Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow sought to reassert its influence in Europe with calls for a “Slavic union” between Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. A few countries were initially receptive. But in the end, only Belarus was willing to forgo stronger ties with the West for ones with Russia, which was hardly a magnet for others at the time. Its economy was in tatters, and its government had just defaulted on its sovereign debt.
But a few years later, Russia put its financial house back in order, and Moscow again looked to exert influence in Europe. This time, it changed its strategy. Rather than a narrow appeal to Slavic identity, Russia would pursue a “new algorithm of commercial-and-economic cooperation,” as then-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov described it in 2002. Russia would seek economic ties with European countries “on a pragmatic, mutually advantageous basis.” Those ties, in turn, would create new incentives for the elites of those countries to favor Russian interests, enabling Moscow to influence Europe from within.
Instruments of Influence
Russia pushed its banks and energy companies to become more engaged in Europe. Russia’s two biggest banks, Sberbank and VTB Bank, acquired over a dozen smaller banks from the British Isles to the Caucasus. Both Russian banks were especially active in the swath of Europe between France and Ukraine. At the same time, Russian energy companies angled for stakes in European refineries and energy distribution networks.
Moscow also leveraged European interest in its markets and natural resources. With little growth at home, many European businesses viewed Russia as a tremendous opportunity—a huge market in need of German heavy machinery and motor vehicles, Italian agricultural products and pharmaceuticals, and so on. Meanwhile, European energy and steel companies were attracted to Russia’s abundant reserves of oil, natural gas, and metals. But access to Russian markets and natural resources often required Moscow’s favor, either directly through approvals and licenses or indirectly through state-controlled enterprises in Russia’s energy and mining sectors.
However, growing concerns over Russia’s motives led some European countries, like Poland, to restrict Russian companies from outright acquisitions of their energy assets. Ultimately, Russian energy firms were able to acquire stakes in only a handful of refineries and power plants. And after 2014, the West’s economic sanctions, imposed on Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, made it more difficult for Russian businesses to conduct financial transactions or buy needed equipment and technology from Europe.
Since then, Russia’s markets and natural resources have been Moscow’s best levers of influence in Europe. Indeed, executives of Germany’s leading companies, after having heavily invested in Russia, have been among the loudest critics of the West’s economic sanctions. Some executives have publicly argued that open engagement with Russia would have been a better strategy for all. Such reasoning echoes Germany’s tradition of Ostpolitik (eastern policy) and may give comfort to prominent Germans working for Russian state-controlled enterprises. The most notable is former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who accepted a lucrative invitation to serve as a board member (and eventually chairman) of Nord Stream AG, a Russian-led consortium that built a controversial natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. In 2017, Schröder tightened his embrace of Russia by also becoming a board member of Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil producer. It is also a company whose chief executive is close friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin and under international sanctions.
And what ever became of Sergei Razov? He is now Russia’s ambassador to Italy.
 Thomas Ambrosio, Challenging America’s Global Preeminence: Russia’s Quest for Multipolarity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005).
 “Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov Answers a Question from Interfax News Agency about Russian Relations with the Central and Eastern European Countries,” Embassy of the Russian Federation to the Czech Republic press release, Apr. 3, 2002.
 Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia’s Biggest Bank Shops in Former Soviet Bloc,” New Yok Times, Apr. 14, 2012, p. B1.
 Central Bank of Russia, Russian Federation: Inward Foreign Direct Investment, May 22, 2018.
 Sergei Razov was also Russia’s ambassador to China from 2005 to 2013.