For "those of us watching the elections in Ukraine, the elections highlighted the importance of territoriality, and the continued east-west divide of Europe," stated Tomila Lankina, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center at a 29 November 2004 lecture at the Kennan Institute. "However, there are also emerging territorial divides not just along political boundaries between Europe's established democracies and the CIS states, but also within these states."

According to Lankina, the various regions of Russia are naturally influenced by their immediate neighbors: Northeast Asia for the Russian Far East; Central Asia and Turkey for Russia's southern oblasts; and Europe, particularly its Scandinavian countries, for Northwest Russia, the subject of Lankina's research. Defining Northwest Russia as those oblasts incorporated in Russia's Northwest Federal District, Lankina emphasized that the oblasts she studied, while close geographically, are quite different from each other. Murmansk and Arkhangelsk depend on military bases. Komi and Nenetsk are rich in oil and gas deposits. Pskov borders on the Baltic states, but has not been very open to outside influences and is the only oblast in Russia to have had a supporter of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR party as a governor. Neighboring Novgorod, by contrast, has no international border but has one of the District's highest per capita levels of foreign investment. Northwest Russia also includes Kaliningrad, which is cut off from the rest of Russia and is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Lankina noted that many European and American companies often prefer to run their corporate operations in Russia from Europe, viewing Russia as unstable and lacking the rule of law. Yet, she continued, Europe recognizes that "sealing off the borders with Russia would be a shortsighted and faulty solution. Instead, they have sought mechanisms to influence frontier areas and ensure their greater integration with Europe short of formal membership in the EU."

The Russian Northwest has served as a "policy testing ground" for various theories proposed by European and Scandinavian policy think tanks on how to influence Russia without extending formal EU membership to it, said Lankina. The focus has centered on commonalities over differences: "Rather than stressing the area's difference from Europe, they now stress its shared history, culture, and linguistic features." Novgorod's history as a member of the Hanseatic League is an important part of the contextual background in this effort.

EU policymakers have combined the focus on shared history and culture with novel approaches to international relations. "They now use such concepts as ‘fuzzy statehood,' ‘overlapping peripheries,' and ‘sub-regional integration,' previously applied to regionalization processes within the European Union, in reference to Europe's ‘frontier' areas in the Russian Northwest, which are to form a ‘New Hanse,'" said Lankina. Aside from the geographic concentration on Northwest Russia, EU, U.S., and Canadian initiatives have also increasingly focused on soft security issues of shared concern, such as AIDS, environmental pollution, and human trafficking.

As the West continues its efforts to engage and influence Russia, Lankina contended, there has been a "remarkable deterioration in terms of Russia's openness to the West." President Vladimir Putin, with his background of service in East Germany and in St. Petersburg, was initially perceived to be a "Europeanist." Over time, said Lankina, there was a significant deterioration of EU-Russian relations as the EU continuously criticized Russia on its policy in Chechnya and on other human rights issues. The recent presidential election in Ukraine is the latest serious irritant between Russia and the West, including the EU.

Russia has evolved as a state from the Yeltsin era, Lankina noted. Under Boris Yeltsin, the individual regions in Russia enjoyed greater autonomy and limited prerogatives over foreign relations, especially in forging international economic ties. Following Putin's election, his administration quickly worked to restore central power over the individual regions. This centralization limited the prospects for programs targeting assistance to individual regions.

Lankina noted that while Western programs have increasingly targeted civil society initiatives and organizations in recent years, the EU continues to direct much of the assistance it provides at the regional level to local administrations. Lankina contended that supporting regional or municipal bodies is more effective and sustainable than funding NGOs, which are almost always entirely dependent upon Western funding. The institutional actors that the EU supports are more effective as checks upon central power, continued Lankina, and that pattern of assistance better fits Russian realities: "It is the regional and municipal bodies, and not civil society, that have in Russia's recent political history served as a check on federal abuse of power."

"The search for incremental reform of at least the areas of Russia closest to Europe must continue if Russia is to remain or become a European democracy. Events in Ukraine, with the split between the pro-Russia east and pro-West west, remind us once again of the importance of the territorial dimension of politics. The West has to start somewhere, and I think that the Russian Northwest is where it should make a start," concluded Lankina.