In my Monday post I called the emerging Eurasian Union (EAU) useful but modest. “Modest” is not however how Vladimir Putin sees it. In his effort to create a Moscow-led power center in Eurasia, he is determined to get the critical mass. Belarus and Kazakhstan are simply not enough. There are plans already for extending membership in the Customs Union to other former Soviet countries. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and sometimes Armenia are mentioned in this regard. However, such possible enlargement is still not enough to turn the proposed EAU into a significantly more powerful entity.

The three are all small countries and with tiny economies. They all need to be subsidized, which Russia is already doing, directly and indirectly. Including the two Central Asian nations into the integration project would require a prolonged period of their adjustment. As for Armenia, it has no direct connection, either by land or by sea, with the other existing or prospective integration partners. None of this means that this route will not be taken, but it means that the changes resulting from such expansion will be minimal.

To make a real difference, the union must include Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Each is the biggest country in its region: Ukraine, with its 46 million people, in New Eastern Europe, and Uzbekistan, 30 million strong, in Central Asia. Ukraine, clearly, is the more important by far. Its economic, demographic, and cultural potential would turn the EAU into a more credible player. It would also massively strengthen the union’s Slavic Orthodox core. When he was visiting Kiev in late July to celebrate 1,025 years of baptism of Rus, President Putin made a strong pitch for it.

The problem is that while a significant number of Ukrainians, especially in the east and the south, would probably agree to a close economic union with Russia, no Ukrainian politician of any serious standing would go for it. Much of the elite is westward-orientated, if for no other reason than because this would put an end to Ukrainian independence from Russia—a cherished goal of the country’s political, intellectual, and cultural classes. They realize, probably correctly, that close economic relations with Russia will lead to Ukraine’s creeping assimilation with its bigger neighbor, and ultimately to their own reduction to the level of a provincial elite.

The Ukrainian leadership, however, cannot bring itself to embrace the alternative to Putin’s Eurasian Union: step-by-step integration with the EU. Granted, EU membership for Ukraine—unlike its accession to the Customs Union with Russia—is not on offer, but some form of association is. To move in that direction, the Ukrainian ruling elite would have to dismantle its own power in favor of independent institutions serving Ukrainian society as a whole, which can only happen under pressure from society, absent for now. Thus, Kiev is stuck between Moscow and Brussels, trying to get the most from either neighbor for as little as possible in return.

I will address Uzbekistan, which is an even longer shot than Ukraine, at some other point. Today’s post means to support my earlier conclusion: the Eurasian Union can be real and useful, but it will have to be modest.

  • Dmitri Trenin