In the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian war, President Dmitri Medvedev, setting out Russia’s foreign policy principles, spoke about the country’s spheres of “privileged interests” and the government’s obligation to defend Russian citizens abroad. Coming less than a month after Russia’s armed response to Georgia’s attack on its breakaway province of South Ossetia, where most residents had been provided with Russian passports, this statement produced a shock. It sounded as if Moscow was reclaiming the Soviet geopolitical legacy of Russia’s spheres of influence and was prepared to intervene with force in countries with significant ethnic Russian minorities. The talk of Russian assertiveness, making rounds since the mid-2000s, was substantially enhanced by accusations of Russia’s outright aggressive behavior. The year that followed has seen an unprecedented global financial and economic crisis, a new administration in Washington, and a decrease in tensions between Russia and the United States. The issues that had produced a near confrontation between the two—such as the United States’ single-minded support for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia; Russia’s actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; NATO’s membership action plans (MAPs) to Georgia and Ukraine; and plans to install U.S. ballistic missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland—while not completely off the table, are now clearly on the backburner.
Toward the end of 2008, however, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a wide-ranging statement, made a very strong case for the “unique relations” that bound Russia and the countries of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He spoke about “civilizational unity” of the lands that used to be the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and before that, the Russian empire. Thus, a question arose: what is the difference, if any, between the sphere of interests proclaimed by the current Russian leadership, and the more traditional sphere of influence condemned by international public opinion? What, after all, are Moscow’s motives and its aims?