What is Vladimir Putin up to? The crisis in Ukraine, brought to a boil when Russia’s president sent troops into the Crimean peninsula, has created almost a cottage industry of guessing at the autocratic leader’s intentions from one day to the next.
When it comes to Putin’s long-term strategy, however, there is at least one concrete plan that offers some insight, and one specific date that Russia observers are looking ahead to. That date, Jan. 1, 2015, is expected to mark the birth of an important new organization linking Russia with an as-yet-undetermined constellation of its neighboring countries—an alliance Putin has dubbed the Eurasian Union.
Currently, only two nations besides Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan, have signed on. A number of other post-Soviet states, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have signaled interest in joining. It’s expected to build on an existing regional trade pact to establish common policies on labor migration, investment, trade, and energy.
But from the moment Putin announced his plan, experts have believed he sees it as the linchpin of something much larger: a new geopolitical force capable of standing up to Russia’s competitors on the world stage in a way it hasn’t been able to since the fall of the Soviet Union. “We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world,” wrote Putin in the 2011 op-ed in which he first described his vision.
For all its ambition and the grandeur of its name, the Eurasian Union hasn’t been discussed much in the West outside of foreign-policy circles; when asked about it recently, the State Department declined to comment. This does not mean US officials aren’t worried about its implications. In December 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a remark that, to date, seems to represent the American government’s only public position on Putin’s idea: “There is a move to re-Sovietise the region,” she said. And while of course the new entity wouldn’t be called the USSR, she said, “Let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
It’s tempting to see it that way, not least because Putin famously once said the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and has also reportedly promised that the Eurasian Union would be based on the “best values of the Soviet Union.” But to say the project is simply an effort to reassemble the USSR is crude and incorrect, say Russia analysts. Instead, Putin’s efforts should be seen as a realization of an entirely different, and much less familiar idea called Eurasianism—a philosophy that has roots in the 1920s, and which grew out of Russia’s longstanding identity crisis about whether or not it should strive to be a part of Europe.
In recent years, the philosophy has been embraced by a swath of activists and political actors in the post-Soviet region, including some radical right-wing thinkers whose version of Eurasianism is built on a bluntly fascist ideology. While there are also some Russians promoting the Eurasian Union who believe a more moderate version of the philosophy is possible, Western critics say that Putin will need some kind of ideological glue to hold it together, and it’s most likely to take the form of a forceful antidemocratic, anti-Western worldview.
The extent to which Putin is truly driven by any kind of Eurasianist philosophy—as opposed to, say, a raw appetite for power and drive for a stronger Russia—is as opaque as any of his plans. But it’s worth noting, as the situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, that Russia experts have always considered that country the crown jewel—and even a necessary anchor—of any successful version of the Eurasian Union. “If you have Ukraine, the Eurasian Union moves a little further west, and puts it right on the border of the EU,” said Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Russia desperately wants to have Ukraine.”
Russia has spent much of its existence in a kind of tense suspension between Europe and Central Asia. Its landmass lies mostly in Asia, but its proud history of music, art, and literature are more closely associated with Europe.
That identity crisis has been part of Russian life for centuries, and it was in this context that a group of early 20th-century thinkers started making the argument that the people of Russia and Central Asia should not strive to contort themselves into Europeans, but rather assert themselves as a cultural and political force unto themselves.
What began as an emotional aversion to the prospect of Russia and its neighbors being “eternal disciples” to the West, wrote Russian political commentator Leonid Radzihovsky in an e-mail, became the basis for the theory of Eurasianism: “that the Slavic world must follow a separate path—that it should not be a second-rate Europe, but another type of civilization altogether.”
The Eurasian dream was eclipsed by the Bolshevik revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union, whose power stretched deep into Europe, and whose ideology vied for minds all around the globe. But after the USSR collapsed in 1991, the idea came back to life, said Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Suddenly the relationship between the former Soviet states was again a totally open question.
In the geopolitical sense, Eurasianism isn’t much more than a policy orientation, a belief that Russia is better served by building its own coalition instead of aligning with the economies of the West. Where observers get worried is who, exactly, is carrying the flag for it now—in particular a thinker named Aleksandr Dugin, founder of Russia’s Eurasia Party and the figure most closely associated with what has come to be known as Neo-Eurasianism.
Though initially seen as a marginal figure in Russian politics, Dugin—who is said to be a professor in the sociology department at Moscow State University—has been a prolific author and tenacious public figure since the 1990s, giving speeches and appearing on television to press his cause. In a YouTube video promoting the Eurasian movement, Dugin is shown pointing a rocket launcher toward the sky, while a thundering soundtrack of Russian hymns mixed with threatening heavy metal plays in the background. His followers carry black flags with an aggressive logo of arrows bursting outward. He once wrote that the country needs an “authentic, real, radically revolutionary and consistent fascism.” More recently, he weighed in on the crisis in Ukraine with a column calling for “the liberation of Europe from the very Atlanticist occupiers who caused the catastrophe in Kiev.”
While the language and aesthetics may sound like the definition of fringe, Dugin has become increasingly influential over time. According to fascism scholar Anton Shekhovtsov, he “entered the mainstream” when he became an adviser to the head of the State Duma, Russia’s parliamentary body, in 1998. Today, Shekhovtsov, says, “his ideas are taken seriously by people who are close to Putin.”
Dugin and his followers may be the most worrisome face of Eurasianism, but they are not its only supporters; other Eurasianists disdain him as a fascist using the philosophy for his own ends. Among these is Yuri Kofner, the founder of the Eurasian Youth Movement, a clean-cut, blond 20something who makes friendly YouTube videos in English aimed at Westerners who might be curious about the Eurasian dream. “Dugin has used the Eurasian ideology and twisted it,” said Kofner in an interview. He added, “Other Eurasianists, like myself, believe he does a very harmful thing to the Eurasian idea by making it seem very imperialistic, which is something that people from other post-Soviet countries cannot agree with.”
But while Kofner and others may distance themselves from Dugin, they are not shy about their hopes for what the Eurasian Union will one day become. In this, they see Putin as an ally.
“The thing is, Putin and his people are very practical,” Kofner said. “The algorithm in their mind is: First, we’ll build an economic union, we’ll keep it calm, we’ll keep it cool, we won’t talk a lot about it in an ideological sense, and then step by step [we’ll work to create a sense of cultural unity] and then maybe we’ll add something political, like a common parliament.”
It is impossible to say whether a belief in any particular style of Eurasianism is what drove Putin to push for a Eurasian Union. “He’s always had an intellectual affiliation with Eurasianist thinkers,” said Thoburn, “but he didn’t really talk at all about this idea of the Eurasian Union [until relatively recently].”
For the most part Putin has spoken of the Eurasian Union in purely economic terms—the official name of the organization is the Eurasian Economic Union—and has rejected, more than once, as nonsense all suggestions that it’s meant to create a new Russian empire. But he has also made remarks that indicate he envisions something deeper than a mere economic alliance, echoing some basic aspects of Eurasianist thinking. At a televised conference last year, for example, he described the Eurasian Union as “a project to preserve the identity of the people who inhabit the historic Eurasian space,” and said, “Eurasian integration is a chance for the post-Soviet space to become an independent center for global development—not a peripherality to Europe or Asia.”
While many Russia observers are skeptical that in pursuing the Eurasian Union Putin has in mind some abstract idea about the Slavic world’s historic fate as a civilization, there are others—Yale historian Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books, Robert Zubrin in the National Review—who have warned against underestimating the influence of Neo-Eurasianist philosophy on Putin’s thinking.
Putin’s vision of the Eurasian Union, the argument goes, is going to require a shared ideology to succeed, and while that ideology won’t be communism, as it was in the USSR, the history and rhetoric of the Eurasian movement suggests that it will inevitably be some hodge-podge of anti-Western, antiliberal thought.
“What unites these countries is that they all have autocratic or semi-autocratic regimes,” said Robert Legvold, professor emeritus and Russia specialist at Columbia University, referring to post-Soviet states like Belarus and Kazakstan. “The one thing that unites them is that they’re against US efforts at democracy building around the world.”
One intriguing argument that’s been made by Russia observers in recent weeks is that the Kremlin’s very high-profile campaign against gays and the increasingly intimate relationship it has established with the Russian Orthodox church are part of a broader effort to “brand” Russia as the bedrock of traditional values working to fight back the tide of moral corruption emanating from the West. This, too, could strengthen its role as the center of a new Eurasian power structure. “Part of this idea of contrasting Eurasia from the West is that they live according to different values,” said Mankoff. “So Putin talks about how the West has become decadent...and its embrace of gay marriage as being an example of that.”
Last week , as Russian forces maintained their position in the Crimean peninsula, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakstan held a meeting with Putin—previously scheduled for later in the month, but pushed up in light of the situation in Ukraine—to discuss the Eurasian Union treaty. There is reason to think Belarus and Kazakstan were spooked by Putin’s decision to use military force in the situation with Ukraine, and are perhaps now reevaluating their decision to forge closer ties.
Given how much it appears to worry his allies, it might be surprising that Putin would have played such a strong hand in Ukraine last week. But that, say many observers, suggests just how much he has invested in this idea. Ukraine—with its steel mills, coal plants, bountiful agricultural resources, and massive population of 46 million people—has always, according to Russia experts, been key to Putin’s vision for the Eurasian Union.
“Ukraine is the big one,” said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College who studies post-Soviet countries. “The others are small and weak.” For this reason, he said, the success of the Eurasian Union “hinges on Ukraine’s participation and cooperation.”
Last fall, when it seemed like Ukraine was on a path toward closer ties with the West, and the government was taking steps toward signing an “association agreement” with the European Union, the Kremlin intervened and convinced the country’s now-deposed president to back out. The following month, Putin announced that Russia would buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds—widely seen as compensation for sticking by Moscow. Viewed in isolation, the episode was nothing more than a very expensive game of tug-of-war. In light of Putin’s Eurasian dream, it was an investment in a legacy.
Putin himself, of course, hasn’t spoken about his actions in Crimea in these terms: He has framed it as a measure to protect the region’s Russian population in the wake of a coup. But as we watch his next moves, it’s worth remembering that, whether or not he got it from Eurasianist thinkers, at the core of his foreign policy agenda lies the belief that Russia’s destiny is to forge its own path.
Last December, Putin was asked a question at a conference about whether he planned to invest in infrastructure projects that would take advantage of the fact that Russia’s geography puts it squarely in between the East and the West. Without pausing, Putin responded by objecting to the premise of the question. “You said that Russia is located ‘between’ the West and the East. But in fact, it’s the West and the East that are to the left and right of Russia.”