Putin’s Eurasian Union: A danger or strategic opportunity?

in International Relations & Defence by

Putin and EurasiaWhen Vladimir Putin recently published an article in the Russian daily Izvestia that officially announced his plans for the establishment of an Eurasian Union in the geographical space of former USSR countries, he caused quite an uproar in the Western media.1 The headlines such as those in the Telegraph run that Putin’s wish is nothing short of re-forming ‘a pseudo-Soviet Union’ reassuring readers that the plan is about ‘reclaiming the Russian Empire’,2 even though in the same article Putin explicitly rejected any comparison with the USSR. Newspaper commentaries are naturally inclined to exaggeration and the use of catchy words to raise readership figures, but they still reflect general fears of the West towards the resurgent Russian foreign policy of the last decade. The essential policy question for the EU and US is whether these concerns about a Eurasian union are justified and reflect a real threat of some ‘incoming Russian empire’. Or perhaps, if considered from a different angle, the Putin’s and Russian administration’s plans might just as well present the NATO allies with a real strategic opportunity.

A short notice to readers about my argument’s presuppositions is first due, however. In the grand realm of foreign policy, one can speak about natural allies and interests only with a grain of salt. If the cultural and value-based factors remain excluded, economics, energy, nor even geography can offer clear-cut answers on choosing a country’s allies and by extension, also its enemies. To say that Russian foreign policy now poses a threat or strategic opportunity then implies taking a particular normative stand, which is in turn arguable based on the principles adopted. In this short piece, my purpose is singular: to contrast the arguments of those on the side of the EU and US who claim that the Russian initiatives in the Eurasian basin should be opposed with those less numerous voices to which I also humbly join, who argue that Putin’s ‘Eurasian Union’ is a sound initiative of regional integration that can serve the EU’s and US’s interests in stabilising the whole region thus creating a strong ally to balance out other rising superpowers such as China.

Flags of the three present members of the Customs Union
Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia already form a Customs' Union, Eurasian Union will be its successor

The critics of the Russian foreign policy generally argue that Russia under Putin and Medvedev is simply rebuilding its former empire, sometimes using its leverage in energy resources, sometimes outright military aggression as in case of Georgia. In their interpretation, such efforts must be vigorously opposed, as the result will be nothing but Russia’s domination of its ‘Near Abroad’ that will prevent countries such as Ukraine and Georgia in making a free choice to join the international community of liberal democratic states. These arguments are often joined by those in the EU who believe that the Union’s foreign policy should be based on stabilising its neighbourhood through spreading of its norms, functioning as a sort of ‘a neo-medieval empire’ (Jan Zielonka) or ‘neoliberal empire’ (Warwick Armstrong and James Anderson). Naturally, approaching Russia, a country that has consciously adopted a development strategy of ‘modernisation without Westernisation’, with this approach is inherently ineffectual, as the EU as Russia’s equal ally does not have any leverage that it could impose on its eastern partner. The result is that Europe’s prominent politicians such as German FM Guido Westerwelle and his Polish counterpart Radek Sikorski, who recently addressed a joint letter to the EU’s chief of foreign affairs Catherine Ashton, where they urged her to reorient her policy towards realpolitik of securing energy supplies and modernising Russian economy.3

If the Russian leadership’s military solutions to the Georgian and 2nd Chechnyan conflicts can regarded as controversial, Putin’s latest initiative shows that the Russian political elite clearly realises that their country’s influence on its neighbourhood can be achieved only if it brings benefits to both sides and is not based on force. Far from being a Russian empire, the Customs Union, which is to be a first step towards a full Eurasian Union, was joined by Kazakhstan and Belarus of their own sovereign decision and they will retain a proportionate control over the decision-making of the whole union. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already have submitted their own bid for the membership. Similarly, where Russia once had relied on its hard currency reserves to gain from its neighbours political concessions through cheap provision of loans and direct subsidies of fuel, the new policy aims at elevating the economic prospects of the entire region with Russia serving as a natural gravity well.4 While Russia will over time benefit by reinforcing its status as the region’s financial and business centre, the other countries of the Union will be more competitive in agriculture and heavy industry such as steelmaking, gain investments for their backward, Soviet-style economies (this especially applies to Belarus), just as benefit from the competitive advantage of their cheaper labour force.

For the EU and US, the Russian effort to lead a regional integration brings a possibility of an alternative form of the international ordering. Without making any positive or negative judgements, the present international order can be broadly labelled as the global military hegemony of the US with the support of its NATO allies. This hegemony has been supported by the combined economic might of the US, EU and Japan, but as the economies of indebted Western countries will be experiencing their relative decline, their military control will inevitably wane too. The obvious alternative is that this hegemony will be replaced by another – that of the Asian or Chinese century. As this is naturally an infeasible outcome for the European and American interests, maximum effort should be made to seek out other options, the most significant of which is a return to the principle of balance of power remodelled for the purposes of the ‘grand scale’ of the globalised world. While the original international order of nation-states presupposed the relative equality of countries in the still rather localised world of the 19th century, sovereignty in the postmodern world becomes intangible but for the largest of polities that possess a broad control over the world’s natural and economic resources. Thus, political equality in the 21st century can be achieved only on the level of ‘grand spaces’, by political groupings that are sufficiently large and powerful to maintain an effective control over their territory that would balance out that of other similar entities.

A Eurasian Union, modelled on the EU is a clear step into the direction of such a multipolar world. As its plans develop from the current Customs Union to a full economic union, it is based on fully voluntary grounds and is expected to bring benefits of peace and economic growth to all its members – not just the Russian giant. In the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, a Eurasian Union could well become a strong ally of the EU and US and help them to ensure that their relative strength will remain preserved, even against the odds of the rising Chinese dragon.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Vladimir Putin, ‘Новый Интеграционный Проект Для Евразии: Будущее, Которое Рождается Сегодня / Buduscheie, Kotoroie Rozhdaeietsa Segodnia / Novyi Integratsiovannyi Proiekt Dlia Evrazii’, Известия, 3 October 2011 <http://izvestia.ru/news/502761> (accessed 4 October 2011).
  2. Andrew Osborn, ‘Vladimir Putin’s Plan to Create a Eurasian Union Is About Reclaiming the Russian Empire’, The Telegraph, 5 October 2011 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/8807720/Vladimir-Putins-plan-to-create-a-Eurasian-Union-is-about-reclaiming-the-Russian-Empire.html> (accessed 11 November 2011).
  3. Andrew Rettman, ‘Putin’s Return Poses Questions for EU Strategy’, EUobserver, 14 November 2011 <http://euobserver.com/24/114266> (accessed 15 November 2011).
  4. Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan Form Customs Union’, The New York Times, 5 July 2010, section Business Day / Global Business <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/business/global/06customs.html> (accessed 1 July 2011).

In addition to being a writer and founder of The European Strategist, during daytime I am an EU and government affairs expert (also know by a more infamous word "lobbyist") in the automotive industry in Brussels. I see myself as an adventurer in life or on a racing bike, holding a philosophy book in one hand, and always fighting for something with the other one. What I'm enchanted by? By life as a miracle and endless series of contradictions.

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