In his excellent book, Dimitar discusses the different dimensions of Russia’s influence in the region and the specific spheres of influence, including energy, military security and soft power, through media, religion and culture. For Dimitar, the current competition between Russia and the West is not about the return to the Cold War, neither is Russia trying to establish an Empire in the region of South East Europe. Russia is not able to offer to the countries in the region a coherent model alternative to the EU’s more comprehensive one. But what Russia does very effectively is to play a disruptive game of influence by tactically exploiting both its own limited strengths and the weaknesses and divisions among the European players.
In his presentation Dimitar emphasised Russia’s impact in the energy sector which, while extensive, has weakened since its high point in the 2000s, especially given the decreasing significance of the region as an outpost or a corridor for Russian gas. He spoke about the rising close alliance between Russia and Turkey, the “marriage of convenience” as he calls it in his book: with the occasional intra-marital spat such as the fall-out over the shooting down of the Russian fighter. What we are witnessing, according to Bechev, is a Putin-Erdogan double act, where convergent country interests, especially in the energy field, have recently become highly personalised. He also spoke about other bilateral relationships, including with Greece or Cyprus; and pointed to the gap between Russia’s limited commitments, and the at times high expectations of the two states, most clearly witnessed during the Eurozone crisis. He also spoke about relations with Bulgaria, a bilateral bond with deep historical roots; but where, despite the current strong Russian lobby in the country’s economy and politics, Bulgaria’s political elite has clearly shown a commitment for the EU and NATO. Finally, in some Western Balkans, Russia has found some fertile ground for infiltration with divisive potential in Serbia, Republika Srpska (especially), Macedonia and Montenegro: but appears involved in tactical manoeuvring rather than following a strategic master-plan.Dimitar’s astute points about Russia were then discussed first by Roy Allison from St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Centre, who emphasised Russia’s regional influence in the shadow of the security/military context of the Ukraine crisis and the Syrian wars; and then by Othon Anastasakis (SEESOX) who questioned what kind of global power Russia is becoming in an increasingly multipolar world, and specifically how one could compare its regional influence with that of another rising authoritarian power, China.
Othon Anastasakis (Director, SEESOX, St Antont's College, Oxford)