Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union
"The Boston Globe", one of the largest daily newspapers in the U.S., published an article about the Eurasian Union and took an interview with Yuri Kofner, leader of the Eurasian Youth Movement and member of the Gorchakov Foundation Friends Club. Published in an abbreviated form:
It starts in 2015 and sounds like a scheme to rebuild the USSR, but its history is quite different — and intriguing for the West.
WHAT IS Vladimir Putin up to? The crisis in Ukraine has created almost a cottage industry of guessing at the 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.
In recent years, the philosophy has been embraced by a swath of activists and political actors in the post-Soviet region. There are many Russians promoting the Eurasian Union who believe a moderate version of the philosophy is possible and Western critics agree that Putin will need some kind of ideological glue to hold it together.
The extent to which Putin is truly driven by any kind of Eurasianist philosophy—as opposed to, say, a stronger Russia—is as opaque as any of his plans. But it’s worth noting, as the situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, that Russia experts have always considered that country the crown jewel—and even a necessary anchor—of any successful version of the Eurasian Union. “If you have Ukraine, the Eurasian Union moves a little further west, and puts it right on the border of the EU,” said Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Russia desperately wants to have Ukraine.”
RUSSIA HAS SPENT MUCH of its existence in a kind of tense suspension between Europe and Central Asia. Its landmass lies mostly in Asia, but its proud history of music, art, and literature are more closely associated with Europe.
That identity crisis has been part of Russian life for centuries, and it was in this context that a group of early 20th-century thinkers started making the argument that the people of Russia and Central Asia should not strive to contort themselves into Europeans, but rather assert themselves as a cultural and political force unto themselves.
What began as an emotional aversion to the prospect of Russia and its neighbors being “eternal disciples” to the West, wrote Russian political commentator Leonid Radzihovsky in an e-mail, became the basis for the theory of Eurasianism: “that the Slavic world must follow a separate path—that it should not be a second-rate Europe, but another type of civilization altogether.”
The Eurasian dream was eclipsed by the Bolshevik revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union, whose power stretched deep into Europe, and whose ideology vied for minds all around the globe. But after the USSR collapsed in 1991, the idea came back to life, said Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Suddenly the relationship between the former Soviet states was again a totally open question.
In the geopolitical sense, Eurasianism isn’t much more than a policy orientation, a belief that Russia is better served by building its own coalition instead of aligning with the economies of the West.
Many eurasianists support a moderate version of the Eurasianist philosophy. Leading among these is Yuri Kofner, the founder of the Eurasian Youth Movement, a clean-cut, blond 20something who makes friendly YouTube videos in English aimed at Westerners who might be curious about the Eurasian dream. “Eurasianists, like myself, believe that it’s a very harmful thing to make the Eurasian idea seem imperialistic, since it is something that most people, especially from other post-Soviet countries, cannot agree with” - said Kofner in an interview.
But at the same time Kofner are not shy about their hopes for what the Eurasian Union will one day become. In this, they see Putin as an ally.
“The thing is, Putin and his people are very practical,” Kofner said. “The algorithm in their mind is: First, we’ll build an economic union, we’ll keep it calm, we’ll keep it cool, we won’t talk a lot about it in an ideological sense, and then step by step [we’ll work to create a sense of cultural unity] and then maybe we’ll add something political, like a common parliament.”
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to say whether a belief in any particular style of Eurasianism is what drove Putin to push for a Eurasian Union. “He’s always had an intellectual affiliation with Eurasianist thinkers,” said Thoburn, “but he didn’t really talk at all about this idea of the Eurasian Union [until relatively recently].”
For the most part Putin has spoken of the Eurasian Union in purely economic terms—the official name of the organization is the Eurasian Economic Union—and has rejected, more than once, as nonsense all suggestions that it’s meant to create a new Russian empire. But he has also made remarks that indicate he envisions something deeper than a mere economic alliance, echoing some basic aspects of Eurasianist thinking. At a televised conference last year, for example, he described the Eurasian Union as “a project to preserve the identity of the people who inhabit the historic Eurasian space,” and said, “Eurasian integration is a chance for the post-Soviet space to become an independent center for global development—not a peripherality to Europe or Asia.”
While many Russia observers are skeptical that in pursuing the Eurasian Union Putin has in mind some abstract idea about the Slavic world’s historic fate as a civilization, there are others—Yale historian Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books, Robert Zubrin in the National Review—who have warned against underestimating the influence of Eurasianist philosophy on Putin’s thinking.
Putin’s vision of the Eurasian Union, the argument goes, is going to require a shared ideology to succeed, and while that ideology won’t be communism, as it was in the USSR, the history and rhetoric of the Eurasian movement suggests that it will inevitably be some hodge-podge of anti-Western, antiliberal thought.
One intriguing argument that’s been made by Russia observers in recent weeks is that the Kremlin’s very high-profile campaign against gay propaganda and the increasingly intimate relationship it has established with the Russian Orthodox church are part of a broader effort to “brand” Russia as the bedrock of traditional values working to fight back the tide of moral corruption emanating from the West. This, too, could strengthen its role as the center of a new Eurasian power structure. “Part of this idea of contrasting Eurasia from the West is that they live according to different values,” said Mankoff. “So Putin talks about how the West has become decadent...and its embrace of gay marriage as being an example of that.”
LAST WEEK, as Russian maintained its support for the Crimean peninsula, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakstan held a meeting with Putin—previously scheduled for later in the month, but pushed up in light of the situation in Ukraine—to discuss the Eurasian Union treaty.
Given how much it appears to worry the West, it might be surprising that Putin would have played such a strong hand in Ukraine last week. But that, say many observers, suggests just how much he has invested in this idea.
Putin himself, of course, hasn’t spoken about his actions in Crimea in these terms: He has framed it as a measure to protect the region’s Russian population in the wake of a coup. But as we watch his next moves, it’s worth remembering that, whether or not he got it from Eurasianist thinkers, at the core of his foreign policy agenda lies the belief that Russia’s destiny is to forge its own path.
Last December, Putin was asked a question at a conference about whether he planned to invest in infrastructure projects that would take advantage of the fact that Russia’s geography puts it squarely in between the East and the West. Without pausing, Putin responded by objecting to the premise of the question. “You said that Russia is located ‘between’ the West and the East. But in fact, it’s the West and the East that are to the left and right of Russia.”
Boston, the 9th of March 2014
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