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Putin Sees His Moment

For the past year, the debt crisis has monopolized Europe’s attention to the extent that many forgot the EU did anything besides argue about debt levels. Apparently many in Europe feel the same way, as efforts to bolster its relationships along its Eastern periphery — once a central focus of EU policy — have been all but ignored by policymakers and the media. But where Europe sees a distraction, Russia sees an opportunity. The FT reports that Putin is setting his sights on the big time in anticipation of his return to the presidency:

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, this week unveiled his first big foreign policy initiative since confirming his likely return as president. It was a call to former Soviet republics to join a “Eurasian Union” that Russia is already creating with authoritarian Belarus and Kazakhstan.

That is due to expand from a customs union into a 165m-strong common economic space next year, with talk of an eventual single currency. Mr Putin denies this is a reborn Soviet Union. But, shorn of the communist ideology, there are resemblances. Even the newspaper where Mr Putin detailed his plans, Izvestia, was once the official Soviet government paper…

While joining the project entails some subservience to Moscow, it offers authoritarian oligarchies that run many post-Soviet states the chance to join a bigger economic bloc without submitting to endless lectures on democracy. Incentives Russian can offer, such as cheap natural gas, are also potentially attractive for, say, heavy-industrial Ukraine.

This is indeed a golden opportunity for Russia. The long tug-of-war for influence in the states between the EU and Russia had seemed to be tilting in favor of Europe for a long time — Eastern expansion was slow and controversial but appeared to be happening, and the European economy was the largest in the world while Russia remained overly reliant on its energy sector to drive its economic growth.

Now the tables have turned. The slow-motion debt crisis in Europe has done much to discredit the union — countries that once clamored for entrance as a harbinger of new prosperity and wealth now have reason to question the wisdom of entering such a troubled club. Europe, for its part, has little time or energy remaining to focus on its neighbors, and lacks the political will to contemplate expansion at any point in the foreseeable future. The promise (whether real or imagined) of further expansion has always been Europe’s primary tool in influencing its neighbors; with this strategy effectively broken, many are now beginning to look elsewhere for support.

Putin has been waiting patiently for just such an opportunity, and with his third term quickly approaching, the timing could not be better. Putin has called the collapse of the USSR one of the greatest tragedies in his country’s history — now he may have a chance to begin doing something about it.

The concept of a “sphere of interest” is something Americans often don’t understand.  Even some foreign policy makers think that when you “recognize a sphere of interest” you are making some kind of dark bargain with imperialism.

It is actually more complicated.  Nobody but Russia really cares very much about Belarus.  Perhaps in a perfect world, we would, but as it is, this is a fact.  We might think about Belarus once or twice a month; Russia thinks about it every day.  Over time, the patience and persistence of Russian attention will make itself felt; a sphere of influence is a zone in which you often get what you want because nobody else really cares enough to contest it.

The question of the boundary between Atlantic Europe, committed to a liberal social model and more or less aligned with the US, and Continental Europe, centered socially and economically around Moscow, has been in flux since 1989.  Putin’s achievement was, first, to stop the disintegration of Russia itself, and second, to renew Russia’s patient and slow effort to project power back into the ‘near abroad’.  In the long term, that achievement is endangered by the weak and corrupt foundations of the new Russian order and the demographic collapse of the Russian-speaking, Slavic population; in the short to perhaps the medium term Putin can use the opportunity of the EU crisis and American distraction to rebuild the Russian sphere.

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  • Toni

    Um…I’m confused. In the short term, why should Americans care whether small authoritarian “near abroad” countries fall under Russia’s sway? If we should care for the long term, realistically, what could an attentive US or Europe do about Putin’s new scheme?

    Russia has burned Europe on energy prices and terms. That’s a warning to any country tempted to yield to the Bear’s economic embrace. Or should be.

    Isn’t the best thing the US can do is to allow environmentally responsible development of its vast shale gas reserves? Oil & natural gas are a world market. Reducing the amount the US has to buy from abroad will release those supplies into the market and lower the prices Russia can charge. Less money in Putin’s hands is a good thing, no?

  • Kenny

    Doesn’t change the fact that Russia is dying demographically It could well lose part (or even most) of resource rich Siberia to the Chinese.

  • Mantegna


    Knowing the Russians, if Siberia was attacked by the Chinese, they would retaliate with full nuclear force. And they have 5,000 nuclear warheads.

  • Corlyss

    LOL I guess he envies Europe’s chaos from a single currency union.

    Seriously tho’ the latter’s anti-democratic character and blind refusal to recognize the systems’ monumental impracticalities has done a lot to enervate the states’ already supine “do to me what you will” populations. “Join the EU and absorb unsustainable debt!” hardly makes a great recruiting poster. The Eurozone’s whoring after idyllic stability appears to have accomplished its founders’ dream: a Europe incapable of war by creating social programs that account for 98% of their GDP. Combined with cultural collapse that deprives Europe of the will to defend its cultural uniqueness, the stew results in Russia winning Europe without firing a shot.

    I’m still counting on war being the end result of the debt-crisis/collapse of the Eurozone’s unwieldy structure. So there may be hope yet.

  • teapartydoc

    So Russia wants to have an opportunity to mimic all of the mistakes Europe, Japan, and America have made with massive central banking schemes that have brought Western Civilization to its knees. Great. Hey Vladimir, it’s just like a log-ride. You get pulled up at first, then you go up and down and around some unexpected turns, then you splash down and come to a complete stop. Go ahead. But for me, been there, done that.

  • Mitch H.

    Not to mention that the introduction of fracking technology has application beyond the continental borders of North America. In the medium-term, exploitation of potential shale deposits in the eastern Med, Poland, and no doubt other parts of Europe will loosen Russia’s temporary energy stranglehold. As for a resurgent Russian bear on a power basis – we’re talking about a country that just stopped ordering new combat rifles because they think that 10 million in stock is a sufficiency. As impressive a number as that sounds, when you factor in the need to arm reserves and militia in a true mobilization, it’s actually kind of feeble.

    So far as geopolitical threats go, I’d be much more worried about China and the South China Sea than Russia and the steppe countries. Russia’s still the sick man of Asia, and China’s got all the hall-marks of a latter-day Wilhelmine Germany.

  • Dan S

    “Knowing the Russians, if Siberia was attacked by the Chinese, they would retaliate with full nuclear force. And they have 5,000 nuclear warheads.”

    Knowing the Russians, they’d try to launch 5,000 nuclear warheads and then realize they’re not sure where any of them actually are.

  • Ben Cook

    A bit of rambling here: Russia is the globe’s truly anomalous nation/culture. Putin is much the Russian ideal man, especially to Babushka simply for being sober. Russia considers herself again the bastion of Eastern Christianity in an increasingly other-than-Christian world. Russia considers herself eternal and eternally threatened from both east (Germany) and west (Mongolia). One day we may be grateful Russia stayed true to her cylothymic self while the rest of us devolved into what appears more and more like a mania for the ages.

  • Paul M. Neville

    In the short term he is going to come up against Chinese interests in the West and South

  • Norman

    Russia has good reason to feel xenophobic, no one trusts them nor should they. Russiz does not have foreigners flocking to their shores. No, people are still leaving. So, the moment is purely Putin’s. The danger is that to make a mark, just like in Russia’s past, he’ll have to do something heavy-handed. Right up his alley.

  • Craig Purcell

    With the average lifespan being 57 years old for males in Russia we do not need to fear their influence for very long.

  • Skep41

    The demographic collapse of the Slavic population is the key to this. Putin’s Russia is crumbling as he speaks. Not only is there a birth-dearth but the epidemic of alcoholism has reduced life expectancy to 56 years. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the logical result of collectivist policies that have caused a demographic collapse in every non-Muslim former Soviet Republic. In another generation Russia will cease to exist. Putin is a joke.

  • mark l.

    putin always feared/respected bush.

    even when bush’s approval numbers were down, putin didn’t want to be the guy that brought them up.

    ‘weak’ isn’t the word.
    try, ‘irrelevant’.

  • Bob

    China’s influence has grown, but the media has not shown China’s problems all that much. It too has an aging population and that one child policy is catching up them quickly because they have a poor ration of youth versus the aging…and today news came out that Chinese banks had to make moves to help their economy.

  • StephenAnkenman

    “Knowing Russia” – come on, guys. Russia didn’t manage to lose a warhead in the process of breaking up the biggest, baddest empire of the 20th century – if it didn’t happen then, it’s not going to happen now. Relishing Russia’s inadequacy, if that is what anyone is doing here, is like being pleased that the rival high school’s building is burning to the ground.

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