Global Insights: Dim Prospects for Putin's Eurasian Union

By Richard Weitz

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin followed up his unsurprising Sept. 24 declaration that he would again seek the presidency with a more surprising call: to create what he called a "Eurasian Union." In a rare and lengthy newspaper piece published on Oct. 4, Putin announced his desire for Russia to again lead a multinational bloc of tightly bound, former Soviet republics. But major obstacles stand in the way of Putin's project, and the prospects of a new Eurasian Union emerging anytime soon in the former Soviet space are small.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told the influential Kommersant newspaper that the Eurasian Union would be one of Putin's "key priorities" during his next term as president. Russia is already consolidating its recently formed Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which will take effect next year. The intent now seems to be to expand the number of its members and to enlarge its functions and powers.

Putin is a well-known fan of the Soviet Union. He has publicly told of the dismay he felt as a prominent KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, at the time the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was collapsing, when his requests for guidance from Moscow went unanswered. Putin also famously termed the USSR's 1991 disintegration the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

In his Izvestia article advocating for a Eurasian Union, Putin disclaimed any intent to recreate the USSR, noting that "it would be naive to try to restore or copy something that belongs to the past."  But Putin added that "a close integration based on new values and economic and political foundations is a demand of the present time."  Putin called for building on the valuable "inheritance from the Soviet Union," which he described as infrastructure, specialized production facilities and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space, in pursuit of the "joint interests" of the former Soviet republics.

Putin further wrote that his goal was "an ambitious task of reaching a new, higher level of integration" and creating "a powerful supranational union capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world." He compared his proposed union with "other key players and regional structures, such as the European Union, the United States, China and the Asia Pacific Economic Community."

Nevertheless, the prospects for such a Eurasian Union in the near future seem unlikely. To begin with, it has taken the Russian Federation a decade to launch its Customs Union -- whose single economic zone introduces unified market rules and regulations -- with the limited membership of Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is hard to imagine a wider and deeper EU-type grouping emerging in the former Soviet Union anytime soon.

Furthermore, if Putin genuinely envisions a European Union-type alignment as a model, it would imply the need to create a single currency and an independent bureaucracy to administer and enforce the agreed-upon rules and common economic policies. But it took EU member states decades to transfer considerable, if strictly limited, powers to the EU bodies in Brussels, which has required harmonizing many national powers and laws. Meanwhile, the different growth rates and other economic characteristics of the EU member states have proven disruptive, something the proposed Eurasian Union will encounter as well.

Furthermore, Putin's proposed Eurasian Union faces serious competition from both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is built on the expanding China-Central Asian relationship, and especially from the European Union, whose sustained outreach efforts in the form of its Eastern Partnership initiative have resulted in growing ties with the former Soviet republics. Although Brussels has kept full EU membership off the table, it can still offer the former Soviet republics considerable economic incentives for promoting closer relations and cooperation with both the EU and its member states.

Perhaps most importantly, many of the former Soviet republics have serious reservations about joining any sort of alignment with Moscow given their unhappy history of Soviet and Russian domination. Although Kazakhstan has already endorsed Putin's union proposal, the governments of Georgia and Ukraine have already said they have no plans to join it. That Tbilisi should be wary of such an arrangement comes as no surprise. But Kyiv has already resisted strong pressure from Putin to join the Customs Union and has thus far striven to move closer to the EU instead. Moldova and Georgia are also negotiating free trade agreements with the EU, while Armenia and Azerbaijan might soon follow them.

Moreover, many of the other former Soviet republics are eager to develop their relations with China or the West to balance their ties with Moscow. The former Soviet republics, even those whose leaders did not initially seek independence, jealously guard their sovereignty and autonomy. There are also serious rivalries among former Soviet republics for regional leadership -- such as that between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- that will likely act as an impediment to the establishment of joint economic policy.

To overcome these centrifugal tendencies, Russia must become a more attractive partner. In principle, Moscow could garner more support for its integration programs by sharing more influence within collective institutions and adopting a more conciliatory approach on disputes with its neighbors. In practice, Russia has to achieve greater success in its domestic modernization and other reform efforts to become a more attractive economic partner that could trade with these countries and generate mutual investment.

In addition, the proposed Eurasian Union would need to define relations with the existing multinational institutions currently operating in the former Soviet space. Putin's team has said that it would not duplicate or replace the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, or other existing collective bodies. But it is unclear, then, how the Customs Union would work with or around the other structures. Despite decades of cooperation, for instance, the EU still has not worked out an effective modus vivendi with NATO, and the Eurasian Union will likely face similar difficulties.

For Moscow, the arguments in favor of such a union are clear. These include securing greater gains from trade, expanding opportunities for Russian foreign investment in neighboring countries and enhancing Moscow's global influence and status.

The Russian case would be stronger against the backdrop of a mature Customs Union that has demonstrated the advantages of an integrated market, not just for Moscow but for its trade partners as well. In the current environment, the proposal is premature, and Putin would be wise to wait until the Custom Union develops further before exploring grander multinational alignment schemes.