Corbyn on Russia: diplomacy, evidence and common sense

Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the British Labour Party, who does not hide his adherence to principles of the “traditional left” – as opposed to the neoliberalism of the “third way”, which is still being advocated by ideological heirs of Tony Blair. Corbyn is a politician of quite a rare breed as he does not seem to give up on his principles only because it would be politically convenient to do so. This was now demonstrated by his reluctance to immediately point to Russia as the possible perpetrator of the attack by a nerve agent in Salisbury on 4 March. This earned him a lot of ire from the House of Commons as well as from English-speaking media. Keep Reading

Energy security in the V4: Assessment of possible cooperation to enhance security and development

Energy security has become one of the most important issues on the agenda of the European Union since the second gas crisis of 2009 when Russian gas flows to Europe were interrupted in the course of Moscow’s dispute with Ukraine over transit fees and higher gas prices. Even though energy security is of importance for the EU as a whole, with the Commission estimating that the import dependency of the Union will reach 73-79 per cent by 2020 and close to 90 per cent by 2030, especially the new twelve member states will be affected by any decision Russia makes about future (oil and) gas exports.1 In particular the Visegrád countries face a number of common challenges that make cooperation within the V4 setting not necessarily obligatory but highly recommendable.

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Show 1 footnote

  1. Note that the security of supply with regards to oil is not covered in this paper due to the fact that oil is a globally traded good with relatively stable costs, regardless of its origin. This allows even the V4 countries to diversify their imports away from Russia to some degree. Nonetheless one should not assume that the situation is significantly better but interconnection is somewhat better and ensures a relatively stable supply of this commodity.

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

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 <> (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 <> (accessed 11 November 2011).
  3. Andrew Rettman, ‘Putin’s Return Poses Questions for EU Strategy’, EUobserver, 14 November 2011 <> (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 <> (accessed 1 July 2011).

Towards a Eurasian federation?

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan finalise their customs union

As of 1 July, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are operating under a full customs union. The Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, as is the official name of the entity, started functioning on 1 January 2010 with the introduction of a single customs tariff with the aim of boosting trade and investment in the region by opening it up to greater competition. This was followed on 1 July 2010 by a common ‘Customs Code’ that removed customs checks on the majority of goods traded between the three states. In the present, third phase, the whole process was finalised by removing custom border checkpoints that still controlled the goods flowing into the union from third countries. Passport controls and immigration authorities will remain in place, but the countries are establishing a working group to simplify passport and visa procedures. An overview of all the customs integration phases can be seen on the table from RIA Novosti below.

An overview of the essential facts about the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia
Briefing on the new Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. © RIA Novosti, 2010

The Customs Union and Europeans

What can Europeans expect from these unification efforts of the Eurasian troika? For those who hope that one day international affairs will be better off when centred around multiple regional poles, which would be politically, socially and economically integrated on the basis of their shared identity, the Russia-lead regional efforts are clearly a much welcomed step. Indeed, it is one of the main tenets of the European Strategist to endorse such very efforts. And notwithstanding recent disputes between Belarus and Russia, it seems that the creation of the customs union will move the region a few steps closer to a hypothetical ‘Eurasian federation’ of the Commonwealth of Independent States, as is a long-time dream of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and several other visionaries.

From this it proceeds that the Europeans should bear in mind at least three points when following new developments in the region. First, the integration efforts are not yet complete. The parties stress that the customs union will allow them to proceed with the next stage of the integration in creating a common economic space (by 1 January 2012) with the free movement of goods, services and labour. This would create a major economic zone of about €1,473 billion of nominal GDP,1 or roughly about 12 % of the EU-27’s GDP of €12,683 billion.2 The initiative further proposes to unify the countries’ taxes (quite many Russian commentators applaud this step, because they fear that the customs union without common tax rates might lead to companies leaving the country to their neighbours, mainly to Kazakhstan),3 and establish common and trade monetary policies. Indeed, swiftness with which the Russians and its partners move is even more commendable when one considers that any effort to harmonise diverse tax regimes in the EU’s member states would be a political impossibility: even the Commission’s initiative to create a so-called Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (“CCCTB”) is being met with a considerable opposition, although it is being prepared in various working groups for last 7 years.

Second, the move is also another clear signal that in the follow-up to the 2008 financial crisis, Moscow is changing its economic policies in the former Soviet space. New York Times observed already a year ago that whereas formerly, Russia relied on its hard currency reserves to gain from its neighbours political favours by providing them with loans and direct subsidies of fuel, the new policy aims at elevating the economic prospects of the entire region with Russia as a natural gravity well.4 In the short term, Russian farmers and steel workers might lose in the competition with Belarus and Kazakhstan, but over time, it is assumed that Russian banks will benefit from gaining access to Belarus’ backward, Soviet-style economy, which is currently on the way towards privatising its major services and industries. Moscow will thus reinforce its role as the region’s financial and business centre and even more increase the allure of its domestic market for other neighbouring countries. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are already bidding for the membership.

Putin’s and Medvedev’s greater openness to their country’s economic integration has also a strong European dimension, as they would hope to extend the free trade partnership also to the EU and other EFTA countries. Here, however, they will not get any further without the co-operation of EU’s political leaders, which is lacking. The EU’s politicians are now on one hand much more concerned with the financial problems of the eurozone and, on the other, lack strategy and political will for leading a strong, common EU-Russian foreign policy.

A special status of Ukraine

Third, Ukraine continues to be a ‘blackjack’ of the geopolitical game between Russia, NATO and the EU, whose allegiance remains for the time being unclear. After the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who succeeded the Atlanticist Viktor Yushschenko, it was widely perceived as a Moscow’s triumph. Subsequent events, when he agreed to prolong the lease for Russia of the naval base in Sevastopol and declared that Ukraine will not bid for the NATO membership, seemed to have confirmed the fears of all uncritical Euro-Atlanticists. When the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant revealed a document describing the present Ukrainian government’s plan to develop close relations with NATO, if not seek the outright membership, it came as a shock both to the Atlanticists and Kremlin. Yanukovych is therefore a pragmatist who is above of all ‘pro-himself’.

So far, Yanukovych claimed that he seeks ‘association’ and free trade with the EU, but with the Russian strategic and cultural interests in Ukraine, Moscow will be putting increasing pressure on Kiev to join its customs union instead. In particular, Alexey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, implied that by the end of 2011, the price of natural gas for Ukraine might grow to an astronomical figure of $500 per thousand cubic meters. Is cutting off the subsidies a legitimate instrument of foreign policy? No doubt, although its ethicality is dubious at best. More seriously, one can doubt whether the ‘hard man’ attitude will serve Moscow’s interests in the long term, because such threats will rather repulse the Ukrainians from the Russian customs union then convince them of its benefits. Indeed, it is outright incompatible with the Russian latest effort to integrate its neighbourhood economically, as discussed above.

The EU cannot, however, engage in wishful fancies of Ukraine’s joining the EU under conditions that would be unacceptable to Kremlin, an event that would both endanger the EU-Russian strategic economic ties and cause instability in the region. Similarly, supporting further expansion of NATO is out of question beforehand: even if one leaves aside the fact that it would have much more detrimental effect on the EU-Russian relations that the Union membership bid (which is a fact independent of the perceived legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Alliance’s continuing expansion), NATO is a side arm of Washington foreign policy and therefore unacceptable for anyone who is serious about striving for a sovereign Europe. Besides, as the recent poll suggest, no more than a third of the Ukrainians support the NATO membership.5 If the foundation and standard on which international relations should be built is therefore political self-determination and multipolarity, rather than hegemony or any efforts at ‘civilising missions’, the EU and Russia will have to get down to one table and reach such agreement on Ukraine that will start from what the Ukrainians want themselves. At the same time, the deal will have to be acceptable to all the three sides. To imagine what it might look like is premature, but it is possible that the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine would seek to build strong ties with the Russian, while the ethnic Ukrainians would look towards the EU. Preferably, this should be complemented by restarting the efforts at Euro-Russian strategic partnership and thus proceed along the way that would offer economic, social and strategic benefits to everyone in Europe without the destructive zero-sum logic of ‘either Kremlin or Brussels’.

Having said that, it is clear that the new Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia will play a key role in the region in the next few years. For the time being, the Europeans will do well to remember these three tenets in mind: it will continue on, signals a change in Russia’s neighbourhood policy, and Ukraine will be the main unknown in the geopolitical game. Will the EU and European political elite prepare a common and adequate foreign policy that would respect these stakes? That is to be doubted. But no matter, that is no reason for analysts not to keep trying for their voice to be heard and hope that after the euro zone problems get solved, European political representatives will gradually turn outwards to their partners and use the economic initiatives such as the Customs Union for their shared benefit.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. IMF World Economic Outlook Database, April 2011. Exchange rate used for the calculations: 1 EUR = 1.4464 USD (ECB data for April 2011).
  2. Eurostat forecast from July 2011 for 2011.
  3. E. g. Коммерсанть FM, ‘Таможенный Союз Стер Границы’, Коммерсанть, 7 January 2011 <> (accessed 1 July 2011).
  4. Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan Form Customs Union’, The New York Times, 5 July 2010, section Business Day / Global Business <> (accessed 1 July 2011).
  5. Kramer.