Spheres of Influence in the Eurasian Theater

Russia Turkey Relations

Spheres of Influence in the Eurasian Theater

Jocelyn Iannis Meakins
The Harriman Institute, Columbia University

This is the first in a series of three working papers produced for our recent Annual Conference Student Webinar: '"Conceptual Conversations": Exploring Russian, European & American Understandings of Core Concepts Underpinning Russia-West Relations'. This first paper is based on collaborative research undertaken by Jocelyn Meakins, Lucia Savchick, Sarah VanSickle and Matthew Reichert, all current post-graduates at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University and the Davis Center at Harvard. The University Consortium's Annual Conference was hosted by HSE from 30 September - 1 October 2016.


In the Eurasian theater, ‘spheres of influence’ have functioned as pillars of peacetime cooperation, allowing 19th century great powers and 20th century nuclear superpowers to coexist without conflict for long stretches of history. At the same time, misunderstandings about spheres of influence have produced geopolitical upheaval and conflict. If states generally seek to avoid costly war, and if drawing spheres of influence has been an effective means to avoid war, why would states ever risk those spheres breaking down? Despite their historical importance and the obvious puzzle they pose, social science currently lacks an explanation of why states have relied on spheres of influence at some times, and violated them at others. Such an explanation is necessary for anyone interested in promoting cooperation or avoiding conflict in Eurasia.

We ask the question: under what conditions are state spheres of influence agreed upon, and under what conditions do they become contested? We motivate this broader research question with an empirical puzzle in Eurasia: the Turkish experience in regional geopolitics. Since the formation of the Turkish republic in 1923, Turkey’s position as squarely in the Western sphere of influence, and outside the Russian sphere, has been generally uncontested. Turkey’s Western geopolitical orientation has remained stable despite (1) between 3 and 5 military coups, as well as surrounding lurches from center-left Kemalist to center-right Islamist governments, (2) the collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement as a competing would-be patron by the Russian Federation, and (3) a change in the international system from bipolarity to unipolarity. Yet in recent years, Turkey has shown the potential to move out of the Western sphere of influence, towards the Russian one. The consistency of the Turkish geopolitical position despite dramatic changes in the domestic, international, and systemic context, and its potential re-orientation today, is an outcome that needs to be explained...

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