Does Putin Really Want to Revive the Soviet Union?
MOSCOW, Russia - When Russian President Vladimir Putin joined his counterparts from Kazakhstan and Belarus on stage last month to sign an agreement for a new union between their countries, their awkward-looking smiles betrayed many unknowns about exactly what they were about to do.
After absorbing Crimea and thumbing his nose at the West over his moves to destabilize the rest of Ukraine, Putin was taking his geopolitical power play to a new level by launching a regional economic bloc aimed at rivaling the European Union.
His plan for the Eurasian Union is the Kremlin's most ambitious post-Soviet integration project yet. Critics claim it's based on Putin's neo-imperial fantasy of rebuilding the Soviet Union.
But experts seriously question whether it will be anything more than a toothless club of autocracies, especially in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine.
"Russia has invested enough to make sure the project would go on, and it will go on," says Arkady Moshes, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
"But it's also clear that the returns will be diminished in both economic and political terms."
Set to launch in January and officially billed as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the new group will be based on a current Moscow-led customs bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Shortly before his reelection in 2012, Putin promised it would become a new pole of influence in the world.
With a current market of around $170 million and a combined GDP of nearly $3 trillion, the bloc would enable the free movement of goods and labor among member states, as well as closer coordination of sweeping economic policies.
But the Kremlin's unrelentingly aggressive rhetoric on the international stage - as well as a surge of nationalism at home - is stoking fears that the EEU's main aim is to restore Moscow's official dominance over its former territories.
Putin has dismissed suggestions he's aiming to resurrect the Soviet Union despite describing the treaty signing on May 29 in Kazakhstan's capital Astana as an event with "epoch-making significance."
Some Russian experts who agree with that assertion also downplay the EEU's geopolitical significance, saying worries about it have been blown out of proportion.
"Of course you could say it's a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, but then you'd have to say the European Union is the reincarnation of the Holy Roman Empire," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Kremlin-connected think tank.
"The basic composition is similar, but in reality it's just not the same thing."
Instead, Zharikhin says, the project is a natural response to major Western blocs such as the European Union and NAFTA from which Russia had been left out.
"It's not tied to any imperial ambitions, but rather to the current structure of the world economy, which is already divided into large economic clusters," he says.
Russian officials have praised the results of the customs union, which went into effect in 2010, saying trade among the three members has seen a significant boost since its conception.
On the surface, the benefits of the EEU for smaller member states seem clear.
For Belarus and Kazakhstan - as well as other prospective members, such as Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, which have signaled possible intentions of joining - the bloc would give local producers easier access to a far larger and more lucrative market than their own.
But analysts say the Kremlin's recent folly in Ukraine is undermining the project, sending ripples of consternation through some post-Soviet republics.
When Moscow annexed Crimea earlier this year, it claimed it was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians, setting what critics warn may be a chilling precedent for future potential land-grabs.
That's particularly worrying for Kazakhstan, which is home to a substantial ethnic Russian population that was aggrieved during the 1990s by policies favoring ethnic Kazakhs.
John Lough of the British think tank Chatham House says leading Kazakh officials have reason to be wary about Russia's increasingly expansionist bent.
"If you're thinking about your future as a Kazakh policy planner, you can hardly ignore the large Russian population in the north of your country and the fact that there's a border that some people in Russia regard as having little legitimacy," he says.
Others point to a different dilemma.
Although fears about Russian aggression in Kazakhstan may be far-fetched for now - since there's never been a salient separatist movement - there's cause for concern that a Moscow-dominated bloc may sabotage certain political interests in Central Asia, whose leaders have long sought to balance their foreign relations.
Kazakhstan's foreign policy has been defined as "multivectorism," or balancing foreign policy relationships with both Russia and the United States, which Kyrgyzstan emulated by simultaneously hosting American and Russian military bases while keeping an eye trained on China.
But the conflict over Ukraine has forced political leaders across the former Soviet Union to effectively pick sides in what's amounted to the largest geopolitical standoff since the Cold War, says Yulia Yakusheva, a researcher on the post-Soviet region at Moscow State University.
"It's indeed a very serious problem for the elites insofar as they became used to balancing and receiving bonuses" from Washington, Moscow and other major powers, she says.
"Few want to change that tactic ... and make a choice in favor of only one foreign policy direction."
Kazakhstan, the Eurasian Union's second-most important member, has been most vocal about the future prospects for the bloc - although probably not in the way Moscow would have liked.
Bakytzhan Sagintayev, Kazakhstan's first deputy prime minister and a top negotiator in the accession process, told The New York Times that his country was "forming a purely economic union."
"It is a pragmatic means to get benefits," he said. "We don't meddle into what Russia is doing politically, and they cannot tell us what foreign policy to pursue."
That's partly why more grandiose integration schemes such as a common energy market and a monetary union - part of the Kremlin's original plans - may end up as pipe dreams, says Moshes, the Russian foreign policy expert.
"Originally for Russia, a political component of the union was quite important - it wasn't the sine qua non, but it was important," he said.
"At the moment, it is just not there at all."