The New Russian Empire

By Nikolas K. Gvosdev

In his last major address as Russia's prime minister before retaking the presidency, Vladimir Putin outlined "five priorities" for his third presidential term. His fifth task is to boost cooperation across the Eurasian space, enhancing Russia's global position by having it lead a new effort towards integrating the states of the former Soviet Union. Speaking before the Duma last Wednesday, Putin said, "Creation of a common economic space is the most important event in post-Soviet space since the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Russia is already in a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, and it has long sought to bring Ukraine into the common economic space. Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization may help to remove some of the barriers that impeded Ukraine's participation. In addition, at the recent summit meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community in Moscow, the countries that make up the customs union, as well as the other Central Asian states that are members, committed to completing work on a proposed Eurasian Union treaty by 2015.

Throughout his time as president and prime minister, Putin has had a clear "Eurasian vision," seeing Russia as the metropolitan center of the region. With the eastward expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions sputtering to a close, and with China still primarily focused on South and East Asia, Moscow feels it has the window to begin consolidating a new Eurasia. Rather than have the territory of the former Soviet Union effectively "partitioned" into European and Asian "spheres of influence," Russia instead can reemerge as a leading global power by creating a new bloc of states that will balance the European Union in the West and a Chinese-led Asia in the East.
USSR Reborn?

These aspirations, however, have always caused concern. Is Putin, who famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe, trying to put the USSR back together again? Putin himself declared in his Duma speech that the "post-Soviet period" is over. Given the rising demands of an increasingly restive Russian middle class, Putin has no desire to once again drain resources away trying to maintain a single, unified state. There is little interest in paying for education and health-care expenses for Central Asians or Caucasians.

But Putin would like to see more of the old Soviet (and Imperial-era) linkages restored, with trade, resources and labor flowing between Russia and its neighbors. This would keep Moscow as the economic center of the area, rather than seeing a Central Asia more tightly connected to South Asia and the western parts of the old Soviet Union pulled even more into the European orbit. A Russian-led regional economic order keeps the ruble as the regional currency and Russian as the de facto business language of the area, and it allows for more horizontal and vertical integration, especially between Russian, Kazakhstani and Ukrainian firms.

Creating such economic linkages, in turn, creates political ties that make it less likely Russia's neighbors would be able to join blocs or groups that exclude Russia. Assessing the political ramifications of the Eurasian Union project, Azamat Seimov points out:

The realization of the idea of Eurasian Union is the centerpiece of Putin's master plan to unite the efforts of the former Soviet republics to strengthen the Russian position in the geopolitical competition with the U.S., EU and China. . . . Setting the 2015 as the deadline for the formation of the [Eurasian Union], is possibly associated with the confidence of Moscow that by that time the United States will turn their attention to the Eurasia again, since towards that deadline Washington will be relieved from its commitments in Iraq and have significantly reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan, whereas the wave of "colored revolutions" in the Arab world will pass away. Therefore, by 2015, Washington will have both the military and diplomatic resources available to turn the attention to the Eurasian region. In addition, by that time the US will have the ballistic missile defense sites ready for deployment in Central Europe.

So Putin seems interested in presenting the world with a fait accompli—while Europe is consumed by its own economic troubles, while the U.S. remains bogged down in the Middle East and while China focuses on its domestic transition, he will move ahead with setting the Eurasian Union in motion.

This process is not so automatic. Many Eurasian states want closer economic relations with Russia and would be interested in the benefits Russia is prepared to offer—among them access to lower-cost energy and the ability to "export" their surplus labor force to Russia (both to decrease tension at home and to benefit from a steady stream of remittances). But Russia's neighbors are not so anxious to give up their sovereignty.

Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko may continue to depend on Russia, but that has not dimmed his enthusiasm for pushing for decision-making structures within any proposed Eurasian Union that would firmly defend national sovereignty. (And he and other hesitant Eurasian leaders have plenty of ammunition provided by the Euroskeptics in the neighboring EU). At the recent summit, Lukashenko expressed his opposition to any "Union"-level decision making that could impose itself on the member states; decisions taken by any Eurasian Union ought to be ratified by the national parliaments, and national governments should have the ability to opt out of Union decisions.

Lukashenko's version of "Euraskepticism" is quietly shared by other regional leaders. They may be prepared to make some concessions to Russia but not to sign away their hard-won independence. Russia, for its part, does not want to become the Eurasian equivalent of Germany—the regional checkbook that underwrites the integration process and in turn pays the bills for the smaller states.

Putin has done the easy part: he has signaled his intent to create a Eurasian Union. Bringing it to fruition, however, may prove to be a far harder challenge than he expected.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.
The National Interest