Putin proposes the formation of a “Eurasian union”, a bloc that could boost Russia’s influence on the global stage. The proposal – from the man who once dubbed the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – raises the spectre of the Russian prime minister’s imperial designs.
“We are not going to stop there, and are setting an ambitious goal before ourselves – to get to the next, even higher, level of integration – to a Eurasian union,” he has written. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also expected to join, he says.
Expecting critics to say he is trying to re-form the Soviet Union, Putin says: “We are not talking about recreating the USSR in one form or another. It would be naive to try to restore or copy that which remains in the past, but close integration based on new values and a political and economic foundation is imperative.”
He adds: “We received a big legacy from the Soviet Union – infrastructure, current industrial specialisation, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. To use this resource together for our development is in our common interest.”
Putin has formed countless Moscow-led groupings aiming to maintain the power that Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years he has focused on economic integration and has pushed for former Soviet states to adopt the rouble as a regional currency.
In 2009 Russia formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan which is due to become a “unified economic zone” next year, bringing down barriers to the movement of labour and capital.
The Eurasian union would take that one step further, Putin says.
“We propose a model of powerful, supranational union, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world,” he writes in the article.
It will be an uphill battle. The combined GDP of the EU stood at $16 trillion last year, while the Commonwealth of Independent States, an informal grouping of former Soviet states minus the Baltics, was just $1.9tn, according to the International Monetary Fund. Putin has been at pains to describe the union as an open project into which no one would be “pushed or rushed”.
He has issued, however, a thinly veiled criticism aimed at Ukraine, which has continued to seek integration with the EU rather than renew ties with Russia.
“Some of our neighbours explain their reluctance to participate in advanced integration projects in the post-Soviet space by saying it allegedly contradicts their European choice,” Putin writes.
“This is a false divide. The Eurasian union will be built on universal principles of integration as an integral part of greater Europe, united by common values of freedom, democracy and market laws.”
The other two members of the customs union, on which the Eurasian union would be based, have been criticised for their lack of democracy, with Belarus dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe”.
The article is Putin’s first foreign policy pronouncement since he announced he would return to the presidency next year, potentially getting another 12 years in power.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said: “It’s quite remarkable Putin would start with this.
“The logic behind it is primarily economic, and in this sense it is different from previous attempts, which were political or just decorative, to show Russian leadership.”
The move could also be a sign of frustration with Russia’s 18-year-long effort to join the World Trade Organisation, Lukyanov said. “The customs union was to a certain extent Putin’s response to years and years of fruitless negotiations on the WTO – if global integration is not available let’s turn to a regional one.”