Russia and the East

Note:  Students in Dr. Hannah Chapman’s Spring 2020 Havighurst Colloquium, “Russia and the World,” completed final projects where they assessed Russian relations with the West, East, North, and South.  This is the second project, from students responsible for studying Russia and the East.

Russia’s influence in the region and its opportunities to overcome challenges to grow stronger.

By Hannah Specogna, Erin Glynn, Gavin Koterba, Michael Markoff, Hannah Specogna, Ashwin Shenoy, and Zachary Martin

Executive Summary

Russia has a large diaspora in the near-abroad and strives to maintain its influence in the region. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia now encounters opposition from the European Union and NATO, and recently the rise of China, through its economic belt and road initiative, has created new challenges.

To address these challenges and maintain Russia’s leadership and influence, the first recommendation is continued funding to cultural and religious institutions to strengthen relations with ethnic Russians abroad. To cover economic and political influence over the near-abroad, either subsidizing export costs or working with OPEC to lower natural gas supply to raise prices, increases country dependency and influence.


The Russian diaspora refers to both people that are ethnically Russian and those that speak Russian living outside of Russia. It exists largely because of three waves of emigration out of the Soviet Union, beginning in 1917 and ending in 1990.

In the east, the highest concentration of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers can be found in Central Asia and the Baltic states, leading countries such as Kazakhstan to establish strict policies that ethnic Russians and Russian speakers often chafe under.

In the past, Russian leaders have used the diaspora as a justification for aggressive action, when they began a five-day conflict with Georgia in 2008 and when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Claims of protecting the Russian diaspora allows Russia to feel secure in the “near-abroad.” It’s a veneer of reasoning that allows the international community to look away, making it easier for Russia to assert itself as a regional power.

Light Blue: percentage of population that is ethnically Russian
Dark Blue: percentage of population that speaks Russian
Source: CIA World Factbook1 2 3

Light Blue: percentage of population that is ethnically Russian
Dark Blue: percentage of population that speaks Russian
Source: CIA World Factbook 4 5 6 7 8

Light Blue: percentage of population that is ethnically Russian
Dark Blue: percentage of population that speaks Russian
Source: CIA World Factbook 9 10 11


Seeping out of the Soviet era, the long-standing tension between the Soviet Union and the West has produced cultural retention of liberal ideologies within Russia that would normally be condemned. Russia must cope with this growing cultural tendency toward Westernization, yet it continues to struggle in its relationship with the EU and NATO. These organizations have put various sanctions on Russia into place and have further pushed Ukraine, one of Russia’s closest regional partners, closer to the EU and NATO (much to Putin’s dismay). Another challenge to Russia’s influence within the region is the historical tensions that exist between Russia and ethnic minorities in surrounding states who wish to not be ruled by Russia.

China is capable of providing surrounding nations with massive loans and promoting these nation’s economies through large trade deals. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is positioned to boost economic growth for China and Eurasian countries on a scale that Russia readily cannot compete with.


Russia has the opportunity to utilize preexisting institutions. An example is promoting increased travel of ethnic Russians in the near-abroad to Russia is through a special Visa process which goes through the Rossotrudnichestvo. Russia can also utilize the Russian Orthodox Church to increase its relations among compatriots in the near-abroad to counter Western influence. Also, Russia can advance its relations and influence through the Russkiy Mir Foundation which establishes cultural centers in the near-abroad countries. This tool helps promote Russian language and culture among ethnic-Russians abroad to strengthen ties with Russia.

Russia’s export of natural gas is a very critical aspect of the Russian economy. It is no secret that many nations within the region rely on Russian gas, and will continue to require a supply of such energy for years to come. Russia can use its influence as a natural gas supplier to provide political and even economic pressure to nations within the region.

Policy Recommendations

Of utmost importance to Russian foreign policymaking is the protection of Russian compatriots and their rights abroad. Compatriots abroad promote Russian great power status in the world and help to exert Russian influence around the world. These compatriots assist the foreign policy agenda by passively helping spread Russian ideology and influence, as well as actively participating in intelligence gathering operations, political influence, and even assertive operations (such as in Crimea).

Russia can support its compatriots abroad through funding and support of Rossotrudnichestvo which would allow for increased impact from the agency’s programs including developmental and diplomatic assistance, labor and visa programs, and promotion of Russian language use and instruction.

Another significant way Russia can further its foreign policy objectives is through the use and support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Through educational and humanitarian programs, the church is able to have a significant impact on the worldview of the Russian Federation and support its compatriots abroad.

Virtually all of the natural gas imported into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania comes from Russia. It is vital for Russia to maintain the policy of expanding its monopoly over natural gas exports through the state-owned corporation Gazprom to its eastern neighbors as a form of political and economic influence. Russia can continue to offer lower prices for natural gas exports to Eastern Europe by subsidizing the export costs, as it does in the case of Belarus which imports natural gas at a subsidized price of $127 per 1,000 cubic meters, compared to the average price of $200 per 1,000 cubic meters for the rest of Europe. This provides these countries with the financial incentives to continue to import natural gas from Russia, rather than from western countries.

Russia can strike a deal with OPEC to withhold the global supply of crude oil available to the market. This would be coupled with the reduced supply of natural gas, as market trends show that the price of crude oil largely moves with the price of natural gas. By reducing the supply and increasing consumer demand, the price of natural gas imports to Europe–which has dropped to an average of $96 per 1,000 cubic meters due to the COVID-19 pandemic–would increase.

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