Leon Neyfakh writes: What is Vladimir Putin up to? The crisis in Ukraine, brought to a boil when Russia’s president sent troops into the Crimean peninsula, has created almost a cottage industry of guessing at the autocratic leader’s intentions from one day to the next.
When it comes to Putin’s long-term strategy, however, there is at least one concrete plan that offers some insight, and one specific date that Russia observers are looking ahead to. That date, Jan. 1, 2015, is expected to mark the birth of an important new organization linking Russia with an as-yet-undetermined constellation of its neighboring countries—an alliance Putin has dubbed the Eurasian Union.
Currently, only two nations besides Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan, have signed on. A number of other post-Soviet states, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have signaled interest in joining. It’s expected to build on an existing regional trade pact to establish common policies on labor migration, investment, trade, and energy.
But from the moment Putin announced his plan, experts have believed he sees it as the linchpin of something much larger: a new geopolitical force capable of standing up to Russia’s competitors on the world stage in a way it hasn’t been able to since the fall of the Soviet Union. “We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world,” wrote Putin in the 2011 op-ed in which he first described his vision.
For all its ambition and the grandeur of its name, the Eurasian Union hasn’t been discussed much in the West outside of foreign-policy circles; when asked about it recently, the State Department declined to comment. This does not mean US officials aren’t worried about its implications. In December 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a remark that, to date, seems to represent the American government’s only public position on Putin’s idea: “There is a move to re-Sovietise the region,” she said. And while of course the new entity wouldn’t be called the USSR, she said, “Let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
It’s tempting to see it that way, not least because Putin famously once said the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and has also reportedly promised that the Eurasian Union would be based on the “best values of the Soviet Union.” But to say the project is simply an effort to reassemble the USSR is crude and incorrect, say Russia analysts. Instead, Putin’s efforts should be seen as a realization of an entirely different, and much less familiar idea called Eurasianism — a philosophy that has roots in the 1920s, and which grew out of Russia’s longstanding identity crisis about whether or not it should strive to be a part of Europe.[Continue reading…]