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The five rings of the empire

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

March 23, 2017 - Paweł Kowal - Articles and Commentary

russia empire

Russian political scientist Alexei Salmin is known for his assertion that the Soviet system consisted of five spheres of concentrated rings of influence, which can be called spheres of influence for short. This scheme, which is currently being reconstructed by Vladimir Putin, can also serve as a helpful tool in analysing and foreseeing the development of Russian foreign policy in the future.

The year 2017 commemorates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Soviet Russia, a state like no other. Unlike the main European powers at that time, such as France or Germany, the Soviet state was ethnically heterogeneous. It also played an important role as an ideological capital for the communist world. The Soviet Russia was inhabited by a mosaic of nations of different religions and embodied a Marxist totalitarian state model. As a matter of fact, Soviet Russia was independent until it became the core of the Soviet Union in 1922. However, even at the time it was made up of many territories with different legal statuses. This characteristic internal construction made Soviet Russia a mini Soviet Union and the first ring of the empire.

Constructing the rings

In the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution a dispute erupted at the highest political level. It revolved around the organisation of the state, which was envisioned to eventually become the World Soviet Socialist Republic. There were two sides to the dispute. The first included those who demanded that the territories taken by the Bolsheviks be incorporated into Russia so that the latter could increase its size until it covers the whole world. The second group believed in a federal system and advocated for the establishment of new communist states. When the latter idea won out, the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union. Consequently, in our memory the USSR was a state that existed between December 30th 1922 and December 26th 1991. Its regulations assumed that each republic (in the summer of 1991 there were 15 of them) could leave the federation. Naturally, such an assumption was purely theoretical. The states of the Soviet Union became the second ring and, together, the first two rings constituted the USSR.

During the Second World War, Soviet policy towards Central Europe was aimed at establishing communist governments in the region. The 1944 Yalta conference instituted an order based on spheres of imperial influence in Europe. As a result, Central Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and East Germany fell under the Soviet umbrella. They were all united by the Warsaw Pact, which constituted the third ring. In Salmin’s classification, this ring also included the people’s republics in Asia. In my view this consisted of Mongolia and, for a certain period of time, Afghanistan. The third ring allowed Russia to unprecedentedly expand its influence into Eurasia. Without a doubt, the post-war period was the heyday of the Soviet Union’s success. It was also a time when it had the most influence in the world.

The fourth ring was comprised of the communist states dispersed throughout the world, including Yugoslavia, Albania and, for some time, Vietnam and Libya. Specifically, these were socialist states, usually former European colonies, which became Soviet satellites. They did not have a land border with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the fifth ring of imperial influence included the communist parties in western states, such as the Communist Party of Italy or France’s Communist Party. In this sphere Salmin included both legal and semi-legal organisations. In the 1930s communist parties from all over the world were united in the international communist organisation, Communist International (also known as the Comintern). After the Second World War, Stalin decided not to recreate this structure, even though the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau – editor’s note) was created in 1947 in Szklarska Poręba as a response to the US-led Marshall Plan in Europe. Membership in the Cominform, however, was limited to the communist parties from the states that were already subordinate to Moscow. It was clear that the Comintern method was no longer effective. For western communist parties to join an organisation controlled by the Soviets would be viewed suspiciously and considered a mechanism for espionage.

Hence, the fifth ring of the empire was not made up of one organisation. It included parties, groups of influence and, at times, individuals who worked to promote Soviet interests inside democratic countries. The members of the fifth ring were shaping public opinion by using media, participating in elections, running in electoral campaigns, etc. In a nutshell, it used political methods to spread Soviet influence throughout the West which were unfathomable in the USSR. Clearly, western communists and Soviet-friendly groups were at times prone to violence and terror. This was the case especially in South America where guerrilla methods were sometimes employed.

In the free world the essence of the communists’ activities was to break down the West’s unity by exploiting democratic methods. Overall, the imperial system, with its five rings of influence, was built up gradually. Over time it matured and was at its strongest in the 1960s, four decades after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Collapse of the empire

The process of the Soviet Union’s collapse began to unfold in the early1970s. It was at this time when economists took notice of the technological backwardness that was choking the empire. Paradoxically, it was also at this time when the pro-Soviet parties in the West began to play a key role. In the 1976 Italian parliamentary elections, the Italian communist party won over 34 per cent of votes and came close to entering into a coalition government in Italy, a NATO member. The operation failed with the assassination of Italy’s Christian Democratic prime minister, who was willing to work with the communist Aldo Moro. 

In subsequent years many communist and socialist parties in the West departed from the ideology of Marxism and their failure reflected the demise of the Soviet Union. With no agents of influence in the West, the USSR had a much weaker impact. By the 1980s the system of fraternal parties, subsidised by Moscow, became practically extinct. Similar processes took place in other communist states in South America which were slowly becoming free of Soviet influence. In the end, it turned out that American soft power was much more effective than Russia’s forced ideological pressure. The final tipping point in the USSR-West rivalry came during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the first half of the 1980s.

The summer of 1991 saw the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and by December of that year the Soviet Union had completely collapsed. The system of fraternal parties (the fifth ring) had completely been dismantled. The Warsaw Pact countries (the third ring) turned their backs on Moscow and announced a pro-West orientation. The disintegration of Yugoslavia (the fourth ring) further symbolised this process. The empire had shrunk down to the size of the revolutionary years of 1917-1922.

In 1992-1994 Russia’s imperial system had broken into pieces to the point that even some serious American analysts suggested that the US should buy parts of Siberia, just like it once purchased Alaska. The academic Walter Russell Mead, writing in the World Policy Journal at that time, even suggested that the price for such a purchase should be two to three billion US dollars. It would be interesting to speculate to what extent the history of Russia would have failed had t

Kowal rysunek

he George H.W. Bush administration pursued it. However, the US decided to support Russia financially, but did not to manage to encourage successful state reforms from the Yeltsin administration. After some hesitation, American policy-makers came to the conclusion that it was not in the interest of the US to bring the Russian Federation to its knees. A major concern revolved around the question of who would take responsibility over the nuclear arsenal that was left after the USSR’s collapse.

Preserving the core

When Chechnya, a small republic in the North Caucuses, voiced its demand for independence in 1994, it was invaded by Russian troops. Russia succeeded in maintaining its shape from the time after the October Revolution and before the establishment of the Soviet Union. In this way, Boris Yeltsin had managed to stave off the full collapse of the empire. The key symbolic meaning behind the First Chechen War was that it was meant to maintain the core of the empire. Ironically, the same politician who worked so hard to dismantle the it just a few years earlier had saved it in its most critical hour.

It is important to note that while the Soviet Union had collapsed, Russia’s imperial power did not. Mixing these two concepts might lead to misinterpretations about Russia. Such was the rationale of preventing Chechnya from seceding. What was at stake then was not a small territory but the principle that not even a small part can be detached from the Soviet/Federal Russian core.

Obviously, the issue of maintaining Russia’s imperial structure was not limited to geographic territory. The structure of the security services, the military and economic connections were all maintained. In fact, it was the lobby of the military and security services that did not allow for Chechnya’s detachment from Russia in the first place. Chechnya’s example also shows that there was no correlation between the nations’ ambitions and their position (i.e. whether it was a Soviet republic or just had some privileges within the Russian Federation). To be sure, the Chechen determination for independence was no different (perhaps even greater) than that of the Kyrgyz.

It was the formal status of each of the republics that decided which states stayed and which ones did not. The year 1994 was significant in regards to preserving the empire’s core. The returning influences of Russian security services, and later the activities of Vladimir Putin, were the first steps in rebuilding the five rings. The group of former KGB officers that rallied around Putin turned out to be one of the primary pillars of the continuation of today’s Russian imperial policy.

Rebuilding the rings

Putin’s rise to power was clearly the turning point in the process of rebuilding the Russian imperial system. Along with Putin in the Kremlin came the security structures that had maintained their traditions since the October Revolution. It is due to this lobby that today’s Russia is attempting to dominate in the former spheres of the empire. Just as the second (Soviet) Russian empire was built on the scheme of the five rings, we can now see that the third (Putinist) empire is being rebuilt on the same idea. If we look at Russia’s policies towards its former republics, we have no doubt that the Kremlin’s goal is to regain the whole territory under one political structure. A series of coloured revolutions, and particularly the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, warned the Kremlin that it was running out of time, especially in relations to key states like Georgia and Ukraine. The Kremlin came to understand that the special ties it enjoyed on the post-imperial territory could be neutralised by subsequent generations of Ukrainians or Georgians who no longer felt a connection to Russia. Thus, one of the most important strategies that Russia used to maintain its influence in the region, especially at a time when American impact was growing after the collapse of the USSR, was the frozen conflict. This was the case in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The strategy’s overall aims were to slow down the processes of rapprochement of former Soviet republics with NATO and the EU, and foster Russia’s intermediary position as a peace negotiator.

Understanding today’s processes is much easier in the context of the events that took place in 1989-1991. When it was clear that both the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were to collapse in spring 1991, two Soviet diplomats – Valentin Falin and Yuli Kvitsinsky – prepared a special doctrine which could be seen as a continuation of the Brezhnev one. Falin and Kvitsinsky assumed that Russia would maintain its influence in Central Europe in the long-term. To reach these goals the following tools should be used: economic pressure (especially Russian monopoly on energy deliveries), propaganda and espionage. Today, when we examine the Kremlin’s involvement in projects such as Nord Stream or its energy influences in Hungary, we have no doubt that the mechanism of energy dependency is used to maintain a dependency on Russia.

A close examination of the fourth ring of imperial domination also reveals a return to the Soviet tradition. Russia seeks to regain the territories it withdrew in the Yeltsin period. One illustration of this approach is the coal mining settlement, known as the Pyramiden project, on Norway’s archipelago of Svalbard, financed with Russian state resources. How else can we interpret this pure demonstration of power? For sure there is no economic justification. Also, indicative of Russia’s power ambition is the attempted coup d’état in Montenegro last October when pro-Russian rebels tried to take over government buildings during the elections. Their goal was to stop the small Balkan state from joining NATO. In Montenegro, as in other countries throughout the Balkans, we see a clear return of Russian influence – its increase can be felt in Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia.

Moreover, Russia’s participation in the Syrian war was incomprehensive to many observers. The war, however, like Russia’s reactivation in other remote parts of the world, plays the same role as Soviet engagement once did in Vietnam or northern Africa. The war itself is to a large extent Putin’s attempt to gain legitimacy of power through conflict. The message that Russia cannot reform its state because there is a war becomes the last possible way to create an excuse in the eyes of the public. Understandably, the issue of war as an element of today’s Russian propaganda requires a separate analysis. Clearly the methods of rebuilding Russia’s imperial spheres usually do not imply the use of force in a classical sense. Just like it was stated in the Falin-Kvitsinsky doctrine: the economy (especially energy) and investments are used as key tools. Today, energy is part of the basic strategic resources that are being used by the Kremlin.

Paying dividends

More evidence of the rebuilding of the five rings can be seen in the revival of a network of political parties in the West which co-operate with Russia. Today, the former fifth ring of the empire plays a similar role as it did in the past. Political victories in the West are, like during the Cold War, one of the key elements of Russia’s imperial power. Yet, unlike Soviet times, these parties are not communist but are largely populist and nationalist with a wide plethora of views. The common denominator of these parties, however, is that they aim to weaken the unity of the EU, increase scepticism towards the West and undermine transatlantic co-operation. Russian oligarchs play a key role here as well. As a matter of fact, post-Soviet big business is a new factor, one that did not exist in the past, but which gives the Kremlin additional strength when it comes to investing in the West, not to mention bribing western elite.

The first political party of this kind to receive financial support from Moscow has been France’s National Front. Its first electoral success took place in 1986 when the party received ten per cent of the vote. Its leaders have proudly admitted that they are supported by Moscow. Even though the ideological direction of Russia’s engagement with the West has changed, the principle has not: win western democratic states through their own democratic means. After many years, this strategy has now started to pay dividends. In fact, the ability to meddle in the internal politics of the old democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, is a huge asset in the rebuilding of Russia’s power. It is most likely that its effectiveness has already exceeded the levels known during Soviet times.

The turning point in the history of the far right Comintern (or, as Czesław Kosior has called it, the “Putintern”) was the 2014 illegal seizure of Crimea. Support for the annexation by a western organisation can be interpreted as a symbolic joining the Putintern club and paying a tribute to the Russian president. This support was expressed by parties that are more than just marginal in their own countries, such as Jobbik (Hungary), Lega Nord (Italy) and the Scottish National Party. The ring of support for Putin also comes from left-wing parties, such as Germany’s Die Linke, and a number of public figures in the West – the French actor Gerard Depardieu is one name that comes to mind. Last year American intelligence accused Russia of influencing the referendum result in the Netherlands (the vote referred to Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU), Brexit and the presidential election in the US.

Putin’s political system is based on a mixture of political myths from the past, spread via modern technology. The Kremlin has masterfully exploited the potential offered by social media and the relative pacifism of western states that allow politicians to creep towards the Kremlin narrative. The responsibility for this partially falls on Russian oligarchs who – thanks to their financial capital, a tendency for corrupt behaviour and ability to invest on a global scale – have been slowly influencing politics in the West. Russian oligarchic capital from the post-communist East has turned out to be one of the most toxic elements poisoning the liberal economic system. It is worth paying attention to the large role that post-Soviet money plays in the functioning of the main business centres of the West. London (or Londongrad, as some now call it), is one of the most striking examples.

Globalisation is an additional factor, which facilitates the unprecedented spread of oligarchic capital and influence. Large resources, a sense of being outside the legal system of the home country and the potential to transfer resources to the West (and later throughout the world) have offered Russian oligarchs a unique opportunity. The West, for the moment, appears helpless in tackling these challenges. Confronting Russia has to start, first and foremost, with a cleaning of its own backyard from Putin’s influence.


The process of rebuilding the Russian imperial rings of influence may appear to some as a simple construction of a “strong Russia”. Yet, the idea to build the Third Empire is not grounded in a sustainable economy or sound social policies. Moreover, the radical policies of the Kremlin today are not solely due to authorities trying to maintain power, but are to a large degree – and paradoxically – a symptom that the process of Russia’s de-imperalisation has entered a decisive new phase. An equally important element points to the need for restoring democracy in the West, particularly in a number of Central European states. The key is a scrupulous observance of politics in the West, and an answer to the question of whether democracies are able to weaken Putin’s influences on their own territory.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Paweł Kowal is a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Europe’s Natolin campus. He is a political scientist, historian, essayist and political commentator. He previously served as a Member of the European Parliament and was Secretary of State at Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.


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