The Eurasian Economic Union will attempt to become Russia’s main lever of integration and influence in the post-Soviet space. Russia, though, is not yet ready for a radical revision of the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.

A statue of Lenin is painted in the colors of Ukraine's national flag in Velyka Novosilka, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, near the border between Russia backed rebels and Ukrainian held territories, on the Ukrainian side. Photo: AP

In early February Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law ratifying the cancellation of activity of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) that included former Soviet republics. Starting this year, the community and all its agencies will effectively stop functioning.

However, Russia's next integration project the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), whose boundaries will mimic precisely those of the old “integration core” of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) of late 1990s — seems to be reaching another milestone. In early February, it was announced that another former Soviet republic, Kyrgyzstan, will join EEU

Throughout the remaining strip of CIS, the confrontation (that reached its apex in  the armed conflict in southeastern Ukraine) is becoming more acute. The question is arising as to the practicality (or impracticability) of radically redrawing the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Contrary to popular belief, the tenets of the “Putin Doctrine” were laid down in the mid-1990s. What was the last attempt to frame a common program for the development of the Commonwealth is the Chisinau summit of CIS leaders in Moldova on March 28, 1997. Roughly since the fall of 1997, the CIS has turned into a nominal structure, along the lines of the British Commonwealth.

Russia’s three policies for the post-Soviet space

Throughout the 2000s Moscow effectively pursued three different policies with respect to the post-Soviet space. First of all, it sought to consolidate the “first group” of countries. Steps in this direction were the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Community in 2002 and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2003 — two new and properly functioning unions in the economic and military-political sphere.

Encouraged by its initial integration successes, the Russian government embarked on a more ambitious plan. On Feb. 15, 2004, the EurAsEC countries signed a plan to create a Common Economic Space (CES), which was joined as an associate member by Ukraine at the initiative of then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. It was under this project that the Kremlin offered its support to Viktor Yanukovych during the 2004 presidential campaign, believing the real objective of the Orange Revolution to be the derailment of the CES.

The failure of the CES plan piqued Moscow, causing it to reach two unpleasant conclusions. First, the Kremlin suspected that the West would muster whatever forces it can to block Russia’s integration projects in the CIS. Second, the obstacle to integration in the post-Soviet space is none other than Kiev. Russia needed a few years to revive the CES plan in truncated form as the Customs Union project.

As for the “second group” of countries, Russia sought to normalize relations as much as possible and bring them closer to the “integration core.” Moscow’s biggest success in this regard was the collapse of the U.S.-Uzbek partnership in the early 2000s, culminating in Tashkent’s accession to the CSTO. On the back of some concessions, Russia also managed to set up an energy partnership with Turkmenistan in 2003. Less auspicious were relations with Armenia, which in 2004 tried to construct an independent dialogue with NATO.

Moscow’s ties with the “third group” of countries (Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova) were ambiguous. In 2001 Azerbaijan normalized relations with Russia, becoming one of the “balancer” countries.

In Ukraine, the Kremlin managed to establish contacts with the opposition Party of the Regions and the government of Yulia Tymoshenko. As for the Moldovan vector, Russia used its role as mediator in the Transnistrian conflict to restrain Chisinau from both forceful measures against Tiraspol and excessive rapprochement with Bucharest. Only with Georgia was the antagonism so deep that the two sides came to blows, in August 2008 during what is known as the “Five-Day War.”

The main intrigue lay elsewhere. In aligning relations with the “third group” of countries, the Kremlin believed it faced opposition from the United States and the European Union. The Russian leadership believed that NATO was expanding its influence in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and saw this perceived involvement as crossing a red line.

Even worse for the Kremlin was the EU’s Eastern Partnership, launched in 2009, officially a purely economic concept, that aims at intergrating six post-Soviet countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in Europe's economic space.

First, the conclusion of free trade agreements with the EU thwarted the accession of new countries to the Customs Union. Second, the implementation of association agreements required the establishment of a full-fledged border with the Customs Union. Third, the program exacerbated the problem of the status of “unrecognized states” that might not wish to sign association agreements with the EU. Brussels’ policy was seen in Moscow as an attempt to draw a new dividing line across the Baltic-Black Sea region (BBSR).

The “small” and “large” Eurasian Union

Having returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, Putin launched the Eurasian Union project. At first glance, it seemed to be a matter of transforming the Customs Union and/or the EurAsEC into a more integrated association. In practice, however, the Kremlin tried to effect an expanded version of the Eurasian Union by admitting a number of “second group” countries.

First of all, Russian diplomacy tried to involve Uzbekistan. However, back in October 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Uzbek President Islam Karimov had agreed to resume the U.S.-Uzbek military partnership. Perhaps it was then that Uzbekistan decided to pull out of the CSTO.

The Eurasian Union project also failed to entice Azerbaijan. On July 3, 2012, the head of the Azerbaijani State Customs Committee, Aydin Aliyev, stated that his country had no plans to join the Customs Union.

Ukraine also expressed no desire to partake in the new association. And much to Moscow’s consternation, Kiev continued its association agreement talks with the EU. True, this balancing act ended sorely for the administration of Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown by the Euromaidan protests in Kiev.

These processes produced a mixed outcome. Russia forged ahead with a Eurasian Union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, plus Tajikistan as a potential future candidate. Yet this "first group" of countries represented the traditional integration core of the CIS, meaning that Russia’s outstretched hand to the "second" and "third" groups had been declined.

There is another, deeper problem. Within the framework of the Customs Union there operated a single customs tariff. The creation of the EurAsEC placed a question mark over it. Perhaps it will be replicated within the Eurasian Union. Or perhaps the fate of the single tariff will become a subject of the negotiations. That could wipe out the progress of integration made so far.

The Ukraine challenge

The Kremlin felt no sympathy for Ukraine after 23 years of the policy which it sees as anti-Russian. Even less sympathetic was Russia’s view of the new Ukrainian government with its openly slogans condemning the Kremlin's policy toward Kiev. But of far greater concern to Moscow was the preservation of Ukraine’s neutral status. In fact, Russia took steps that it believed would block the expansion of NATO and the implementation of the Eastern Partnership.

After the incorporation of Crimea to Russia, some experts expressed doubts about Ukraine’s ability to survive in its present capacity. Yet, by the middle of May, Kiev had been able to suppress the protest movements in Zaporozhye, Kharkov and Odessa, limiting the rebellion to the Donets Basin (Donbas).

The ensuing military operation that summer against rebels in Eastern Ukraine did not lead to protests in Ukraine. The loss of Crimea and two-thirds of Donbas proved not to be critical for Ukrainian statehood. In April 2014 Ukrainian society became consolidated on the bedrock of anti-Kremlin sentiment.

However, there was nothing particularly new about this state of affairs for the Putin administration. Since its establishment in 1991 the Ukrainian government had built its identity on what the Kremlin experts describe as an anti-Russian foundation. Russia’s priorities in respect of its neighbor remain non-membership of NATO and security guarantees for the Russian-speaking population.

The so-called Novorossiya project (or "New Russia" that comprises Eastern Ukraine) was a disappointment for Russia. Novorossiya has stood its ground, but that fact does not resolve the key issues for Russia: Moscow has no land corridor to Crimea or strong partner in eastern Ukraine. Russia is essentially absorbing yet another “unrecognized state” into its political dominion. For a full-fledged Novorossiya to emerge it must be joined theoretically by at least one or two other Ukrainian regions, otherwise Eastern Europe will see the appearance of another “frozen conflict.”

Coming up with a compromise

Moscow faces three identifiable tasks in the near future: consolidate Customs Union policy and protocol within the Eurasian Economic Union; oppose the struggle against the pro-Russian elites in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and (to a lesser extent) Turkmenistan; and maintain the neutral status of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, including through the use of “frozen conflicts.”

The Putin administration is not banking on the concept of the “Russian world.” The Kremlin’s decision to refrain from a harsh response to sanctions clearly proves that Russia is not ready for a radical revision of the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Another matter is how to bring NATO into talks on preserving a “buffer zone.” Here, it seems, the Kremlin would be a willing party to any agreement.

Building relations with “second group” countries is becoming far more important for Moscow. Over the coming years that policy is set to be the most far ranging in the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian conflict looks destined to become a diplomatic bargaining chip between Moscow and Washington.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.