As Russia looks to keep European influence out of its “Near Abroad,” the nation is following its own version of America’s Monroe Doctrine. Ukraine was just the latest test case.

Russia seeks to keep the European Union at bay from Ukraine. Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso. Photo: AP

Europe is currently courting Ukraine and Moldova over Russia's strong objections. It is urging Ukraine and Moldova to turn to Europe and leave Russia's sphere of influence. In doing so, Europe is directly challenging the power and status of Russia.

In fact, the European Union was convinced that on Nov. 28, Ukraine would sign an Association Agreement with the EU and effectively choose the West over Russia.  However, Ukraine just announced that it would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU, and instead chose to pursue further integration with Russia and the Customs Union.  This was a victory for Russia’s version of the Monroe Doctrine.

The Russian response to Europe pursuing Ukraine and Moldova is predictable. We saw it when NATO expanded to Eastern Europe: Russia at the time stated that it would be much more protective of those states in its "Near Abroad" that were once republics of the Soviet Union. Now observers seem to be surprised that Russia is trying to influence those states from spurning Russia and turning to Europe. These observers lament Russia's bullying tactics, and argue that Russia is strong arming its neighbors.

The fact is, that is exactly what Russia is doing. In applying pressure on Ukraine to achieve geopolitical results, Russia is simply borrowing from the United States' foreign policy playbook. In the past, the United States government has been criticized for strong arming weaker states into conforming to policies that it deems prudent.

One example of this is the Monroe Doctrine, which was established in 1823. This doctrine stated that any efforts to colonize or interfere with lands in North or South America by European powers would be viewed as acts of aggression and would require intervention on the part of the United States. For well over a century, the United States interfered with European powers in the Americas.

During the Cold War, the United States used the Monroe Doctrine to try to keep Communism out of Latin America. They financed groups who fought Communist regimes or Communist insurgents. Even supporting totalitarian regimes with poor human rights records became the norm providing that they were opposed to Communism. The Monroe Doctrine granted the United States the right to interfere in the internal and external affairs of the states in the Americas to prevent outside interference from European powers.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia developed its own form of the Monroe Doctrine. Former Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton had tacit agreements that the West would not interfere in the former Soviet sphere of influence. However, the West violated these agreements by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. While Yeltsin and Russia were furious about NATO expansion, they made clear to the United States and the West that they would draw a line in the sand about European and Western influence in the former Soviet Union, or what is called in Russia the “Near Abroad.”

One of the main methods that Russia used in creating its own version of the Monroe Doctrine was to provide peacekeeping troops to resolve ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Russia had peacekeeping forces stationed in Transnistria to prevent civil war in Moldova. They also had peacekeeping forces stationed in Georgia to try to resolve the civil war in Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Another method that Russia has used in its version of the Monroe Doctrine is through trade. More specifically, Russia uses its status as a regional hegemon to ensure that weaker regional states must trade with Russia for their own security. This is especially true with oil and natural gas. States in the region that do not accept Russia’s Monroe Doctrine do not benefit from trade with Russia, and cannot receive the oil and gas that they require at below-market rates.

On Nov. 21, Ukraine decided that it would not sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit.  Instead, it would choose to pursue integration with Russia and the Customs Union while trying to leave its options open for future cooperation with Europe. Both the EU and Russia have been trying to influence Ukraine in its decision. Russia feels very strongly that Ukraine is within its sphere of influence, and that its Monroe Doctrine applies.

If Ukraine is eventually persuaded to sign the agreement by the EU, Russia will respond economically, by raising rates for gas and not allowing Ukraine the economic benefits of joining the Customs Union. Further, Russia has stated that it considers the Association Agreement to be a violation of previous bilateral treaties between Russia and Ukraine on economic cooperation.

Instead, Russia was able to successfully influence Ukraine’s choice through the use of its own Monroe Doctrine.

The real tragedy of Europe trying to woo Ukraine and Moldova is not Russia's trying to influence those states not to join Europe, but rather, the destabilization of the region that this behavior causes. Europe's zero-sum game in Eastern Europe will lead to a destabilization of the region. Moreover, rather than partnering with Russia to solve problems, Europe is actively isolating it further, poking at a hornet's nest with a stick. Is it any surprise that Russia would be wary of the West?

The West should be wary of provoking Russia for several reasons. First of all, Russia still exports a vast amount of oil and gas to Western Europe. To anger an economic partner is not a prudent economic move. Second, assimilating countries with such weak economies such as Ukraine and Moldova will put a strain on an already strained European economic system.

Third, Russia recently showed that it is still an important international player for dealing with rogue states. Isolating Russia will only inhibit cooperation in the future to resolve international disputes. Finally, such actions on the part of the West only confirm to Russia that a prudent global strategy is not to cooperate with the West, but to continue to turn to China for support and cooperation, which ultimately will hurt Western global economic and security interests.

One of the unintended side effects of Europe pursuing interests in former Soviet republics is that it emboldens these countries to act more aggressively towards Russian interests by relying on support from Europe. This was one of the causes of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Georgia believed that Russia would not attack since it could rely on the protection of the West. This belief emboldened Georgia to attack its breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which in turn led to a Russian retaliation that ended badly for Georgia.

While Europe should rethink their actions in antagonizing Russia, Russia must also be careful in how it responds to European actions. By being heavy handed in their responses, they are driving those countries further away toward Europe. They are confirming that these countries should be wary of Russia, and should embrace a more stable situation in Europe. Ultimately, the Customs Union proposed by Russia may be a better option for states than the European Union, but Russia won't be able to convince them of this unless it is less heavy handed in its attempt at influencing those countries in its "Near Abroad."

Recently, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, pronounced that the Monroe Doctrine was no longer being followed by the United States. For well over a century, the United States had fought European influence in the Americas. It did this through economic as well as military means. Despite the fact that the doctrine will no longer be followed by the United States in its foreign policy, we should not be surprised that other regional hegemons have adopted their own version of the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is, in fact, alive and well in Russia. We just saw the latest example of it at work in Ukraine.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.