The return of the 'spheres of influences'?

By Adam Urosevic | 9 January 2018

To quote this document: Adam Urosevic, “The return of the 'spheres of influences'?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 9 January 2018,, displayed on 02 June 2023

Russia’s power over Central Asia perfectly illustrates the notion of a ‘sphere of influence’: A hegemon exerts power over a geopolitically close region. Yet, at the same time, Central Asian states do regularly resist unilateral power impositions by Russia. How can this be explained? A recent paper in the journal Geopolitics posits a ‘negotiated hegemony’ to better understand the political dynamics between an ‘influencer’ and its ‘influenced’.

With more and more attention being paid to Russia's and China's increasingly assertive foreign policies, the phrase ‘sphere of influence’ is creeping back into everyday political vocabulary. Having previously assumed that this concept is a relic of the Cold War, commentators now like to speak of this notion’s ‘return’. A recently published paper by political scientist Filippo Costa Buranelli from the University of St. Andrews in the Geopolitics journal takes issue with this simplistic view of old power play returning and argues, instead, that spheres of influence have, in line with contemporary international politics, evolved and changed considerably.

Unlike newspapers, contemporary academia has shown little theoretical interest in this concept so far. It is usually juxtaposed with the notion of hegemony, a concept still predominantly associated with traditional ‘realist’ theory which has a narrow materialistic understanding of power and influence. A single external power, such as the U.S. in the post-war decades, is understood as a hegemon if it exerts predominant influence within a specific region (Keal 1983, 15). This predominant influence is traditionally regarded as a “preponderance of material resources” (Keohane 1984, 32) - all is linear, univocal and uncontested. In some analyses of Russian foreign policy, academics discard theory entirely and regard spheres of influences as self-evident.

Bearing in mind today's primacy of international law and entrenched principles such as sovereignty and nationalism, Costa Buranelli’s paper finds it simply misleading to regard post-Cold War spheres of influence as overt unilateral impositions by great powers. As sovereign equality has become a bedrock norm of contemporary international society (Jackson 2000), he argues that great powers can no longer engage in outdated power politics and must obtain the consent and legitimacy of the subordinate states. The high political and economic costs Russia incurred in the aftermath of the Crimean events serve as an example of how unacceptable, both morally and legally, such traditional approaches have become.

Costa Buranelli aims to fill this important gap in International Relations theory with a more nuanced and complex conceptualisation that is based on the 'English School' of International Relations theory. This theory emphasises that, despite the condition of international anarchy, there is a minimum degree of coexistence between states (both globally and regionally) that is based on shared values and rules (Rengger 2000). This theoretical lens allows him to develop the notion of negotiated hegemony: spheres of influence are to be viewed as social structures that attain legitimacy both from the ‘influencer’ as well as the ‘influenced’ states, thereby taking into account the agency of smaller states. Moreover, the English School does not simply equate influence and power to material resources, but rather sees it as the combined result of influence in the security, normative and cultural realm.

The paper illustrates its contemporary take on spheres of influence by looking at how Russia and the Central Asian states negotiate Moscow's hegemony in the region's security, normative and cultural realm. Since the region has been considered Russia's ‘near abroad’ throughout both its Tsarist and Soviet past, it is a particularly fitting case study to showcase how the nature of spheres of influence has evolved. A matrix allows readers to conveniently visualise Russia's negotiated hegemony:


Examples of Acceptance of Russian hegemony Resistance to Russian hegemony

• Upward trend in the region's import of Russian arms.

• Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

• The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), in which Russia holds approx. 50% of voting rights, allows Russia to veto foreign military instalments in the region. The organisation is recognised by the UN, thus giving Russia's hegemony external legitimacy.

• Uzbekistan pulled out of the CSTO in 2012 and does not allow Russia (or any other country) to establish a military base 

• In 2013, Tajik President Rahmon did not automatically renew Russia's military base, but rather negotiated in exchange for better provisions for Tajik migrants in Russia and support in the presidential elections. 

Norms and rules

• Internationally, high convergence between Russia and region's republics in voting at the UN General Assembly - especially when promoting non-interference and curbing human rights/democratisation.

• Many Russian laws are copied in Central Asia - especially those that ensure 'order and stability' such as restrictions on NGOs and human rights.

• Central Asian leaders visit Moscow very frequently, especially just before and after elections to boost their legitimacy.

• Uzbekistan voiced concerns over Russia's violation of international law after the events in Crimea.

• Putin's comments on Kazakhstan's limited statehood experience was met with harsh criticism from President Nazarbayev.

• Kyrgyzstan rejected a copied bill on controlling foreign-funded NGOs when Russia did not fulfill its promise of investing in much-needed hydro-power projects.


• Constant references to common past, heritage and brotherhood in bilateral and multilateral military treaties.

• Russian media makes up approx. 90% of the media consumed by Central Asian every day (Coyer 2014).

• Turkmen government is forcing a switch from satellite to cable television, thereby giving the regime more control and limiting Russian influence.

• Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have started to latinise their alphabet.

• All Central Asian states are developing policies to foster national languages.


These examples of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practises show that whilst Russia's influence is existent and recognised, it is neither fixed, nor unilaterally imposed. A sphere of influence should no longer be seen as simply material primacy over a given region. Rather, they involve negotiations and understandings.

This updated theoretical concept may help us understand the geopolitics in other regions too - a timely example could be China's activities in the South China Sea.

Certainly, one may ask whether the observations that hegemons require the subordinates’ consent is really something new – Antonio Gramsci has famously argued that hegemony is always consensual, resting “on the subjective awareness by elites in secondary states that they are benefiting” (Keohane 1984, 45). However, Costa Buranelli’s assertion that hegemony is not simply consented to but negotiated sheds new light on this important geopolitical phenomenon. And as he correctly argued, the concept highlights the autonomy of the states often simply depicted as subordinate. But in fact, not only does the influencer influence the influenced, but the influenced influence the influencer, too.


Photo: Clément (flickr).


• Costa Buranelli, Filippo. “Spheres of Influence as Negotiated Hegemony – The Case of Central Asia.” Geopolitics (2017): 1-26, doi:10.1080/14650045.2017.1413355.

• Jackson, Robert H. The global covenant: human conduct in a world of states. OUP Oxford, 2000.

• Keal, Paul. Unspoken Rules and Superpower Dominance. Springer, 1983.

• Keohane, Robert O. After Hegemony. Princeton University Press, 1984.

• Rengger, Nicholas J. International relations, political theory, and the problem of order: beyond international relations theory?. Psychology Press, 2000.

• Coyer, Paul. “The Media Battle for Hearts and Minds in Russia and Central Asia”. Forbes, 2014,

Recent examples for the use of ‘sphere of influence’ and similar terms include:

• Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen, and Michael S. Bobick. "The empire strikes back: War without war and occupation without occupation in the Russian sphere of influence." American Ethnologist 41.3 (2014): 405-413, doi:10.1111/amet.12086.

• Krickovic, Andrej, and Maxim Bratersky. "Benevolent hegemon, neighborhood bully, or regional security provider? Russia’s efforts to promote regional integration after the 2013–2014 Ukraine crisis." Eurasian Geography and Economics 57, no. 2 (2016): 180-202, doi:10.1080/15387216.2016.1211026

• Tudoroiu, Theodor. "From Spheres of Influence to Energy Wars: Russian Influence in Post-Communist Romania." Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 24, no. 3 (2008): 386-414, doi:10.1080/13523270802267922

• Sasse, Gwendolyn. "International linkages and the dynamics of conflict: revisiting the post-Soviet conflicts." East European Poliitcs (2016): 289-296, doi: 10.1080/21599165.2016.1176560

• O’Loughlin, John, Gerard Toal, and Vladimir Kolosov. "Who identifies with the “Russian World”? Geopolitical attitudes in southeastern Ukraine, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria." Eurasian Geography and Economics 57, no. 6 (2017): 745-778, doi:10.1080/15387216.2017.1295275