Shortly after confirming his intention to regain Russia's presidency, Vladimir Putin started to describe his foreign policy for what will likely become his next dozen years in the Kremlin. He called for the birth of a "Eurasian Union," allowing free movement of goods, services, and capital among some former Soviet states.
He even floated the idea of a common currency, going far beyond the customs deals Russia has already signed with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Mr. Putin denies that he wants another Soviet Union, despite his public laments for the "tragedy of century," as he calls the breakup of the Communist empire. In fact, his proposal looks more like a dark mirror of the European Union, with some of its economic advantages but none of its insistence on democracy or human rights.
The timing of Mr. Putin's announcement, coming as the Euro zone struggles with a solvency crisis, highlights a reversal of fortunes in his part of the world. Europe's influence appears to be waning, leaving the former Soviet republics orphaned by the distractions of bailouts and debts, at precisely the moment of Russia's growing assertiveness. This shift could play out in several ways:
1. Thwarting NATO and EU expansion
Russia once feared encroachment by the European Union near its borders, so it must have been satisfying for Mr. Putin to see a recent meeting of the EU's outreach group, the Eastern Partnership, dismissed in the Financial Times as a "damp squib." None of the six states in the partnership process – Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, or Belarus – seem poised for EU membership. Nor do Ukraine and Georgia appear likely to join NATO any time soon, despite official statements from the military alliance that its "door remains open."
2. Stemming the democratic tide
While the Arab world enjoys a spring, a deep chill has settled over the post-Soviet states. After a burst of pro-Western sentiment during revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), Moscow has re-asserted its influence in the latter two countries and punished the first of the group with a humiliating war. Recent meetings of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the so-called "NATO of the East," have focused on hardening authoritarian regimes against possible revolutions. The international NGOs that played a role in opening up former Soviet states now find themselves working under intense scrutiny.
3. Winning the pipeline race
Russia's financial clout, at a time of European weakness, could make it difficult for the EU to forge its own path to energy security. The EU wants to break Russia's choke hold on gas exports from Central Asia, which currently leaves Europe vulnerable to Moscow's prices and whims. But no route has yet been selected for the Southern Gas Corridor, with no fewer than four options under discussion. Meanwhile, some of Europe's biggest energy firms have been persuaded by Russian giant OAO Gazprom to formally support a rival pipeline, South Stream, which would reinforce Moscow's dominance of the market. The Russian project appears to enjoy backing from Moscow, while the Europeans are limited to a profit-driven construction schedule.
4. Escalating the standoff in Georgia
Three years after its brief war with Georgia, Moscow shows no signs of honouring a ceasefire deal that promised troop withdrawals from the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Europe seems reluctant to challenge Russia on this front. To explain the lack of European response to Russia's behaviour, a recent report by the International Crisis Group quoted an unnamed EU official expressing a desire to avoid insulting the more powerful country: "There is no dilemma when it comes to choosing between Russia and Georgia."
5. Delaying WTO accession
Outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev pushed for Russia to join the World Trade Organization after 18 years of negotiation. The United States seems almost as eager, and some reports speculate it could happen within months. Mr. Putin has never been so enthusiastic, however, and his plan to integrate post-Soviet economies would complicate international trade issues. Konstantin von Eggert, a prominent Russian journalist, expressed skepticism about a quick WTO deal: "It looks for now as if things are probably not moving forward or at least, not moving forward fast enough," he wrote in a commentary for the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.