Over the past year, new regional integration projects in Europe and Asia have forced Russia to re-think how it interacts with the nations of the former Soviet Union.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came up with a deal on Syria's chemical weapons. Photo: AFP / East News

The past year has been a mixed one for Russian foreign policy. Thanks to Moscow's role in resolving the Syrian chemical weapons crisis and Russia's role in negotiations between Ukraine and the EU, experts have talked about the growing influence of Moscow on world politics.

But at the same time, the Kremlin has been forced to confront new economic integration processes around the world that appear to have a limited role at best for Russia. As a result, Moscow is faced with the problem of how to respond to these new challenges and create new opportunities for the integration of its Near Abroad.

Global integration processes in Europe and Asia

As part of a new active engagement strategy, the Obama Administration has been building three major integration projects in Europe and Asia. For example, Washington recently began negotiations with the EU on the establishment of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a total free trade zone for the U.S. and Europe. This move, more than any other, now has complications for how Moscow interacts with nations such as Ukraine and Belarus.

Russia is faced with the activation of the European Union on the territory of the former USSR. Over the past three years, the Russian elite have felt that the EU, weakened by an ongoing financial crisis, was not able to be a dynamic actor. But at the end of 2013, Brussels revived the Eastern Partnership program, which aims at the further integration between the EU and six former Soviet republics: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

This came to the forefront at the end of November at the Vilnius summut on Nov. 28-29, when Ukraine and the EU failed to sign an Association Agreement. Despite this, the European Commission made the decision to allocate 87 million euros in the new Eastern Partnership countries: Moldova (EUR 35 million), Georgia (27 million euros) and Armenia (25 million euros).

The Eastern Partnership is viewed with concern by Moscow not just because the implementation of this program limits Moscow’s ability to act on the territory of the former USSR. This project is fraught with the growth of contradictions between Russia and Germany. Currently, Berlin is the main initiator of the expansion of the economic sphere of influence of the EU.

Tensions over Ukraine and Belarus have questioned the system of the privileged Russian-German partnership. This is facilitated by the Baltic states and Poland, dreaming of receiving the support of Germany in their traditional tensions with Russia. The development of this situation is favored by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Cabinet as well, who are trying to take over the role of mediator between Moscow and Washington.

At the same time, the U.S. continues to negotiate the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving Japan, South Korea and other South East Asia countries. The establishment of the TPP reduces the ability of Russia to pursue an active policy in the Pacific. Moscow's Pacific policy is based on the Russian-Chinese "Big Treaty" (2001). But the Kremlin is trying to build a dialogue with the rest of the Pacific.

The more TPP becomes established, the more East and Southeast Asia perceive Russia as an ally of China. Beijing, in its turn, keeps close track of contacts of Moscow with Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, Jakarta and even Wellington. China considers such steps by Russia as not always consistent with the spirit of strategic partnership. If the Pacific split strengthens, it will complicate Moscow’s dialogue with the countries of Southeast Asia and its partnership with China.

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

Additionally, the United States revived the "AfPak” project, which collapsed in early 2010. Afpak is the association of Afghanistan and Pakistan to form a unified political space which will be provided security guarantees from the U.S., NATO and India. The revival of the "AfPak" project leaves Russia with only an outside role in settling the Afghan issue. In 2011, Moscow managed to create the "Dushanbe Four," a project of a regional forum of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This project was blocked by the efforts of Washington and New Delhi. However, withdrawing of the main contingent of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 may lead to a new regional conflict. There is also a risk of involving Russia into this conflict through the mechanism of the CSTO.

The White House does not expect to see Russia in any of these integration associations. The project of involving Moscow in an alternative “Northern ASEAN” is now history. Although Russia recently joined the WTO and the Jackson-Vanik amendment is no longer in effect, the two sides are still unable to agree on full trade agreements or even enact the Soviet-American trade agreement of 1972 . The U.S. does not consider Russia even in regard to the largely symbolic Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA), which do not require the approval of Congress. Thus, so far, the agenda of Russian-American relations is still limited to arms control policy.

Eurasian integration without Ukraine

In this context, the past year has revealed difficulties in the implementation of the Russian "Eurasian Union" project. Back in October 2011, President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the creation of the alliance as a key foreign policy objective of his third presidential term. It was about the integration of the post-Soviet Union countries into a single political, economic, military, customs and cultural space.

Over the past year and a half, there have been attempts to start negotiations with Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine. But so far, there have been no results, except for fragile and uncertain agreements with Yerevan.

The December unrest in Ukraine revealed a new aspect of the problem. Kiev’s talks with the EU and the subsequent "Euromaidan" protests confirmed an unpleasant fact: over the past twenty years, Russia, despite all its efforts, has failed to involve Kiev into CIS integration projects. Kiev became the main focal point for the integration of the territory of the former Soviet Union. It seems that the Russian elite will have to realize quite an unpleasant but realistic fact: They may have to build new integration groupings on the territory of the former USSR without Ukraine.

 A supporter of Ukraine's integration with the EU. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalev  

What is more, the nature of Russian-Belarusian relations is changing too. The creation of the "Union State" has been put off until an undetermined point in the future. In the last six years, Moscow and Minsk have experienced a number of "diplomatic conflicts" in their relations: from gas prices to Belarus' participation agreement with regard to the EU "Eastern Partnership" program.

These conflicts were resolved. However, Belarus ceased to have the status of a "privileged ally" and moved into the category of "ordinary allies" on equal terms with Kazakhstan, Armenia and Tajikistan. With the growth of cross-border cooperation of Belarus with Poland and Lithuania, Moscow has reasonable fears that Minsk may have its own plans for integration that don't involve Russia.

The situation is also complicated by the new strengthening of the position of the United States in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan seems to be ready to close the Manas Transit Center in 2014. But the White House resumed the dialogue with Uzbekistan, which after leaving the CSTO, might consider the opening of U.S. bases on its territory. Pentagon is activating its dialogue with Tajikistan on cooperation in the sphere of military transport.

The U.S. Department of State supports the energy strategy of Ashgabat aimed at the development of the southern and eastern routes for Turkmen hydrocarbon exports. The Commission on strategic partnership between U.S. and Kazakhstan has started its work. Thus, Washington raised the issue of obtaining the status of a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Events this fall showed that this perspective began to take real shape in connection with the integration of the SCO in India and possibly Pakistan.

There have appeared a group of countries on the territory of the former Soviet Union that are not ready yet to become full participants of the integration. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not ready yet to join the hypothetical "Eurasian Union" but at the same time, they do not deny integration as such.

Moscow will have to find an optimal formula of interaction with these countries, which will keep the current direction of partner relationships without their joining either the European Economic Community (EEC) or the Customs Union. This scheme should be more attractive to post-Soviet elites by contrast to the proposals of the European Union. Russia could offer them security guarantees from the elites of "imposed democratization."

The priority of Russian policy today is the ability to push effective integration projects for its Near Abroad. Otherwise, opportunities for integration will be offered by other nations, including those that do not necessarily have Russia's best interests in mind.