Page last updated at 23:26 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 00:26 UK

Russia keeps close watch on neighbours

A year after war erupted between Georgia and Russia, James Rodgers of BBC World Service's Analysis programme reflects on Russia's difficult relationship with its neighbours.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with a military scope
Russia opposes Nato enlargement into the former Soviet Union

In its national anthem, the Soviet Union described itself as "indestructible".

Even though the USSR fell apart far sooner than its founders foresaw, its legacy is still felt. Recent confrontations with Georgia over its breakaway territories, and Ukraine over gas supplies, show how hard it has been for some former Soviet states to escape Moscow's influence.

The anthem was ditched in the early 1990s. But, as president earlier this decade, Vladimir Putin brought it back. The words have changed, but the music serves as a reminder - both to friend and foe - of a time when Russia was boss.

Moscow is frank about the kind of relationship it wants with the countries that it ruled for most of the last century.

"Of course Russia would like to play the leading role in the former Soviet Union simply because of its status, historical background, cultural background and so on," says Dmitry Polikanov, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Putin's United Russia party.

Russian 'veto'

Some in the West believe Russia's real purpose is not to lead so much as to control.

"They don't want to recreate the old Soviet empire because that was expensive to maintain, brittle, and troublesome," says Edward Lucas, who writes for the Economist and is the author of a book, The New Cold War.

There's been a kind of impressive and self-destructive tantrum on the part of the Russians which has made people a little more scared of them
Edward Lucas

"They're much more interested in having a kind of zone of influence or, as Mr Medvedev, the Russian president, described it, a zone of privileged interest in which they have a de facto veto on everything important and a very close eye on what happens."

Russia has had an especially close eye on Nato enlargement. The war with Georgia last August was the result of tension which had been building for years - and even if the conflict was ostensibly about the status of a separatist region, Georgia's desire for Nato membership was a major factor. Russia sees Nato's eastward expansion as a deliberate threat to its security.

A year on, South Ossetia and Georgia accuse each other of trying to re-ignite the conflict. Moscow has joined in, condemning what it terms "provocations from Georgia", and warning that it is prepared to use all "force and means" to protect South Ossetian citizens and Russian military personnel.

Russia's approach to its disputes with its neighbours seems designed not only to secure advantage, but also as a demonstration of power.

Deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces General Anatoly Nogovitsyn
Russia has made clear it is willing to use military force

It is not clear how effective it has been in the long term. Edward Lucas sees a policy which is ultimately counter-productive.

"I think the gas war with Ukraine is to some extent rather like the military war with Georgia. There's been a kind of impressive and self-destructive tantrum on the part of the Russians which has made people a little more scared of them. It hasn't really got what they wanted in the long run."

Struggle for resources

Neil MacFarlane, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, believes Russia's relations with its neighbours are governed by an approach which differs widely from that of the West.

In the struggle for resources, Russia is ready to demonstrate its power, its strength, and to defend its interests
Dmitry Polikanov
Russian foreign policy adviser

"To judge from what the Russians say about their space, they are operating on a 19th Century theory of international relations which is based on the distribution of power, on competition between great powers, on the need to secure preponderant influence over contested spaces," he says.

"We may be living post-historically. Russia is not."

But the West and Russia do have to live together - whether or not they want to live by the same rules.

Russian foreign policy adviser Dmitry Polikanov admits that what he calls "gas diplomacy" has its drawbacks.

But he speaks for the Russian political establishment when he says he sees it as the central pillar of Moscow's foreign policy in a world where energy disputes could lie at the heart of future confrontations.

"In the struggle for resources, Russia is ready to demonstrate its power, its strength, and to defend its interests. It doesn't mean Russia seeks confrontation," he says.

But, he adds: "It doesn't fear confrontation any more."

A year after Russia's war with Georgia, that conflict looks like an isolated incident - at least in terms of the tactics it used.

Russia may no longer seek formal control over its neighbours, but it does want to be the dominant regional power.

Oil and gas reserves may allow it to achieve that more effectively than any military or diplomatic muscle.

Russia seems content to count on that.

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