A Eurasian Union No More?

What the Ukraine crisis could mean for Putin's grand Eurasian project. 

For the last few years, Russia has eagerly promoted its grand “Eurasian” project, offering deeper economic integration with former Soviet countries. As proposed by Vladimir Putin in 2011, a Customs Union, or further, a Eurasian Union, was supposed to help the economies of the region flourish by combining their individual strengths and entering the global economy as a strong, consolidated economic entity. Putin officially stated that his proposal was based on a new reality, where to be successful was to be open, transparent and democratic—and had nothing to do with “bringing back the Soviet Union.”

In its original version, the Eurasian Union was supposed to take a good lesson from the European Union in bringing different nations voluntarily under the same roof and most certainly was not focused on any kind of alienation from the rest of the world.

Along with the members of the already established Customs Union—Belarus and Kazakhstan—the key to the success of the project was always Ukraine. Putin, as well as his advisers, clearly understood that without Ukraine, no economic or political cooperation would be sizable enough to be considered a global or even regional center of power. In addition, Ukraine’s historical importance to Russia made the case to use every means possible to win it over. With or without its embattled president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine had to be involved in Russia’s new Eurasian project. That is a major reason why, when Kyiv’s ‘Maidan’ revolutionists kicked Yanukovych out of power, Russia attempted to retain its influence in Ukraine.

By the logic of Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, the complete loss of Ukraine to the West would be an incurable illness that would disarm any Russian attempt to recover as a global power. Moreover, Putin feared that Maidan-style protests could at some point spread onto Russia. In his eyes there was no possibility that Kyiv’s new leaders could succeed in reforming their economically stagnant, corruption-riddled state. Moscow had to react, using all capabilities present: propaganda, Russian minorities in Ukraine, military presence if necessary—raising the stakes up to a maximum.

It seems that the West has not understood clearly enough that Ukraine is the single most important entity for Russian aspirations and, yes, for Putin’s legacy. The Kremlin is willing to go to any length necessary not to lose this game.

By pursuing his goals, annexing Crimea and fighting for eastern Ukraine, Putin has ultimately and irrevocably changed the rules of the game and—more important for the future of the region—Russia’s integration proposal to its neighbors.

Putin has always been a realpolitik player—even when it seemed that he was willing to cooperate with the West. Patience has always been his virtue. Now, when his cards are increasingly put on the table, we see that Putin is determined to secure his place in Russia’s history. By unleashing a full-scale media campaign, Putin is proving to Russians and the rest of the world that the results of 1991—namely, the collapse of the Soviet Union—are to be reconsidered. Russia did not lose the war with the West; it merely took a break. Moreover, Putin is proving that the Western way—the liberal governing—is not the only option. In order to reassert Russia’s great-power status, Russia is going back to its imperial roots. And now, the intensity of the situation with Ukraine is calling for decisive actions. Putin played a “Russian civilization” card as an entry pass to the geographical redrawing of the region. In Putin’s eyes, the borders and consensus of 1991 do not work anymore, thus, Russia must do everything it can to secure what it believes belongs to her. And the criteria is very tangible—history, Russian ethnicity or Russian language.

For Vladimir Putin—Ukraine is a zero-sum game. Either he wins and gets what he wants or nobody wins and Ukraine will remain an unstable, economically failing and decentralized state. From the very beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Putin acted with the belief that the West would in the end accept his alterations to the European map. From his fourteen years in power, Putin has learned that the West—especially the EU—is incapable of acting as a single unit and is not willing to make high-risk moves. The Kremlin is convinced that it could act quicker than the West could react. And the Crimean saga has proven him correct. Even today, when it is obvious that Russia is deeply involved in eastern Ukraine, the West is still incapable of responding with a unified voice or decision. In the end, the West will unite and act as a single unit, but it now seems that it will be too little, too late.

The Ukraine crisis made Putin reveal the true nature of his aspirations, now visible to Russia’s neighbors, the West and the rest of the world. The main agenda of Putin’s third term in office is to bring back a Russian Empire-like state; it is not Eurasian, it is decisively Russian. It means that Eurasian integration as designed in the beginning doesn’t work anymore. For those nations involved in or invited to join the Eurasian Union, it is now clear that there can be no equal partnership with Russia, only submission. The question is whether submission is going to be pleasant and economically beneficial to all sides, or rather tough and less pleasant for the incorporated entities.