Will Putin Restore the USSR?
Vladimir Putin, although already a successful leader, seems to have an ambitious plan for his third term. Its objective is to rebuild as much as possible of the former Soviet superpower.
During most of its contemporary history, Russia has remained a regional and sometimes even European leader, dominating a large part of continental Eurasia. Its political leaders, as well as society, have got accustomed to seeing their country dominating territories and peoples surrounding the ethnic-Russian core. That is why a sudden implosion of the empire in 1991 put Russians into an unusual state and provoked a strong will of reintegration.
In search of a new identity
Since the collapse of the USSR and the loss of its global power status, Russia has been in a constant quest for its new international identity, and a renewed, operational model with its recently independent neighbours. All surrounding post-Soviet states have been clearly defined in terms of “near abroad”, “zone of privileged interest” or “special responsibility zone”, which all tend to demonstrate that their independence and full sovereignty were not seen as a natural state of matters. After a short optimistic flirt with the West, which stipulated seeing de-imperialisation as a positive process, the Russian political elite became bitterly disappointed and gradually turned its back on slightly adapted Eurasian rhetoric, which stipulates Russian domination over its post-Soviet neighbours.
This ideological approach initiated a multitude of specific proposals and a plethora of integration projects aimed at finding a framework for future re-integration. Nevertheless this conceptual multitude led to strategic obscurity and demonstrated ideological incoherence that clearly showed divisions within the Russian political elite, which has been unable to formulate a realistic project for the post-Soviet region. A project which could have been attractive for both Russia and its partners at the same time.
This confusion may be partially explained by the fact that Russia paradoxically sees its neighbours as both possible subordinates and its only friends. Over the two decades of post-Soviet coexistence, bilateral relations have swung from “eternal brotherhood” to bitter disregard, and this didn't only concern Ukraine and Georgia, which are controversially close to the West, but also the most loyal Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition, the Russian position is complicated further by the increasing activity of external actors all around its “zone of privileged interest”: the European Union in Eastern Europe, the United States and China in Central Asia, and all of them plus Turkey in South Caucasus. This pressure together with rising populism inside the country itself pushes Russia’s leaders to act in a more assertive way and initiate more substantial projects of integration, which is probably what we are seeing.
According to Vladimir Putin the implosion of the USSR was “the worst geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Thus, the main geopolitical goal of his presidency is to reverse history and build a strong and functional integration project. Such a project has been elaborated to be called the Eurasian Union, and is nowadays actively promoted both inside Russia and among its possible partners. The project is ambitious, but taking into account the current rather lamentable economic position of the post-Soviet countries and existing international conjuncture, it has every chance of becoming real. Thus, it is not unimaginable that by the end of Putin’s third or fourth term, we will witness the emergence of a reborn Soviet Union under Russia’s leadership.
Time for the Eurasian Union?
To discern a real integrative potential from populist rhetoric, it is crucial to pay attention to the operational usefulness of Russia’s actual integration projects launched in the post-Soviet space. This includes analysing the purposes and practical functioning of the Commonwealth of Independent States and its free-trade zone, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Common Economic Space and the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. All of these structures were designed to promote cooperation in separate domains and none of them have really pushed the process of integration. None of the partners seemed ready to delegate part of its sovereignty up to supranational organs, so heavily dominated by the former metropolis.
This is why it is of great importance for Russia to wisely present the proposed structure and power-sharing among partners within the newly announced project of the Eurasian Union, as the one which includes everyone into decision-making. It is also important to notice its international ambition, presented as a vital component of building economic symmetry in Eurasia and possible political counter-balance for both the EU and China, which tend to dominate post-Soviet republics. But the main question of its perspective efficiency is if and how this format can work as a real integration mechanism, and what are the chances of attracting other post-Soviet countries, namely Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasian Republics.
To understand the ongoing process of the creation of an integration project (or projects) and its role as an emerging instrument of foreign policy in the plethora of legally binding structures and mechanisms, it is not enough to simply gather statistical and economic data analysis and judge by cumulative potential. Today, this approach lacks comprehensiveness and misses important determinants of mutually assured interests of the components of the Russian elite and its counterparts in other republics. For the sake of the prognosis it is not enough to conduct a comparative analysis of state political documents, international agreements, governmental and party programmes, political and executive officials' declarations and all the institutionalised and informal expression of social reaction to them.
To understand the complexity of existing proposals and a vision of the future unique integration project, one also needs a look at the unofficial interest of elites in all countries concerned and their attitude towards the alternative strategic affiliation being proposed. The fluctuating position of Ukraine, hesitation of Kazakhstan, and the notorious claim for more benefits from the president of Belarus, show that conciliation of their interests within the framework of one project may be a difficult if feasible task.
To get closer to its aim, Russia must not revise the outcomes of its former projects, but rather look into the formation of the Eurasian Union on the different levels in the perspective of its partners, as well as see how different groups, their interactions and commonality of interests have emerged and strengthened within existing national institutions and informal groups since the collapse of the USSR. Russia must elaborate a suiting-all compromise in the domains of ideological background and conceptual basis, institutional and legal framework as well as deal with the international impact and systemic consequences, different for its European, Central Asian and Caucasian partners.
Wide open post-Soviet space
Proposing such an ambitious and wide-ranging project, Russia is obliged to see the state of affairs in its immediate neighbourhood not as the one of Russia’s zone of interests, but from the point of view of its former dependents. Admitting that the notion “Post-Soviet Space” has lost its operational value for political scientists and remains a mainly historical term, it is important to see which countries may be seen (and see themselves) as potential and unsolicited members of the future union. Comparative analysis of sectors of the post-Soviet space such as Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia, shows a great dispersion of views and interests which introduces Russia’s problems and jeopardises the prospect of a Eurasian unity based on a Soviet or post-Soviet basis.
The character of bilateral and multilateral relations is often problematic and possible members of the Union having correct relations with Russia are often malevolent to each other. It is no longer enough to analyse the kind of relations Russia has with each of its post-Soviet partners, but see and understand their horizontal ties. To form mechanisms and formats of integration, one must reveal which national interests of post-Soviet states are complimentary, and which can be seen as competing with Russia’s. The other already existing and potential form of cooperation and integration on post-Soviet space must be seen, not as a threat, but as a complimentary element of Russia’s own relations with them.
To sum up, eventual success of integration depends not only on the amount of money put into the process, but also on Russia’s readiness to treat former republics as partners rather than objects of its ambitions and executors of its orders. However, complicated and probably long-lasting, the realisation of the certain Eurasian integration project on the post-Soviet space, with Russia as its leader, must not be excluded.
Therefore, it seems important to preview what is the potential outcome of possible political and strategic unity of the post-Soviet space for Russia’s position in Eurasia, as well as the position and role of other post-Soviet states. It is also important to see how existence of this new entity would modify European and American policy towards Russia and other countries in the post-Soviet region.
Last, but certainly not least, it would probably be far-sighted to see the relation between the Eurasian Union, and EU projects and NATO strategy towards Russia and other possible members. The role of external actors (the EU, its specific member-states, the US, NATO, China, Turkey) will definitely change, as well as the area and forms of their activity in the post-Soviet region.
Any kind of renewed USSR would certainly modify regional strategic balance and force Western structures to adapt their own external actions. To avoid potential confrontation, the West would should be mentally and organisationally prepared in case, before leaving the office, Putin makes his ambition real.
Jakub Korejba is PhD candidate at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), University of the MFA of Russia, and an adviser for the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at MGIMO-University. He graduated from Institute of International Relations at Warsaw University in 2009, studied at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) also in 2009, the Institute of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University in 2008, and Institute d'Etudes Politiques de Lyon between 2006 to 2007.
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