As a counterweight to the European Union, Russia's Vladimir Putin is pursuing an ambitious dream rooted in memories of Soviet glory: The Eurasian Union.
As a counterweight to the European Union, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is pursuing an ambitious dream rooted in memories of Soviet glory: The Eurasian Union.
It’s a strategy to pull former Soviet satellite states back into Moscow’s orbit through a combination of incentives and threats. And embattled Ukraine, a huge country of 46 million people, has lain at the center of the game plan.
Putin has put the Eurasian Union at the top of his presidential agenda, voicing hope that the new grouping could become a major economic powerhouse on par with the EU. He has sought to lure ex-Soviet nations with cheap energy and loans, while also expanding his military presence in these countries whenever he can.
Russia’s offer of $15 billion to make Ukraine drop a trade accord with the EU was a carrot in Putin’s Eurasia program. His deployment of troops to take over Crimea is a stick.
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Here is a look at how Russia has fared in bringing other former Soviet neighbors under its thumb:
IN PUTIN’S POCKET
Putin understands that it’s not just military might that matters in winning allies. Cash counts, too.
He formed an economic bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010 with a goal to bolster mutual trade through the removal of customs barriers. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan also want to join, and Tajikistan could be on membership track, too.
This Customs Union is the basis for the Eurasian Union, a more ambitious economic bloc set to be formed in 2015.
Belarus, led by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko — dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — has been Russia’s closest ally. Lukashenko has kept most of the economy in state hands and depended on cheap energy supplies and loans from Russia to keep it running. Belarus also has been an important military partner, hosting Russian military facilities and conducting joint maneuvers with Russian forces.
Kazakhstan, led by autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is the second largest country by territory and economy among the ex-Soviet nations. Nazarbayev has maneuvered between Russia and the West during more than two decades in power. But Russia has little leverage over Kazakhstan, whose energy riches and booming economy make it nearly an equal partner.
Armenia, whose economy has been crippled by a blockade imposed by arch-enemy Turkey, has been a staunch Russian ally. It has depended on Russian loans and hosted a major Russian military base.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished Central Asian nation rocked by political instability, hosted a U.S. air base key for supporting operations in nearby Afghanistan. The base is now being shut down under Russian pressure. Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian air base, which is set to expand.
Tajikistan, one of the poorest ex-Soviet nations on Afghanistan’s northern frontier, hosts an estimated 5,000 Russian troops and depends on Russian economic aid and remittances from migrants working in Russia.
Some ex-Soviet nations have developed strong ties with the West and shed Russia’s influence.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan has been shipping its Caspian oil to Western markets via a pipeline bypassing Russia and stayed away from any Russian integration projects. At the same time, it has maintained friendly ties with Russia, where some of its richest tycoons have major assets.
Georgia built strong ties with the West under U.S.-allied former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sought to restore control over Moscow-backed breakaway provinces, triggering the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. The war was an extreme outcome, but the Kremlin has made a habit of keeping neighbors in line by promoting pro-Russian separatists on their territory.
Saakashvili’s party lost control to a coalition led by a billionaire tycoon, who made his fortune in Russia and moved to normalize ties with Moscow. A candidate backed by him won a presidential vote last year. Despite Georgia’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia, political ties have remained frozen over Moscow’s recognition of independence of Georgia’s separatist provinces after the war. Georgia is unlikely to be drawn back into Russia’s orbit.
Impoverished Moldova, located between Ukraine and Romania, has sought to build closer ties with the West and faced Russian trade sanctions. Moscow has no economic interests in Moldova, but has vowed to preserve a military foothold there. Russian troops have remained in its breakaway province of Trans-Dniester since a conflict in 1992, and Moscow has rejected Western demands to recall them.
Several former Warsaw Pact nations in eastern Europe and ex-Soviet Baltic nations have joined the EU and NATO and are now safely outside Moscow’s reach. Russia’s relations with some of them often have been strained by political disputes, but Moscow lacks levers to pressure them.
SITTING ON THE FENCE
Resource-rich Uzbekistan, led by authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who has been in office for more than two decades, has aspired for regional domination and zigzagged between Russia and the West. Karimov often had rocky relations with the West, which has criticized Uzbekistan’s rights record. But he also has been very nervous about Russian influence and stonewalled Moscow’s offers for closer economic and political cooperation.
Turkmenistan, a desert nation sitting on huge natural gas reserves, is ruled by authoritarian President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov. It has stayed away from Russia-dominated alliances and sought to develop close energy ties with both the West and China.