Putin’s Eurasian Ambitions and Propositions Ring Hollow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 137

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yerevan, October 1 (Source: inews.id)

Russia’s “central role” in organizing the political space of rising non-Western Eurasia had been proclaimed at various forums and brainstormed by many political minds in previous years; but last week, President Vladimir Putin repeatedly attempted to give this notion new energy and content. His main platform was the high-level meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in Yerevan, Armenia. At the October 1 summit, mundane matters of real economic cooperation registered scant progress, but the proposal that the EEU cultivate closer ties with Iran—presented by the Islamic Republic’s president, Hassan Rouhani—received a warm welcome (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1). The next event was the traditional meeting of the Valdai Club expert and political speakers’ series. This year (September 30–October 3), the theme was “The Dawn of the East and the World Political Order” (Valdaiclub.com, October 2). The key message from the mainstream experts of this “club” was that sovereign states have manage their domestic and foreign affairs as they saw fit, thus naturally necessitating the elimination of the constraints posed by the institutions of the liberal world (Rosbalt, October 4).

Russian claims to holding a position of prominence in the vaguely defined “East” are underpinned by Moscow’s purported leadership in the conflict-rich post-Soviet political space. And yet, the Caucasus—where Putin specifically traveled to advertise his Eurasian ambitions—is a region where such Russian leadership has proven ambivalent and fruitless. The “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia last year was a major upset for Moscow, and every step forward in the reforms and anti-corruption campaign that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government has since undertaken adds to this irritation. Putin, however, chose to exacerbate those tensions while in Yerevan by meeting with the wife of former Armenian president Robert Kocharyan, under investigation for abuse of power during his tenure (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 2). Its local political crisis notwithstanding (see EDM, September 16), Georgia also continues to defy Russian pressure, and a question from a Georgian journalist about Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia irked Putin in Yerevan (Kommersant, October 2). Ilham Aliyev, the hereditary president of Azerbaijan, poured lavish praise on Putin’s leadership at the Valdai session; but he prefers to keep his oil-rich country out of Russian-led structures and alliances (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 3).

The anti-Western nature of Putin’s Eurasian scheming requires the Kremlin to simultaneously strengthen and control the ties between Russia’s “sphere of influence” and China (Svoboda.org, October 1). The gathering in Yerevan coincided with the colossal military parade in Beijing, which dwarfed the traditional Red Square parades in Moscow and was cursorily covered by Russian mainstream media (Izvestia, October 2). Putin found it opportune to announce that Russia had provided assistance to China to build a strategic early-warning missile-detection system (RBC, October 3). It is uncertain how well Russia’s own version of this type of system in the Far East works, since all information in the Russian media space regarding North Korean missile tests seems to come from Western sources (Meduza.io, October 2). But clearly, Moscow desires to downplay the growing dependence upon Beijing: the invitations of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Yerevan and the Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte to the Valdai Club were supposed to demonstrate the diversity of Russia’s connections with Asia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30). That said, Putin was perhaps not too happy that his keynote presentation was overshadowed by Duterte’s bombastic performance (Kommersant, October 4).

Russia’s main instrument for ensuring dominance in central Eurasia is the export of oil and natural gas. Putin, naturally, remains a committed proponent of hydrocarbons; he made the case for their indispensable value at the Russian Energy Week (October 2–5) forum in Moscow (Kommersant, October 3). The Kremlin leader also expressed skepticism about Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s campaign for action to curtail global climate change, insinuating that she was being used by unscrupulous lobbies (Vedomosti, October 2). Putin used to be remarkably well informed about the technicalities of the energy business; but presently, his opinions on the rapid growth of renewable sources are colored by a mix of annoyance, arrogance and ignorance. Such incredulous statements as Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak’s warning about the “big American gas stick,” which allegedly threatens Europe, both play on and reinforce this idiosyncrasy (RBC, October 2).

Russia, indeed, has reason to worry about its position on the fast-changing European gas market, but focusing its main efforts on completing the economically senseless and politically dubious Nord Stream Two pipeline project does little to secure its preeminence as energy supplier to the continent (Forbes.ru, October 1). The only rationale for Nord Stream Two is to discontinue the gas transit through Ukraine. However, Moscow still needs to negotiate a new agreement with Kyiv on the use of this supply route in the short term (see EDM, September 30), and Putin acknowledged that the talks were not progressing smoothly (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 3). His Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy finds himself in a difficult negotiation position, not least due to the unfolding political storm on the other side of the Atlantic, and has taken uneasy steps toward a compromise in the war-torn Donbas region (Newsru.com, October 3). Putin is confident he can outsmart the inexperienced Ukrainian leader in this maneuvering, but this arrogance could bring him a “victory” inadvertently signifying a major failure of the grand Eurasian integration project (Moscow Echo, October 3). Zelenskyy has a strong popular mandate for ending the tragic war, and the concessions he has to make are tactical and temporary; while Ukraine’s progress in forging a European identity and executing democratic reforms would anchor it firmly to the West, from which Putin’s Russia keeps drifting away (Carnegie.ru, October 2).

A Donbas free of Russian aggression will bring many problems of reconstruction and reconciliation to Ukraine, but it will not constitute a backdoor to Putin’s Eurasian construct, which provides some comfort for several autocratic rulers but makes scant economic sense. None of the region’s presidents-for-life—from the leaders of Belarus to Turkmenistan—is keen to back Russia in its confrontation with the West, which, for Putin, is a crucial means of ensuring his control over the disoriented polity and society, disgruntled by the protracted decline of incomes and erosion of the middle class (The Bell, October 4). Russia’s propensity to resort to military instruments of policy makes it necessary for its neighbors, except those protected by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitments to mutual defense, to show due consideration to Putin’s aspirations. Russia’s incurable stagnation, however, informs every partner—whether “strategic” or situational—that these aspirations are unsustainable and that Russia’s real role in Eurasia is discordant but diminishing.