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Recently, scholarly interest for the external dimension of regime change has risen considerably. However, we still poorly understand what makes external actors able (or unable) to push a country toward democracy or autocracy. I argue that the prevalent theory on external influences, Levitsky and Way’s leverage-linkage theory, is insufficient as it does not capture how domestic elites (“gatekeeper elites”) can increase or decrease ties with this or that external actor. Through an empirical analysis of Russian and European influences in Ukraine and Belarus I show that gatekeepers can explain why politically consequential ties wax or wane in a given country and I argue that this has important implications for democracy promotion.