It seems only natural that with current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin set to return as Russia’s president for another dozen years, government spokespeople have begun praising the protracted rule of Leonid Brezhnev as head of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Putin himself has said that one of his main ambitions is to create a ‘Eurasian Union’ among the former Soviet republics. Putin once called the Soviet Union’s collapse the greatest catastrophe of the 21st century, and his ambitions to recreate it could make life tough in the Asia-Pacific—and beyond.
Most Russians remember the Brezhnev years as a painfully lengthy period of ‘zastoi‘—stagnation and decay. As a result, Putin’s announcement of his intent to return to the Russian presidency—a post he held from 2000 to 2008 before handing the position (but not the power) to Dmitry Medvedev—quickly generated unflattering cartoons of him looking like the aged Brezhnev. This has prompted Putin’s normally reticent staff to defend the progress under Brezhnev in the Russian media.
More serious, though, is Putin’s unexpected proposal to create a Eurasian Union, an idea he outlined in a rare, lengthy article in a prominent Russian newspaper. Russia is already consolidating its recently formed Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Now the intent seems to be to expand the number of members, as well as to enlarge its functions and powers. The article, while disclaiming any intent to simply restore the Soviet Union, talks about the value of consolidating the former republics into something like the European Union. The republics would coordinate their foreign, economic, and other policies—presumably under Moscow’s leadership—to enhance their (Moscow’s) global influence.
But realising Putin’s vision will prove difficult. The existing international institutions in the former Soviet bloc—which include the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Customs Union—have found it difficult to realize concrete cooperation and sustain their momentum. Although many of the leaders of Soviet republics weren’t seeking independence in 1991, they’ve grown to enjoy their autonomy, and have generally resisted sacrificing it. Many of these newly independent states are eager to develop their relations with China or the West to balance their ties with Moscow.
In this regard, the union proposal seems aimed at reining in those former Soviet states that have so far remained outside Moscow’s control, such as Ukraine. Even though Ukraine is now headed by a government more friendly to Moscow, Ukrainian leaders are wavering over whether they should join the Customs Union or try to move closer to the EU. Putin has already indicated that Kiev can’t pursue both goals. Since March 2007, the EU and Ukraine have been negotiating a free trade agreement as part of a new Association Agreement to replace the present Partnership and Cooperation Agreement established in 1998. Putin told Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov that joining the Customs Union will give Ukraine some $6.5 billion to $9 billion in direct benefits through expanded industrial opportunities. Russia has considerable leverage due to the deep interdependencies between the two national economies. Most of Ukraine’s high-tech exports go to Russia. Like Moscow, the EU insists that closer integration will contribute to economic growth for Ukraine given that the EU is Ukraine’s primary commercial partner, the EU accounts for one third of Ukraine’s external trade and Ukraine will benefit from the political association. Conversely, Putin has warned that a free agreement between Ukraine and the EU would require Russia to take protective measures such as raising trade barriers between their two countries.
But it’s Georgia that is most likely to suffer from Putin’s return. Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili loathe one another, with Putin reportedly telling French President Nicholas Sarkozy that he wanted to see the Georgian hung by his testicles. Even if another Georgian replaced Saakashvili as the country’s dominant political leader, Putin is unlikely to reverse Moscow’s de facto annexation of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russian troops fully occupied in 2008. Although Moscow has formally recognized them as independent states, the Russian military is building large long-term bases in both regions. The best that might ensue when Saakashvili retires as president in 2013, if he refrains from following Putin’s lead in becoming prime minister, is that Russia might allow more visa-free travel between the separatist regions and the rest of Georgia and relax its economic blockade of Georgia.
Russia-Georgian tensions are also complicating Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), since Tbilisi is blocking Russia’s application—which must be accepted unanimously by all the other members—until Moscow acknowledges Tbilisi’s right to supervise trade with the separatist regions. In fact, Putin has always seemed less enthusiastic about WTO membership than Medvedev or former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who resigned this month in protest over the Putin-Medvedev deal.
Georgia is also one issue that could derail the Russia-US reset. Many Americans naturally sympathize with Georgians as an embattled underdog seeking to promote democracy and a vibrant free economy at home, while pursuing an independent but pro-Washington foreign policy abroad, which has included sending combat troops to Iraq and now Afghanistan. The Obama administration has eliminated a previous source of tension between Moscow and Washington by effectively abandoning the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to extend near-term membership in NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. Putin railed against NATO’s expansion in his last years as president and will likely do so again if, as is possible, a future US administration resumes efforts to enlarge NATO eastward.
Even if Putin tries to maintain the reset, there’s no certainty that the United States would go along. The problem is unlikely to be the Obama White House, which has already expressed a willingness to work with whomever is elected president. But the Congress, while not anti-Russian, generally hates Putin. The Obama administration will therefore likely find it harder to secure congressional approval of future Russia-US treaties. For example, despite its modest nature, New START secured much less Senate support than previous strategic arms control treaties. Had Putin been president last year, the required two-thirds of the Senators might well not have supported it.
Neither Moscow nor Washington looks set to negotiate a new arms control treaty soon, but both governments are eager to expand their economic relationship, which remains a weak prop for their bilateral ties. In principle, Russians may understand that US officials, unlike their Russian counterparts, can’t determine where wealthy Americans invest their capital. But Russians note that, while the size of the EU and US economies are similar, European investment in Russia is about ten times greater. From Moscow’s perspective, it’s easy to see the problem for the disparity as lying in Washington rather than Moscow.
The impact of Putin’s return on Russia’s relations with Japan, meanwhile, is uncertain. During the years Putin was president, the Japanese found him a tough negotiator on the four disputed islands the Russians call the Southern Kurils and the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories. Japanese officials decided to bide their time until Putin retired in 2008, when he moved to the prime minister’s office. But Medvedev has pursued an even harder line, and even became the first Russian president to physically visit the islands, provoking a mini-crisis with Tokyo.
Medvedev and his entourage apparently sought to burnish Medvedev’s nationalist credentials at Tokyo’s expense. Putin is probably inclined to continue the hard line, although he also has the authority to pursue the ‘Nixon to China’ option of negotiating a compromise solution and then forcing Russians, who polls show don’t want to make any more territorial concessions, to accept it. Putin’s incentive to seek such a deal would be to secure Japanese capital and technical assistance in order to modernize the Russian economy, a goal he has espoused in his inaugural campaign speech.
Still, the two Asian countries that might most benefit from Putin’s return could be Iran and China. Russian-Iranian relations, never very good, have been in a downturn ever since Putin left the presidency. Russia has voted for additional rounds of ever more severe UN sanctions to punish Iranians for engaging in suspicious nuclear activities and has even cancelled the sale of Russia’s prize S-300 air defence system, for which Tehran had already made a substantial down payment. Iran has now formally sued Russia in court over the cancellation. Putin seems more open to exploring limited geopolitical cooperation with Iran on issues of common concern , such as constraining Western influence in Eurasia.
China might also benefit from Putin’s return. Whereas Medvedev has focused his China diplomacy on developing economic, energy, and social ties, Putin might more actively promote Russia-China defence cooperation, especially if NATO and Russia prove unable to resolve their differences over ballistic missile defence, which seems likely. They might also do more to coordinate their policies regarding North Korea.
Still, it’s important not to ignore the underlying sources of tension between the two countries, manifested most recently in the Russian decision to publicize the latest arrest of a Chinese spy in Russia, as well as their continuing tensions over the price China will pay for Russian energy deliveries.
In the meantime, though, Western and Asian eyes will be on Russia on March 4. The election may be a foregone conclusion, but what comes next by no means is.