Putin’s push for a Eurasian Union would, if realized, allow Moscow to again lead a multinational bloc of tightly bound, former Soviet republics. Having a ruble currency zone would boost Moscow’s claims to great power status despite its lagging economic potential compared with China. The plan would also serve to limit China’s influence in the former Soviet republics that joined. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), now chaired by China, has been seeking to expand its economic, security, and other activities in the same functional areas as the proposed Eurasian Union. Russia has led the opposition to Beijing’s proposals to establish a free-trade zone and other economic integration within the SCO framework, which would enhance Chinese economic expansion in Eurasia.
Perhaps the one change Putin might undertake is to relent and agree to sell China some of Russia’s top-of-the-line weapons, which would help reduce the quantitative and qualitative trade imbalances between the two countries. Until now, Russian leaders had hesitated to permit such transfers for fear that China could steal their expensive sophisticated military technologies to build cheaper systems that would undercut Russian sales on third party arms markets in developing countries. But recent press reports indicate that Russia might be readying to sell China 48 Su-35 warplanes for $4 billion if the conditions included enhanced property right protection for Sukhoi.
Putin also mysteriously told some defense intellectuals last month that Russia and China “plan to expand this [military sales] cooperation and go beyond trade relations to include joint research activities.” Although Putin probably had in mind simply jointly developing weapons systems for selling to third markets, Moscow and Beijing could cooperate more directly against at least certain shared U.S. threats. Thus far, while Russia and China have frequently complained about U.S. missile defenses and other military activities, they have declined to join forces except rhetorically, refraining from pooling resources and developing joint military countermeasures.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Another reason Putin is promoting his Eurasian Union idea is because Moscow wants to constrain the U.S. military presence in Central Asia after NATO leaves Afghanistan, ending the main, perhaps only, reason the Kremlin has welcomed U.S. troops in its strategic backyard.
Putin joins other Russians in complaining about NATO’s failure to prevent the smuggling of Afghan narcotics into Russia and Central Asia, and he wants the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to have the leading role in managing that problem as well as other regional security challenges in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Putin has continued to cultivate good ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders, promising them Russian military and economic assistance and exploiting their strained ties with NATO. Putin will likely step up these efforts as the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan, an unwelcome development for Moscow since it decreases Western reliance on Russian territory and logistics to support their contingents in Afghanistan. Above all, Russians fear that NATO will simply walk away from the conflict, and dump another Afghan Civil War on Moscow’s lap at a time when Central Asian governments look more vulnerable to Islamist terrorism and Arab Spring-like upheavals.
Another Putin surprise might entail upgrading ties with Pakistan. Moscow’s ties with Islamabad have been strained for decades due to Pakistan’s support for Islamist terrorism, support for U.S. and Chinese measures against Russia, and confrontational policies towards India, a Russian ally. But Putin has now agreed to make a formal visit to Islamabad in September. Strengthening ties with Pakistan would give Moscow greater influence in post-NATO Afghanistan, including a means of communication with the Taliban, as well as enhance Russia’s leverage with India.
In the meantime, relations between Moscow and New Delhi remain strong, with Russia continuing to hold a dominant position in India’s arms and nuclear energy markets. But both these positions are under threat from foreign competition. Russia’s military-industrial complex is still miffed at losing India’s recent tender for its main future multi-role fighter plane to a European competitor. Over time, India will likely follow China and develop a more balanced trade and investment relationship with other Asian as well as Western countries. Having some influence in Islamabad would position Moscow better to mediate between New Delhi and Islamabad and underscore the value for India of maintaining good ties with Russia.
One of the most interesting things about Putin’s key foreign policy article was how much space he devoted to North Korea, while hardly mentioning Iran. Putin wrote that, “We have consistently advocated the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – exclusively through political and diplomatic means – and the early resumption of Six-Party Talks.” In coming years, Putin added, “We will continue conducting an active dialogue with the leaders of North Korea and developing good-neighborly relations with it, while at the same time trying to encourage Pyongyang to settle the nuclear issue.”