by Catherine Lefèvre
Russian president Vladimir Putin once described the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.’ It is no secret that Russia has been trying to recover its geopolitical influence in former Soviet states to become a regional hegemon once more. But these states, freed from Russia’s control, became open to new spheres of influence, particularly from the European Union. With Russia pursuing a new Eurasian Union and the EU looking towards the East for further expansion, is a new geopolitical dilemma unfolding?
In 2009, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership programme (EaP) to improve its relationship with post-Soviet countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Even though the EaP does not promise EU membership, it does not exclude the possibility. The partnership is focused on promoting political and economic cooperation as well as sharing EU values, such as democracy.
As Andrey Kozyrev, a former Russian foreign minister once stated: ‘Russia is doomed to be a Great Power.’ Indeed, Russia signed an agreement with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2007 to create the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) which was officially established in 2010. In 2011 the ECU members signed another agreement to launch the Eurasian Union in 2015 which will, somewhat ironically, be based on the EU model with a Single Economic Space and Eurasian Economic Commission already in operation.
Power and influence
It was not until recently that the struggle for influence in the region intensified between the EU and Russia. Armenia and the Ukraine are two good examples of this. Both countries were negotiating an association agreement with the EU and both put aside their EU aspirations after Russia’s interference.
In September 2013, Armenia decided to join the Eurasian Union after Russia increased gas prices and provided arms to neighbouring Azerbaijan. Two months later, the Ukraine did not sign the association agreement with the EU due to Russian pressure, leading to protests throughout the country. After talks between Putin and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in December, Russia offered a generous discount on the price of gas and offered to buy Ukrainian government bonds.
However, it is not only Armenia and the Ukraine which have experienced pressure from Russia. As Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stated: “Armenia has been cornered and forced to sign a customs union which is not in this nation’s interest or in the interest of our [South Caucasian] region. Moldova is being blockaded, Ukraine is under attack, Azerbaijan faces extraordinary pressure, and Georgia is occupied.”
It is clear that through the Eurasian Union, Russia wants to reunite as many post-Soviet countries under its leadership as possible, either voluntarily or by persuasion. But why is Russia doing this? Is it trying to regain its lost power, or is it simply a response to feeling threatened by the EU and its continued interest in the east? Perhaps, it’s a little of both – for Russia, the Eurasian Union offers an opportunity to thwart the EU’s expansion into the East and offers an alternative to the EU where it can assert its power.
Catherine Lefèvre is a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Brussels.