymied. This is why Russia is determined to develop an understanding — if not also a close cooperative relationship — with each of these countries that will clearly delineate the Russian sphere of influence, give each country incentive to cooperate and warn each country about opposing Moscow openly.
This is not a new policy for Russia. Especially before the Cold War with the West, Moscow traditionally had a nuanced policy of alliances and understandings. Germany and Russia have cooperated many times; Russia was one of the German Empire's first true allies, through the Dreikaiserbund, and was the only country to cooperate with post-Versailles Germany with the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo. Russia was also France's first ally after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war — an alliance whose main purpose was to isolate Germany.
Russia's history with modern Turkey (and its ancestor the Ottoman Empire) and Poland admittedly has far fewer examples of cooperation. Russia throughout the 19th century coveted territory held by the crumbling Ottoman Empire — especially around the Black Sea and in the Balkans — and had plans for dominating Poland. Currently, however, Moscow understands that the two regional powers with most opportunities to subvert its resurgence are Poland (in Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states) and Turkey (in the Caucasus).
Germany is the most important regional power with which Russia wants to create an understanding. Berlin is the largest European economy, an economic and political leader within the European Union and a key market for Russian energy exports — with Russian natural gas exports filling 47 percent of Germany's natural gas needs. German opposition to Russian consolidation in Eastern Europe would create problems, especially since Berlin could rally Central Europeans wary of Moscow to oppose Russia's resurgence. However, Germany has offered little resistance to Russia's increasing influence in Eastern Europe. In fact, it has primarily been Germany's opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia that stymied Washington's plans to push NATO's boundaries further eastward.
If it chose to, Germany could become Russia's greatest roadblock. It is geographically more of a threat than the United States, due to its position on the North European Plain and the Baltic Sea, and it is a leader in the European Union and could offer Ukraine and Belarus substantial political and economic alternatives to their ties to Russia. With this in mind, Russia has decided to make cooperation worthwhile for Berlin.
Russia's obvious lever in Germany is natural gas exports. Germany wants a reliable flow of energy, and it is not willing to suffer blackouts or freezing temperatures for the sake of a Western-oriented Ukraine or Georgia. Germany initially fumed in 2005 over Russian gas cutoffs to Ukraine, but later realized that it was much easier to make an arrangement with Russia and back off from supporting Ukraine's Western ambitions. Moscow carefully managed subsequent Russian gas disputes with Ukraine to limit German exposure, and Berlin has since fully turned against Kiev, which it now sees as an unreliable transit route.
Germany is expanding its energy relationship with Russia, since the upcoming Nord Stream pipeline will not only make more natural gas available to German consumers and industry, it will also make Germany a key transit route for Russian gas. The Nord Stream pipeline project also suggests that Germany does not just want Russia's gas; it wants to be Russia's main distributor to Central Europe, which would give Berlin even more political power over its neighbors.
Russia has also very directly offered Germany a key role in the upcoming privatizations in Russia. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally has invited German businesses to invest in Russia. Putin also personally intervened in the General Motors Corp.-Opel dispute in 2009, offering to save Opel and German jobs — a move designed to curry favor with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before Germany's September 2009 general elections.
Another prominent example of the budding economic relationship between Berlin and Moscow is German industrial giant Siemens' decision to end its partnership with French nuclear giant Areva, to which it felt it would always be a junior partner, and begin cooperating with Russia's Atomenergoprom. Siemens and Atomenergoprom will work together to develop nuclear power plants in Russia, Germany and other countries.
France and Germany are important partners for Russia because Moscow needs guarantees that its resurgence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus will not face opposition from a united EU front. Initiatives such as the Swedish-Polish "Eastern Partnership" — which seeks to upgrade relations between the EU states and most former Soviet Union states — are seen as a threat to Moscow's sphere of influence. The Kremlin feels it can keep these Central European initiatives from gaining steam by setting up informal understandings with Paris and Berlin.
France is a key part of this effort because Russia considers it — rightfully so — as the political leader of the European Union. Moscow therefore wants to secure a mutually beneficial relationship with Paris.
Russia has less leverage over France than over any of the other regional powers discussed. In fact, Russia and France have few overlapping geopolitical interests. Historically, they have intersected occasionally in North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but contemporary Moscow is concentrating on its near abroad, not global dominance. France does not depend on trade with Russia for export revenue and is one of the few continental European powers not to depend on Russia for energy; 76 percent of France's energy comes from nuclear power.
This is why Moscow is making every effort to offer Paris the appropriate "sweeteners," many of which were agreed upon during Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's visit to France on March 2. One of the most recent — and most notable — is a deal to purchase the $700 million French Mistral-class helicopter carrier. This would be the Russian military's first major purchase of non-Russian technology and would give Russia a useful offensive weapon to put pressure on the Baltic states and the Caucasus (via the Black Sea). Russia has suggested that it may want to purchase four vessels in total for $2.2 billion — something that recession-hit Paris would be hard pressed to decline.
Russia has worked hard on getting energy-independent France involved in its energy projects. French energy behemoth Total owns a quarter of the enormous Barents Sea Shtokman gas field and on Feb. 5 reiterated its commitment to the project despite announced delays in production from 2013 to 2016. French energy company EDF is also negotiating entry into the South Stream natural gas pipeline, while energy company GDF Suez signed an agreement with Gazprom for a 9 percent stake in Nord Stream on March 2. Furthermore, France's Societe Generale and Renault both have interests in Russia through ownership of Russian enterprises, and French train manufacturer Alstom has agreed to invest in Russia's Transmashholding.
Finally, Russia knows how to play to France's — particularly French President Nicolas Sarkozy's — need to be the diplomatic center of attention. Russia gives France and Sarkozy the respect reserved for Europe's leader, for example by allowing Sarkozy to negotiate and take credit for the peace deal that ended the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. This is no small gesture from Paris' perspective since France is constantly under pressure to prove its leadership mettle compared to the richer and more powerful Germany.
Turkey is a rising regional power looking to expand its influence mainly along the lines of the former Ottoman Empire. Like an adolescent testing his or her own strengths and limitations, Turkey is not focused on any one area, but rather surveying the playing field. Moscow has allowed Turkey to become focused, however, on the negotiations with Armenia, presenting itself as a facilitator but in reality managing the negotiations behind the scenes.
Russia wants to manage its relationship with Turkey for two main reasons: to guarantee its dominance of the Caucasus and assure that Turkey remains committed to transporting Russia's — rather than someone else's — energy to Europe. Russia also wants to make sure that Turkey does not use its control of the Bosporus to close off the Black Sea to Russian trade, particularly oil exports from Novorossiysk.
Moscow's main lever with Ankara is energy. Turkey depends on Russia for 65 percent of its natural gas and 40 percent of its oil imports. Russia is also looking to expand its investments in Turkey, with refineries and nuclear power plants under discussion.
The second key lever is political. Moscow has encouraged Russian-dominated Armenia to entertain Turkish offers of negotiations. However, this has caused a rift between Turkey and its traditional ally Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan does not want to see Armenia and Turkey conclude their negotiations without first winning concessions from Armenia over the de facto Armenian controlled Nagorno-Karabakh region. The negotiation process — openly encouraged by Moscow — therefore has forced energy-rich Azerbaijan into Russia's arms and strained the relationship between Ankara and Baku.
Russia has plenty of other levers on Turkey, trade being the most obvious. Turkey's exports to Russia are considerable; 5 percent of its total exports in 2008 went to Russia (though that number dipped in 2009 due to the recession). Russia has cut this trade off before — like in August 2008, when Turkey and NATO held maneuvers in the Black Sea — as a warning to Ankara. Russia is also considering selling Turkey its advanced air defense system, the S-400.
The final regional power with which Russia wants an understanding is Poland. Poland may not be as powerful as the other three — either economically or politically — but it has considerable influence in Ukraine and Belarus and has taken it upon itself to champion expansion of the European Union eastward. Furthermore, the U.S. military could eventually use Poland as a base from which to threaten the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad along with Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic Sea. Moscow thus sees the U.S. plan to position a Patriot air defense battery — or any part of the BMD system — in Poland as a key threat.
Russia does not want to see the U.S.-Polish alliance blossom, allowing the United States — once it extricates itself from the Middle East — to reposition itself on Russia's borders.
The most obvious lever Russia has in Poland is energy. Poland imports around 57 percent of its natural gas from Russia, a number that is set to rise to more than 70 percent with the new Polish-Russian natural gas deal signed in January. Poland is also planning on switching a considerable part of its electricity production from coal to natural gas — in order to meet EU greenhouse gas emission standards — thus making Russian natural gas imports a key source of energy. Poland also imports more than 90 percent of its oil from Russia.
Poland, as a NATO member state, is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. However, as Polish politicians often point out, NATO has offered very few real guarantees to Poland's security. Russia maintains a considerable military presence in nearby Kaliningrad, with more than 200 aircraft, 23,000 troops and half of Russia's Baltic fleet stationed between Poland and Lithuania. Russia has often used military exercises — such as the massive Zapad military maneuvers with Belarus in September 2009 — to put pressure on Poland and the Baltic states.
But despite a tense relationship, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has launched something of a charm offensive on Warsaw, and particularly on Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is seen as much more pragmatic than the anti-Russian President Lech Kaczynski. Putin made a highly symbolic gesture by being present at the September 2009 ceremonies in Gdansk marking the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. He also addressed the Polish people in a letter published by Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza in which he condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a nonaggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Putin has also made a point to smooth relations between Poland and Russia on the issue of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Soviet troops in World War II, inviting Tusk to attend the first ever Russian-organized ceremonies marking the event.
The charm offensive is intended to outmaneuver the knee-jerk anti-Russians among the Polish elites and to make sure that Poland does not create problems for Russia in its efforts to expand influence in its near abroad. It is similar to the charm offensives the Soviet Union used that intended to illustrate to the European left and center-left that the Kremlin's intentions were benign and that the right-wing "obsessions" about the Kremlin were irrational.
Ultimately, Moscow's strategy is to assure that Germany, France, Turkey and Poland stay out of — or actively support — Russia's consolidation efforts in the former Soviet sphere. Russia does not need the four powers to be its allies — although it certainly is moving in that direction with Germany (and possibly France). Rather, it hopes to reach an understanding with them on where the Russian sphere ends, and establish a border that is compatible with Russian interests.