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Putin’s plan for Russia’s neighbours - a Eurasian Union

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With the current focus on policy interactions between Russia, the US and the EU in the post-Soviet space, many wonder what future awaits the countries of the former USSR after Vladimir Putin’s re-ascension to the Russian presidency in the 4th March election. One question is whether Putin will succeed in shaping a new, distinctive strategic space with the curious name of ‘the Eurasian Union.’ Elkhan Nuriyev discusses its implications.

Elkhan Nuriyev
19 March 2012

Can Putin realize this project?

Clearly, the principal focus for Putin’s foreign policy will be relations with the Near Abroad, as the Russians like to call the CIS countries. Although it is difficult to predict whether Putin will be capable of completing his reintegration project in the next few years, the troubled nature of relations between Russia and the CIS countries, and among the post-Soviet states themselves, will make his task even harder.

'There is a broader concern about how precisely Putin will create a ‘new supra-national union’ of sovereign states if some of the CIS leaders refuse to follow the Kremlin-established rules of the game.’

Whether the post-Soviet states remain at the centre of international strategic affairs will also depend considerably on foreign policies emanating from the US, the EU, Turkey, Iran and China, given that global trends in areas such as energy, trade, capital investment, migration and other security issues will play a crucial role. Last but not least, there is a broader concern about how precisely Putin will create a ‘new supra-national union’ of sovereign states if some of the CIS leaders refuse to follow the Kremlin-established rules of the game. This key question will have a number of important strategic implications for those post-Soviet countries whose democratic transformation is still incomplete, and where fierce competition over energy resources, security interests and political futures could easily flare up again.

What might it mean for the region?

In this scenario, the next years may well see dramatic change in the CIS countries, whose perceptions of their own security would be significantly affected. Given the progressive deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, there is good reason to expect Russia to adopt a more assertive and confident policy towards its neighbours as it seeks to increase its influence in its immediate neighborhood. The Kremlin’s strategists realize that Russia needs new instruments to regain economic and political control over the post-Soviet space, whilst the lack of well thought-out and workable strategies for dealing with the CIS countries has meant little American and European presence in the region.

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Vladimir Putin addressing a meeting of the Interstate EurAsEC Council (the governing body of the Customs Union) held at the level of heads of government (2011). Reintegration of the former Soviet republics has become high priority for the Russian president-elect. 

Some CIS countries are nevertheless still anxious to form new security partnerships with the West as a counterbalance to Russian influence. In the South Caucasus, for example, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have all been actively lobbying for Western engagement. Despite their different attitudes toward Russia’s resurgence, they continue to oppose any further encroachment of Russian influence in the area. Over the past few years Georgia and Azerbaijan have sought to build up their own armed forces, with the help of the United States and Israel. Armenia, Russia’s most loyal ally in the Caucasus, has recently agreed to hold its first-ever joint military exercises with the US this spring, in order to improve the interoperability of their NATO-led forces deployed in Afghanistan.

What does it mean for the West?

If the US and the EU do not develop a more concerted strategy towards Russia, this could lead to the emergence of new polarities and alignments in post-Soviet Eurasia, where the CIS region would be not only a privileged but, primarily, a defining sphere of action for Russia.

'Some states may decide that Russia is not necessarily their main threat, and instead view Moscow as a natural ally against domestic and external threats.’

In the coming years Russia is most unlikely to challenge the US and the EU at a global level. What is more likely is that Russia will present a growing direct challenge to American and European interests in its own immediate neighborhood. Future engagement in the Arab world and the Middle East could easily push the CIS region to the margins of European and American strategy, leaving Russia to act as main security arbiter.

The Kremlin may be successful in helping some CIS countries resolve local conflicts, thus increasing the stability of the entire region. Some states may decide that Russia is not necessarily their main threat, and instead view Moscow as a natural ally against domestic and external threats. This could result in a new cycle of tensions with Western democracies, and a renewal of strained relations between the West and Russia could easily contribute to the future isolation and insecurity of the CIS region.

‘The most important question here is whether the wider public in post-Soviet countries where opposition to Russian domination, and a sense of grievance and injustice, remain strong, will tacitly welcome such a scenario.’

If the US and the EU disengage from the region, or if Washington and Brussels want to go their separate ways in terms of foreign and security policies – admittedly, a big ‘if’ – this will significantly  increase Russia’s relative weight in post-Soviet affairs. In the end, the ruling elites in the CIS states may even actively pursue greater economic and political integration with Russia under Putin’s Eurasian Union. The most important question here is whether the wider public in post-Soviet countries where opposition to Russian domination, and a sense of grievance and injustice, remain strong, will passively accept such a scenario. Memories of the seven-decade experiment in totalitarianism that was imposed on them are bound to resurface, as all these states seek to establish themselves as viable independent and democratic nations.

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