Putin has pursued his vision of a reconstituted Russian empire by efforts to expand, deepen, and secure Russia’s economic and political penetration of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In 2015, he scored a big victory in that regard with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an organization with a reach of 183 million people and a GDP of $4 trillion. Russian efforts to dominate Central Asia have been only partially successful, however, given the economic adversity and political crosscurrents that roil the region. Putin does not allow temporary reversals to deter him from his objectives. He has shown that he can weather hardships and uncertainties and turn them to his advantage. The lack of any coherent U.S. policy toward the region helps him in this regard. Meantime, Putin’s drive for empire extends west into Europe as well as south into Central Asia. He has successfully insinuated Russian influence and power into his western neighbor, Belarus, another former Soviet republic where many have begun to fear that they might be next on Putin’s target list for takeover.
In late February 2017, Putin traveled to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, looking to solidify ties and work out pressing issues. The trip’s success was generally regarded as mixed, but it did shed light on the state of relations between Russia and its Central Asian neighbors, all of which represent important elements in Putin’s grand strategy. Central Asia bursts with oil and natural gas begging for export; Russian dominion would hand over to Putin some of the world’s largest natural-gas fields and an energy market vital both to European and booming East Asian economies. These countries may be among the poorest in the world, but their vast reserves of natural resources make them strategically priceless. Beyond oil and gas there is coal, uranium, gold, iron ore, and manganese. If Putin can consolidate control over Central Asia, it will help fund military expenditures and secure the Kremlin’s position astride strategic trade routes from Europe to Asia.
With this goal in mind, Putin launched the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan. He’d like to add Tajikistan to that mix, but so far, Tajikistan has demurred. The EEU was envisioned as Putin’s answer to the European Union, and it was preceded by earlier steps—the Customs Union of 2010 and the Common Economic Space in 2012.
The challenge for Putin is that by the time the EEU formally emerged in 2015, the economic and political landscape had changed considerably. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 made many EEU member nations wary about the scope of Putin’s goals and about the nature of his intentions toward the EEU. In Kazakhstan, for example, home to 3.5 million ethnic Russians, views on Ukraine divide starkly along ethnic lines. Ethnic Russians support Putin’s move; native Kazakhs tend to oppose it. Rather than seeing the EEU purely as an economic partnership, as Putin had pitched it, Kazakhstan and others began to sense that it was more of a political entity—and that Putin really intended to use it as an instrument of coercion. An early sign of that coercion came in 2013, before the EEU’s formalization, when Moscow forced Armenia to reject the Association Agreement with the EU, thus keeping a nation that the Russians deem firmly within their geopolitical sphere cut off from potential Western suitors.
Moreover, given Russia’s economic preeminence among the group, the EEU is more useful for Russia as a bilateral instrument than it has proven, at least so far, as a benefit for its member nations. More than anything, the union has deepened their dependence on Moscow. Even more so, the EEU serves as an instrument to promote preservation of Russian language and culture; Russian is the sole official language of the organization.
Second, global economic developments, like the plunge in the price of oil, weakened Putin’s hand with his EEU allies. Overall, the EEU partners see many reasons not to trust Moscow.
Still, there is no question that “Eurasian integration” was “the common theme in Putin’s tour of Central Asia,” as Central Asian analyst Camille Hagelund put it.
In Kazakhstan, Putin sought to reach out to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has lately been sending signals that he would welcome economic assistance from the West (namely the EU) and from China. Putin dangled promises of billions in economic investment. In Tajikistan, despite rumors of the country coming aboard the EEU, Putin and President Emomali Rahmon did not even mention the possibility. However, while there is no sign that it will join the EEU anytime soon, Tajikistan did agree to an expansion of the Russian military presence in the country, allowing Moscow to rent its Ayni air base, a significant win for Putin. (Tajikistan already hosts Russia’s largest military base outside its borders, the 201st military base.)
And in Kyrgyzstan, Putin met with President Almazbek Atambayev, who will be stepping down from power near the end of this year as mandated by the constitution. Much speculation surrounds what role, if any, Moscow will play here, because a Russia-friendly successor is crucial to Putin’s designs. Veteran Putin watchers might have smiled wryly at his disclaimer: “As for internal political processes, they are not our business and we never interfere in internal processes of other countries, let alone our allies.”
The question about succession does not pertain to Kyrgyzstan alone. Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev is 76 years old and, by some accounts, has begun transferring more power to his parliament. It seems clear that Moscow will want to play a role in determining who the successor will be there, too.
Overall, what Russia is trying to do here, in the words of Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at the HIS Markit think tank, is lock “as many countries as possible in tightly integrated Russian led economic, political and military blocs.” Gevorgyan sees what Putin has achieved on this front as having more to do with the United States’ abandonment of engagement with the area than with the strength of Russian initiatives—and, given the American absence, he sees the real obstacle to Putin’s goal of strategic integration as coming not from the United States but from China.
Meanwhile, the Crimean crisis worked against Russia as regards Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The two countries, earlier at odds over control of the Caspian oil fields, found common cause in 2014 when they announced plans for a Turkmen-Azerbaijani pipeline to bring gas to Western markets. “The so-called Southern Corridor would bypass both Russia, Europe’s major gas supplier, and Ukraine, the main route for existing pipelines carrying the fuel west,” writes Darren Goode of Politico. As he points out, at the moment, “Azerbaijan maintains that its pipeline is the only shovel-ready means of giving Europe an alternative supply in the next few years.” The pipeline could be finished in 2018 at the earliest. As I noted in chapter 2, however, the Russians have responded, with Gazprom announcing a bid to transport Russian gas via the Southern Corridor, thus defeating, if Moscow is successful, the very purpose of the pipeline: diversification and independence from Russian sources.
Putin has also make inroads with Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan since its independence and a strong nationalist, had long staunchly opposed Russian imperialism. But in March 2016, Russia pardoned 95% of Uzbekistan’s outstanding debt to Moscow. Writing for The Diplomat, Samuel Ramani saw Putin’s debt forgiveness as a bold move that would “contribute greatly to bolstering Russian leverage over Central Asia.” It would give Russia a stronger economic hand to play against China in the region, and it would help strengthen the already considerable mutual security interests that the two countries share. As if to prove that hypothesis, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who succeeded Karimov after the latter’s death in September 2016, has signed investment deals with Putin worth $12 billion and trade contracts worth $3.8 billion. “It is no exaggeration to say that we see this meeting as a new step in developing and strengthening the strategic partnership and alliance between our countries,” he said. “We consider Russia a great power” that “plays a key part on the international stage.”
After some years spent developing stronger ties with the European Union and Romania, its pro-Western neighbor, Moldova also recently took a strong turn toward Moscow. President Igor Dodon, elected in December 2016, has said that he wants to abandon the EU treaty in favor of the Russian-led bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union. Speaking of an EU free trade agreement that he signed in 2014, Dodon said, “We have lost the Russian market and, strangely enough, our exports to the EU have also fallen. In other words, we have received nothing from signing the agreement.” He called for a new “strategic partnership with Russia.” Score another one for Putin.
Armenia has been a useful tool for Putin to expand his military presence in Eurasia. After being forced by Moscow to stay out of the European Union in 2013, Armenia seems to have embraced its Russian host. It became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union in January 2015, and since then, Armenia has become increasingly involved with Russian defenses. In 2017, Armenia President Serzh Sargsyan announced the creation of a joint military-industrial complex with Russia in the city of Gyumri, suggesting a deepening of his country’s military alliance with Moscow.
There are even signs, remarkably enough, that Georgia is tilting toward Moscow. Ostensibly, Georgia aligns itself with the EU. In June 2014, the country entered into an Association Agreement with the EU that opened Georgia up to free trade with the EU and closer ties with NATO. But more recently, the combination of economic shocks and benefits from Russian trade—which many see as a boon to the nation’s agricultural sector—have pushed popular sentiment in Georgia toward the EEU.
Perhaps the nation most at risk in the neighborhood is Belarus—the most closely linked to Russia of all post-Soviet nations. Since 1994, Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, who once defended his autocratic, totalitarian regime by declaring that it is “better to be a dictator than gay.” Lukashenko has long been a close and reliable ally of Moscow, and he serves as the president of a mostly imaginary entity known as the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” envisioned as commercial, military, and currency partnership. For Putin, keeping Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence is a necessary step on the journey toward Russian regional hegemony. Like Ukraine, Belarus was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, and its history is inextricably linked to Russia’s. Russian is spoken more widely than Belarusian, and even Lukashenko usually speaks in Russian. Putin has always been staunch in his resistance to any efforts on Belarus’s part to chart an independent course. As I wrote, with Evan Roth Smith, in Putin’s Master Plan: “Moscow will steadily exert more control over Belarussian affairs, likely through the Eurasian Economic Union, until Belarus becomes indistinguishable from a province of the Russian Empire—as it once was.”
In Belarus as elsewhere, however, Russia’s annexation of Crimea changed the dynamics. Lukashenko, feeling threatened, refused to recognize Russian rule in Crimea and even started giving speeches in Belarusian. A year later, in 2015, when Russia wouldn’t submit to Lukashenko’s request to lower gas prices, the Belarussian president began exploring closer relations with the West. Both Russia and Belarus were hit hard by the downturn in fuel prices; they had been doing business on a so-called oil-for-kisses arrangement: Moscow provides subsidized oil and gas, Minsk sticks to the Russian political line. Lukashenko’s loan talks with the International Monetary Fund in 2016 were viewed by Moscow as a betrayal of this longstanding compact.
As the IMF talks indicated, Lukashenko was embracing new options. Around the same time, the EU lifted sanctions on Belarus, and Washington softened somewhat on its attitude toward Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. As Chris Miller wrote in Newsweek, Europe and the United States both recognized that their past prioritizing of democracy in Belarus now had to take a back seat to offering Lukashenko an opening as his relations with Putin soured.
In retaliation, Russia has taken a hard line on Belarusian imports, banning meat, dairy, and various agricultural products; economic measures with real teeth, because 40 percent of Minsk’s exports go to Russia. Moscow has also cut oil shipments. When Minsk announced visa-free travel for tourists from dozens of countries, Moscow retaliated by fortifying the border with Russian security forces.
In the past, the two nations have worked out their differences; they have always been close, if often contentious, partners. This time might be different, says Andrei Porotnikov, an analyst who writes for the Belarus Security Blog. “What the Lukashenko administration doesn’t accept yet is that the Kremlin is only giving ultimatums now,” he says. “Things aren’t going to be resolved in the same way they previously were.”
Perhaps most ominously, Russian media have been escalating an information and propaganda war against Belarus. A Belarusian historian, Nina Stuzhinskaya, believes that the campaign is designed to whip up Russian sentiment against Belarus by fueling fears that the nation will become the next Ukraine—a betrayer of Russia that courts the West. When Stuzhinskaya went on a news program on Russian TV, she was struck by the contempt toward Belarus of the hosts and other guests. When she returned to Minsk, she said, a friend told her that she was glad that Belarus wouldn’t go the way of Ukraine.
“I told her, ‘you know what? In Russia’s eyes, we are exactly like Crimea,’” said Stuzhinskaya. “And that’s what’s so worrying.”