20 years under Putin: a timeline

The return of former Soviet republics to the Kremlin’s sphere of geopolitical influence remains one of Vladimir Putin’s principal goals. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses the prospects of Moscow’s renewed integration drive.



In Sochi on September 23 Vladimir Putin outlined Russia’s goals for the country’s forthcoming presidency of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. He called for strengthened borders, emphasized the members’ concerns over the terrorist threats after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, and proposed increased military cooperation. Although Russia has long played a leading role in the CSTO, Russia’s presidency will likely mark a new stage in the Kremlin’s campaign to redraw the political, trade, security, and economic alliances among countries that were once part of the USSR.

Recently, Russia also used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek to rally support for its position on Syria and discuss the future of Afghanistan and the future of nuclear talks with Iran. (The SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia). The Russian leadership forced Armenia to join the Moscow-sponsored Customs Union rather than sign an association agreement with the European Union and is pressuring other EU aspirants, especially Ukraine, to follow Armenia’s example.

Russia is in a strong bargaining position. Moscow is the strongest military power in the region. It has, in the past, used its energy sector as a weapon, primarily against Ukraine, and could do so again. Moreover, the economies of the Central Asian states, far weaker than Russia’s, depend on remittances from migrant workers in Russia who send their salaries home. “Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests,” then-President Dmitry Medvedev famously stated in the weeks after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. When asked if these “priority regions” were those that bordered on Russia he replied: “Certainly the regions bordering [on Russia], but not only them.” In the five years since Medvedev uttered those words, the increasing fluidity in Eurasian geopolitics has given the Kremlin opportunities to recover the economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost in the collapse of the USSR. Underlying this drive has been several assumptions: first, that the multipolar world Moscow has often talked about since the mid-1990s is becoming a reality; second, that the era of Western dominance is coming to an end (especially, that the US is in decline); third, that US foreign policy is costly, ineffective, and unrealistic. As a result, the Kremlin no longer sees the West as a model for political and economic development and has opted to go its own way. Vladimir Putin’s foreign trips and meetings confirm these foreign policy priorities, with the goal of integrating the Commonwealth of Independent States with the Customs Union and an eventual Eurasian Union, playing a key role.

Moscow’s current drive for influence, sometimes heavy-handed, differs in fundamental ways from its approach during the Soviet era. First, it is chiefly economic. The Kremlin appears to believe political integration is unrealistic. Second, the instruments Moscow uses to pursue integration have to be carefully tailored. The Kremlin probably realizes, for example, that integration with Uzbekistan is unlikely, since over the past two decades Tashkent has developed its own view on Uzbekistan’s role and place in Eurasia. Uzbekistan is unlikely to want to become part of a Eurasian center of power based in Moscow. (This is less apt to be the case with smaller Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). On one key issue, however, the current Kremlin project resembles that of the old USSR: it will succeed only if Ukraine is included.

On one key issue, the current Kremlin project resembles that of the old USSR: it will succeed only if Ukraine is included.

Despite significant progress, limits on Moscow’s effort to forge closer ties have become evident. The premature integration of poor countries such as Kygyzstan and Tajikistan will require huge injections of Russian cash and divert resources from elsewhere. Broader integration beyond the core common economic space—for example, by pulling the Baltic states closer—is also unrealistic and even dangerous. Public opinion in the affected countries is also shifting, with more people against the formation of a Eurasian Union. In Russia there is growing sentiment against the free flow of labor, especially from Central Asia; public opinion in Ukraine, even in the ethnic-Russia east, increasingly favors EU membership over any Moscow-sponsored association. Both the SCO and CSTO, moreover, are still largely ineffective. The SCO is a “half-baked multilateral vehicle,” according to one expert, that lacks a clear sense of it role in the world due to disagreements among members over its mission.

The Kremlin’s Customs Union initiative is also beset by problems. The union costs Russia large amounts of money, harms its economy, and alienates Russia from the rest of the world. The Kremlin “proceeds with threats and sanctions rather than trying to attract anybody.” In addition, a Eurasian Union is a Russian vision that lacks the unifying ideology that held together the Soviet Union (“Eurasianism” a possible intellectual foundation for a union, is not even subscribed to by the entire Russian elite). If a Eurasian Union ever came to fruition, it would have the flaws of present-day Russia itself: neglect of human rights, selective justice, and rampant corruption (and in several cases those flaws in potential member states are worse than they are in Russia).

Above all, the momentum for Eurasian integration under Russian leadership has been slowed by the rise of China. On September 13 both Vladimir Putin and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping arrived for the SCO summit. Putin had just completed his diplomatic triumph in the Syria crisis; but Xi had just finished a successful diplomatic tour of Central Asia, which included state visits to four countries—resulting in major economic deals with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan—and highlighted China’s growing regional footprint. China’s leaders seek to win over their Central Asian partners by demonstrating respect, offering generous trade and loan terms, and taking a hands-off approach to domestic issues. According to noted expert on Central Asia Martha Brill Olcott, what Central Asian leaders find most appealing about this approach (in addition to the money), is that in contrast to Russia, China does not bind its partners into restrictive trade policies or seek to influence political outcomes from behind the scenes. China’s growing role in Eurasia has put the Kremlin in a bind. Russia wants to benefit from China’s economic might (while Chinese leaders view Moscow as a valuable ally on the world stage). Russia also does not want strained relations in the East, as it is having problems with the United States and NATO. There is little Moscow can do, in any case, to counter Chinese influence. The Kremlin did not bat a diplomatic eyelid as Xi Jinping jetted from one Central Asian country to another before the SCO summit, tying up billion-dollar energy deals in Russia’s backyard. Privately, however, Russian leaders are no doubt displeased, not least because their partner’s clout is likely to ultimately frustrate the Kremlin’s goal of being the major player in important parts of the former Soviet space.