President Vladimir Putin is seeking to establish Russia as a “pole of power” in a multipolar world. This strategic objective will necessitate tighter supervision over various Euro-Eurasian sub-regions, including Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Black Sea zones, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Above all, Moscow seeks to dominate the former Soviet Union and expects the U.S., the European Union, and all major West European states to accept its preeminent position on these territories. However, acquiescence to Moscow’s strategy will not only destabilize and divide many of Russia’s neighbours, it will also pose a challenge to the security of the new EU and NATO members, while simultaneously undermining European unity and trans-Atlantic cooperation.
MOSCOW’S STRATEGIC AMBITIONS
Russia’s administration is engaged in an ambitious project to restore Moscow’s regional dominance, undermine U.S. global influence, divide the NATO alliance, neutralize the EU, and prevent further NATO and EU enlargement. Moscow’s overarching goal toward the West is to reverse the global predominance of the U.S. by transforming “unipolarity” into “multipolarity” in which Russia exerts increasing international leverage. No longer a credible global superpower, Russia aims to be the pre-eminent Eurasian “pole of power.”
Kremlin officials believe that the world should be organized around a renewed global version of the 19th century “Concert of Europe” in which great powers balance their interests and smaller countries orbit around them as satellites or dependencies. Russian officials depict this strategy as “multipolarity.” Russia’s neo-imperial project no longer relies on Soviet-era instruments such as ideological allegiance, military force, or implanting proxy governments. Instead, the primary goal is to exert predominant influence over the foreign and security policies of immediate neighbours so they will support the Kremlin agenda.
While its goals are neo-imperial, Moscow’s strategies are elastic. It employs flexible methods, including enticements, threats, incentives, and pressure where Russia’s national interests are seen as predominating over those of its neighbours. Indeed, it is useful to distinguish between Russia’s actual national interests and its state ambitions. These legitimate interests revolve around maintaining territorial integrity and forestalling foreign military intervention. In this context, Moscow’s security is not challenged by the NATO accession of neighbouring states. However, its ability to control the security policy and international orientation of these countries is undermined by their NATO membership.
Among the top priorities Putin set out for his third presidential term is the reintegration of the former Soviet republics, based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political and security pact centered around Russia. Putin’s concept of a Eurasian Union will be central to his efforts to forge a legacy as a gatherer of post-Soviet lands.Moscow is evidently fearful that the territory of the defunct USSR will permanently divide and drift into European and Asian "spheres of influence." Hence, Putin seeks to create a Eurasian bloc that will balance the EU in the West and China in the East, and contain a strong security dimension as a counterpart to NATO. These economic and security linkages will create political ties, making it less likely that Russia's neighbours can join alternative alliances.
THE EURASIAN PROJECT
To achieve its Eurasian ambitions, Moscow needs to assemble around itself a cluster of states that are loyal or subservient to its interests; it has been encouraged in this endeavor by several developments in recent years. First, as a by-product of the Barack Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Moscow launched in early 2009, Washington has curtailed, if not completely discarded, its campaign to enlarge NATO and secure the post-Soviet neighbourhood within Western structures. This has left the post-Soviet states more exposed and vulnerable to Moscow’s pressure and integrationist maneuvers. Moreover, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine are not priority interests for the current American government.
Second, the financial crunch and political stresses within the EU have diminished Brussels’ outreach toward the post-Soviet countries. This has decreased the momentum of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched in May 2009 and which was designed to harmonize the European post-Soviet states with EU standards. Russia’s authorities have concluded that the Union is in serious disarray and decline and will be preoccupied with its internal problems for several years, if indeed it does not actually fracture.
Thirdly, there is visible disillusionment with the EU within many of the post-Soviet capitals. They do not possess the roadmap, direction, or commitment to full integration with the West, unlike the vision and promise that was given to the Central Europeans after they liberated themselves from Moscow in the early 1990s, or to the Western Balkan countries through the EU’s Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA). Conversely, in the case of Belarus and Ukraine, there is tangible frustration in several EU capitals over their political regression and stilted economic reforms.
Fourthly, the return of Putin to the Kremlin is re-energizing Russia’s neo-imperialist ambitions, through such grand geostrategic objectives as the formation of a Eurasia Union. And as an added bonus, an assertive foreign policy helps to distract attention from domestic opposition and the convulsions inside the Russian Federation. Putin’s renewed presidency has been presented as vital to Russia’s national security in two ways. It will allegedly protect Russia from internal turmoil generated by disruptive public protests, and it can rebuild Eurasia under Russia's management and remove unwanted Western influence that purportedly challenges the security of the Russian Federation.
Russia’s ambitions toward its neighbours, including Ukraine, are twofold: foreign policy subservience to Russia and integration in Moscow-directed security and economic organizations. The major multi-national initiatives promoted by Moscow to enhance integration and centralization include the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), the Customs Union (CU), the Common Economic Space (CES), and the planned Eurasian Union (EAU).
The CSTO, a military alliance that includes Armenia,Belarus,Kazakhstan,Kyrgyzstan,Russia,Tajikistan,and Uzbekistan, is designed to counter NATO aspirations in Eurasia. Its main charters are currently being revised. The current charter requires unanimity to pass a decision, but under the planned revisions only states with an interest in a given decision would be allowed a vote, thus curtailing any potential opposition to Kremlin policy in case a military mission in its neighbourhood is deemed necessary by Moscow.
The EEC was created in October 2000 at a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, and is viewed in Moscow as a stepping-stone toward the Eurasia Union. It includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In July 2011, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan launched a Customs Union to remove all trade barriers between the three states. In October 2011, Putin hosted a meeting of prime ministers from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Ukraine in St. Petersburg and announced an agreement to form a free-trade zone after years of fruitless negotiations.On January 1, 2012 a formal agreement was signed to create the CES, an undivided common market embracing the three Customs Union economies together with Ukraine and open to other post-Soviet countries. On the eve of accession to the CES, the Presidents of Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan also signed the Declaration of Eurasian economic integration. President Dmitry Medvedev invited all other EEC members to join the CES, including the three EEC observer states of Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Business entities of the three CES countries are guaranteed freedom of movement of goods, services, capital, and labour. Thus far Kyiv has resisted these enticements fearful that they would subvert Ukrainian sovereignty. All these plans called for the ultimate establishment of a Euro-like single currency system. The transition to the Eurasian Union has been described as the final goal of economic integration. It envisaged a free trade regime;unified customs and non-tariff regulation measures;common access to internal markets; aunified transportation system; a common energy market; and a common currency. The Moscow summit of the EEC on 19 March 2012 charted a detailed integration strategy, with a view to having the EEC reshaped into a fully-fledged economic union by 2015.These integrative economic measures would also be undergirded by a tighter political alliance.
Within the first two weeks of his renewed presidency, Putin hosted an informal CIS summit with most of the former Soviet states as well as an extraordinary CSTO session. In both events, the Eurasian Union lurked in the background. Putin’s notion of a Eurasian Union, according to his own words, is of a “powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and of serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region." Putin believes that this organization should be built on the inheritance of the Soviet Union: "infrastructure, a developed system of regional production specialization, and a common space of language, science, and culture."
It is debatable how successful Moscow’s re-integration plans will prove in practice. Nevertheless, the pursuit of these goals is itself damaging to the security and sovereignty of states neighbouring the Russian Federation. Due to pressure from Russian officials, these countries are prevented from fully realizing their independence by freely choosing their international alliances. One can also expect that a more aggressive integrationist approach toward the post-Soviet states will be mirrored by a more assertive policy toward the Central-East European (CEE) countries based primarily on economic entrapment, energy dependence, and political neutralization. Any successes registered in reintegrating the European post-Soviet countries within a Eurasian economic, political, and security system will encourage Moscow to pursue a more intrusive policy toward its former CEE satellites and new EU members.
Russia's leaders do not view the EU as a major strategic power but as a valuable twofold instrument: an economic engine from where Russia can tap investment, technology, and trade; and a U.S. partner that Moscow can help decouple and maximize its own influence to decrease the American presence in Europe. Russia’s policy toward the EU is built around three approaches. First, it seeks direct relations with Union institutions as an equal partner, not as a candidate or member state in which its influence would be diluted. Second, Moscow concentrates on forging bilateral political, business, and energy ties with the larger EU states, such as Germany, France, and Italy, whose governments have proved more accommodating toward Russia. This approach also undermines the emergence of a coherent, consistent, and common EU policy.
And thirdly, the EU is viewed as a potential competitor in Russia’s “near abroad” as it can lure various post-Soviet capitals away from Moscow’s orbit. For instance, in the Black Sea region Moscow is not interested in collaborative neighbourhood projects under an EU umbrella as it seeks to maintain a more exclusive zone of influence and has criticized the EU’s Eastern Partnership program as a mechanism for undermining Russia’s alliances. Because of its emphasis on human rights and pluralistic democracy the EU also threatens the Kremlin’s sovereign democracy model and even the long-term survival of the undemocratically structured Russian Federation. Additionally, the EU’s business standards centered on transparency, competition, and accountability undermine Russia’s business model resting on the three pillars of opaqueness, monopoly, and secrecy.
By gaining monopoly positions in the transit and supply of natural gas and crude oil to Europe, Moscow aims to enhance its political leverage within the EU. The dispute between proponents of the EU-supported Nabucco pipeline, part of the projected Southern Corridor project, and backers of the Russia-sponsored South Stream proposal has been the most glaring indication of the struggle for energy security in Europe. Despite the growing criticisms over the viability of the South Stream, Moscow continues to employ various tactics to scuttle Nabucco or diminish its importance, whether by locking gas producing countries into long-term supply contracts, undermining stability in the South Caucasus to discourage foreign investors, or offering lucrative deals to potential transit countries.
The EU will be severely tested over the coming decade as it has failed to ensure its position as a global power and its economic performance has experienced heavy strains given the indebtedness of several EU governments and persistent doubts about the future of the monetary union. Many analysts conclude that it was due to America’s global hegemony that the EU emerged on the world stage as a significant power. The U.S. security umbrella enabled the Union to focus on economic development and political integration without developing military power. However, as America’s dominance diminishes, the EU will become more exposed to global security competition but without its own coordinated “hard power” capabilities and with steadily weakening soft power tools.
The Russian authorities are well aware of the EU’s vulnerabilities and will use various opportunities to weaken trans-Atlantic relations while pursuing security linkages with individual EU capitals. They are encouraged by President Obama’s decreased focus on Europe as a strategic priority and by the EU’s internal political fractures. Western weaknesses, divisions, and indecisions have been encouraged and promoted by Moscow as they directly assist the Putinists in developing their Eurasian project to create a Russia-centered “pole of power.”
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Associate in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.