Opinion: The Russian hug is eternal
10 December 2017

“Russian understanding of geopolitics believes in the decisive role of hard power and military might as a key component of both domestic and foreign policy. Russian-led integration projects, aim to include as many post-soviet states as possible, and once in never let them go out”, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed

In recent years one of the main issues in post-Soviet geopolitics is the competition between Russian and EU promoted integration projects. The Eastern Partnership promoted by the EU offers closer ties with Europe through Association Agreements and the establishment of Free Trade Areas, though with no guarantees of membership into the EU. The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union promotes integration between former Soviet Union.

However, the prospect of some kind of integration is the only thing in common between these two projects. The differences are more obvious. The key pillar of the European vision is the necessity to implement systemic reforms within the partner state, including political system, justice, rule of law and economy. The aim of these reforms is to bring partner states closer to the EU standards. Simultaneously, the EU offers a substantial assistance package as part of this process, using it as an incentive to bolster reforms. A second significant feature of the EU promoted Eastern Partnership process is the absence of any guarantee for eventual EU membership. The partner states themselves are striving for membership opportunity perceiving that goal as key in their quest for long term stability and prosperity. The third important issue is the possibility for any Eastern partnership member state to delay or even completely cancel the process. They are free to choose different forms of cooperation. If not interested in signing Association Agreements they can opt for other mechanisms such as new cooperation agreements with the EU. Armenia's decision to join Customs Union and later Eurasian Economic Union, and to sign a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU is a vivid example of such possibility.

The Eurasian Economic Union has no demands for any reforms to be implemented in the member states. The rule of law, good governance, human rights, economic competitiveness or fight against corruption are not the main issues raised during the process of membership into the Union. Nor is there a list of candidate states vying for membership and ready to implement painful reforms to reach their goal. The Eurasian Economic Union itself is proposing membership to former Soviet republics hinting that such step may bring Russian support for solving the hard security issues facing the different states.

Another key difference between EU and Russia led integration processes is the fact  that Eurasian Economic Union membership  is a one-way route for its potential members. When you reach your destination, it is very difficult to return back. This reality is a key feature of other current Russia led integration projects too. The military alliance - Collective Security Treaty Organization is another example. Though Uzbekistan managed to re-enter the alliance in 2006 and leave again in 2012, in general CSTO keeps its members.

The historical perspective proves this feature. If we take the example of the Soviet Union as another form of Russia-led integration, it was another manifestation of a one-way route.  It was only possible to join the Soviet Union, while leaving was de facto impossible. Despite the existence of movements for independence in different Soviet Republics, it was only the Russia decision in 1991 to declare independence and leave the Union that cleared the way for the establishment of so called newly independent states.

This feature of Russian led integration projects is based on the Russian understanding of geopolitics. Russia firmly believes in the decisive role of hard power and military might as a key component of both domestic and foreign policy. Thus, control over the allies, and effective influence over their defense and security policy, is perceived in Russia as a necessary condition to secure Russian interests. Another feature of Russian perception of geopolitics is the core belief that the West in general, and particularly the US, NATO, and in some extent the EU, implement a strategy to weaken, and as a final goal to dismember Russia. Thus, the Russian neighborhood is perceived as a key protective area for Russia to stop Western influence and penetration, and not allow the West to reach the Russian borders.

Meanwhile, to be able to effectively implement its role of protection, this neighborhood should be put under firm Russian control, and as an ultimate solution, be incorporated into the Russian state. This explains the reluctance of Russia to accept the post-soviet republics as truly independent states, and the ongoing debates in Russia regarding the artificial nature of Ukrainian or Kazakhstani statehood.

In this context, any Western projects to deepen the relations with post-soviet states, or foster their integration into the Euro-Atlantic institutions, are perceived in Russia as a direct threat to Russia's vital national interests. The most effective tool to prevent such developments is to foster Russian-led integration projects, with a clear vision to include as many post-soviet states as possible, and once in never let them go out.

In its long term geostrategic struggle with the West Russia makes efforts to create a partnership with rising China as another power potentially dissatisfied with the US led international order shaped after the end of the Cold War. This strategy may work in short and mid-term perspective. However, China in recent years cultivates its own integration mega project "One belt, one Road" which includes also the immediate Russian neighborhood - Central Asia, South Caucasus, etc. The Chinese funded multi-billion infrastructure projects will inevitably result in growing Chinese economic and political influence in the vast territories perceived by Russia as a sphere of its special interests. Given the growing de-population of Russian Siberia and   Far East, and Chinese economic penetration in these areas, in the long-term  China may become another source of concern for Russian geo strategists.

The perceived existential threat from the West, as well as possible   disagreements with China in the long-term may force Russia to accelerate the integration projects currently underway in the post-soviet space and to finish the establishment of firmly controlled buffer zones against both current Western and future Chinese threats. This strategic goal may well become the cornerstone of Vladimir Putin's fourth Presidential term, which may result in more aggressive Russian policy in the near abroad for the coming 6 years. 

Source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this op-ed to  

Photo: President Putin inspects the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia.