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.