S. Fredrick Starr and Savante E. Cornell, the co-authors of the book, “Putin’s Grand Strategy: Eurasian Union and its Discontents” are well recognized political scientists. Fredrick Starr is the founding Chairman of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and a Research Professor at the John Hopkins University-SAIS. Savante E. Cornell is the Director of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and a co-founder of the institute for Security and Development Policy, as well as Associate Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The central theme of the book is Putin’s grand strategy to reintegrate erstwhile Soviet Republics and its potential implications for the neighboring states, as well as for China, European Union and last but not the least for the United States of America.
Author articulates that the revival of Russia began after Putin appeared as the President-elect of Russian Federation. Putin put forward its grand strategy that aimed to restore the Russian sovereignty and geographical integrity. Invasion on Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and the most recent annexation of Crimea all reveal the single-minded focus of Putin in materializing his dream of resurrecting Russian empire. Historical evidences reveal that once an empire (like Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire) collapsed it could never resurrect itself with the sole exception of former Tsarist territories under Soviet rule. Putin considers the reintegration of erstwhile Soviet Republics as the process supported by history itself and he viewed himself as history’s helper. However, it is evident that history in not in favor of Mr. Putin and he can avoid failure only by maintaining paramount military force or by relying on entirely new tactics. Mr. Putin came up with extreme seriousness to co-ordinate different sort of tactics in broader range of sphere so as to provide maximum support for materialization of his grand strategy. This grand strategy is highly centralized in Putin’s own office and he has staked his all in the realization of his “Grand National Dream”.
Author stipulates that Putin’s grand strategy is basically aimed to reintegrate (politico-economically) former Soviet territories and to reestablish Russia’s privileged sphere of influence, and for this purpose Eurasian Economic Union and Customs Union were introduced. According to Russian political scientist, Egor Kholmogorov, “Russians are inherently imperialists” and, thus, both Yeltsin and Putin aimed to establish a neo-imperial bloc under the supervision of Russia. Russia considers itself an autonomous sovereign actor, unshackled by any political association and exercising unfettered power in its own domain. Although Russia regards the Sovereignty and territorial integrity of its erstwhile republics, it still reserves the right to define the extent of that sovereignty and integrity. Thus, Russia deliberately inculcates instability and insecurity in the region to maximize its sphere of influence. Russia aims to be recognized as a pole in multi-polar world and hence, Putin’s grand strategy is entirely geopolitical in its essence. The CST and CSTO were established with the aim to provide collective security system to the neighboring states, but these organizations never participated in any conflict in and around Central Asia. Author puts in that, “Moscow appears to be an insecurity provider, rather than security provider in the region”.
Author looks deeper into Putin’s integration drive and deduces that it is based on ideology and pragmatic considerations. Moscow initially established a Commonwealth of Independent States that facilitated a civilized divorce among the member states, but with the passage of time, this organization proved ineffective in implementing any of its designed policies and thus failed. After CIS, Central Asian states along with Russia established Eurasian Economic Community with the aim to achieve large scale economic integration by reducing multiple trade barriers among the member states, but it also proved to be an ineffective drive like CIS. Later on, in 2011, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus established Common Economic Space to deeply integrate their economies. All these integration drives were aimed to re-Sovietize the erstwhile Soviet Republics by extending the Moscow’s privileged sphere of influence. Moscow also viewed the integration drive as agent for diluting China’s rising influence in Central Asia. For Moscow, former Soviet Republics are an easy target for reintegration because of its historic politico-economic and cultural proximity with these states.
Author now takes into account the creation of Collective Security Treaty and articulates that, it was established with the aim to regulate just and fair distribution of assets besides providing collective security to member states. However, Russia never intended to establish any alliance with the aim to underpin any commitment regarding collective security system. Russia only wanted the CSTO to be recognized by international community as an equal and legitimate partner of NATO. Hence, CSTO never participated in any conflict, neither in Central Asia, nor in Caucasus and just maintained an umbrella structure having a mirage of collective security system, and never came into existence in reality. Russia at not a single point, succeeded in using CSTO to undermine the Western encroachments in the region. Thus, it can be ascertained that the crystal clear and irreducible weakness of CSTO, indicates a deep loophole in the grand integration project devised by Mr. Putin.
Author now takes into account the economic dimension of Customs Union and Eurasian Union and articulates that, “In theory, Customs Union may or may not improve on the pre-union situation”, while on practical grounds, Customs Union that relies on protected internal market is incompatible with modern global economy. An ideal Customs Union (European Customs Union) as per the author is the one that promotes trade creation and retards trade diversion, and is thus, welfare increasing in nature. A Customs Union is more likely to fail when it promotes trade diversion, instead of trade creation and involves those states that are out of world’s leading economies, and it is more likely to succeed, when it abolishes external trade barriers and promotes deeper market integration. Customs Union established by former Soviet states failed to achieve the desired objectives, due to mounting negative economic effects on member states. Besides economic integration, Customs Union of Vladimir Putin is evidently a geopolitical struggle through which Russia wants to reinstall its hegemony over erstwhile Soviet republics.
Author now takes into account the different strategies harnessed by Putin to propel its reintegration dream. Mr. Putin deftly employed these instruments in a shifting manner to confuse and render ineffective any foreign counter strategy. One of the most effective instruments used by Putin is the control and manipulation of information disseminating from Russian media. Another vital instrument in Putin’s toolkit is the subversion through co-option that involves the deliberate weakening of statehood and installation of pro-Russian forces across the erstwhile Soviet territories. This strategy of subversion ranges from feeding opposition politicians to deeper penetration in government institutions, and to violent campaigns involving bombings and assassinations. Besides these, Moscow also supports opposition forces (as in case of Georgia in 2008), extremists and civil society in propelling Putin’s grand scheme. Besides installing civil society organizations in advancing its grand strategy, Kremlin also financed far-right extremist parties in West to advance its agenda. In addition to these tactics, Putin also reserves the right to use economic warfare (in case of Armenia) against its neighbors to regulate their outlook vis-a-vis Eurasian integration project. Finally, Russia uses another tactic of exploiting unresolved ethnic conflicts (as in the case of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria). Moscow deftly utilizes all these instruments to propel its reintegration drive and to halt the advancement of West and China in Europe and East respectively.
Vladimir Putin declared the dismemberment of Soviet Union as the greatest “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. To resurrect the Russian privileged sphere of influence, Putin came up with grand project of Eurasian integration to integrate former soviet territories. In response to Putin’s integration plan, states responded in different ways. Kazakhstan and Belarus appreciated the project of Eurasian Customs Union but suggested Putin to restrict the focus of ECU to economic issues. Similarly, in Kazakhstan and Belarus public opinion polls showed that majority of people were in favor of the membership of Eurasian Customs Union. Russia enjoys multiple levers of Belarus and Kazakhstan to pressurize them for their support in Eurasian integration project. However, both these states in future may rethink of their commitment to Putin’s grand Eurasian Customs Union project.
Author now takes into account Armenian response to Putin’s Eurasian Union project and entails that Armenia instead of Joining EU, joined Russia-led CIS and CSTO as pre-requisite for Russian political and security support, particularly over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia enjoys levers over Armenia due to Armenia’s heavy reliance on Russian energy supplies. To maintain its influence over Armenia, Russia often threatened Armenia to debar its exports, and to deport large amount of Armenian labors working in Russia, that would ultimately devastate Armenian economy. Thus, under Russian pressure, Armenia suspended the negotiations on Association Agreement with EU, and in reality has lost its ability to act out of Russian influence. In sum, being used as an instrument in the hands of Russia, Armenia may lead to regional destabilization. Kyrgyzstan initially stayed away from any Russian-led integration project, and maintained close ties with the West to rebuild its economy. However, it began to adopt multi-vector foreign policy in the mid-90s, with pro-Western stance relaxed. Tajikistan is considered to be more dependent on Russia than Kyrgyzstan, and both states in a joint agreement agreed to extend Russian military bases in Armenia till 2042.
Membership of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Customs Union is although beneficial for both states, but it would pose harm to both states, particularly in terms of higher inflation and living cost. Author declares Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as among the states most vulnerable to Russian levers. Similarly, owing to tense relations with Large neighbor Uzbekistan, both states view Russia as a security guarantor against potential aggressor. However, Russian influence in the region has been neutralized to some extent by China’s recent engagements in the region. Thus, author concludes that, “Russia no more has monopoly on wielding cultural, economic and political influence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”
Author turns towards Ukraine and articulates that throughout its independence, it has considered itself as a European state, and distinguishes itself from proverbial ‘elder brother’, Russia in lacking a Eurasian ideology. Thus, Ukraine stayed away from any Russian-led integration project in the region from last two decades, and it seems that Ukraine has closed its door for Eurasian Union. Author now analyzes the potential role of European Union in the Eastern Partnership project and articulates that, despite recent economic problems EU remains ‘a major magnet for trade, investment as well as labor migrants from many parts of the World.’ European Union is contemplated as largest trading partner for Georgia and Moldova. The advantage of ECU over EU is that Georgian and Moldovan products are well known in ECU member countries, and require less marketing and promotional efforts. From last couple of decades, Georgian political elite supported European integration as it would maintain their sovereignty and independence from foreign influence. Although, Russia retains significant leverage over both Georgia and Moldova, due to their respective unresolved conflicts, it lost its leverage over Georgia due to Georgia’s participation in strategic energy transit projects and its shift to Azerbaijani oil and gas, and thus has liberated Georgia from Russian sphere of influence. However, due to its historic Soviet legacy, Russia still retains economic leverage over Moldova, and has consistently used its economic Muscle to keep Moldova away from European Union.
Author now takes into account the case study of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has been among the countries most reluctant to Russian-led integration project, since its independence. Numerous analysts stipulate that Azerbaijani membership to Customs Union would be an ‘economic and political suicide’ for country. Thus over the period of time, Azerbaijan maintained its non-aligned posture and kept itself away from any integration project. Although, Russia still retains a significant leverage over Azerbaijan, it has not utilized it due to policy of non-alignment of Azerbaijan against both the EU and ECU. Besides Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been skeptical of Russian geopolitical project over the period of time. Uzbekistan was central politico-economic hub of Central Asia during Soviet times, while Turkmenistan was out of any significant political role. Russia has certain levers over both these states that it can use to pressurize both these states, as it can cutoff the bilateral trade with Uzbekistan and has also began to use ‘water and energy card’ against both these states. Turkmenistan denied joining any Russian-led integration drive, as country’s founding documents have maintained its non-aligned posture. Thus, if any or both of these countries are forced to integrate into Eurasian Union, it will unleash powerful destabilizing forces throughout the region.
Author articulates that over past decade, Central Asia has been dominated by two regional powers- Russia and China. With the rising Chinese influence in the region, it appeared that both these countries would become arch rivals, as their interests would clash at certain points, however, with the passage of time, both these states identified areas of mutual co-operation. Both these states have come to know that they share certain interests across the globe, and thus have to accept the presence of each other in the region. Russia also acknowledges its inability to compete with rising china’s economic power. Thus, for the time being, both these states have been able to find co-operational, rather than confrontational approaches to the Central Asian region. However, rising China’s influence is undoubtedly a serious challenge in the way of Putin’s grand strategy and it can only be dealt by maintaining strong political ties with Central Asian states and by strengthening its influence in security and military. China does not intend to pose any harm to any Russian-led integration drive until it does not challenge China’s interests. Although, Moscow is considered to be dominant politico-cultural and military power in the region, the rising economic might of China would further make Russia to retreat its place for China in the region.
Author now compares the European Union led Eastern Partnership and Russian-led Eurasian Union. When EU put forward its Eastern Partnership, Russia considered it as an attempt to establish ‘a sphere of influence’. Although Moscow was traditionally less concerned about European Union, however, Moscow no longer saw the EU as a soft politics actor, but as a force threatening Russian sphere of influence. Author identifies a fundamental ideological incompatibility between EU-led Eastern Partnership project and Moscow-led Eurasian Union. European Union in its Eastern Partnership constitutes a set of rules that are considered to be a moral threat to imperial ambitions that lie at the heart of Putin’s grand strategy. In addition to it, while EU offers “more for more”, Russia offers states that if they did not succumb to its strategy, it would tear their country apart. Thus, in order to undermine Russian reintegration drive, EU will have to come up with hard power response backed by US-led NATO, along with the strategy to counteract his manipulation of frozen conflicts.
Finally, author turn towards American response to Eurasian Union project, and articulates that America largely considered the Russian-led Eurasian project as mere an economic arrangement entered into sovereign states by their own will. Thus, United States of America neither envisaged the basic intentions behind the project, nor did it devise any counter strategy, as a result its response to Putin-led Eurasian Union largely remains out of focus. America believed that post-Soviet Russia would be a partner rather than an adversary. Thus, America maintained its policy of ignorance, when Russia directed other states to seek prior-approval from Moscow before entering into any arrangements with Washington, and during its invasion on Georgia in 2008. However, Obama administration propelled ‘Reset policy’ to dissuade any further adventure of Moscow. Moscow wanted America to recognize its ‘privileged sphere of influence’ that America denied at every instance, but Moscow drew inference from Washington’s actions rather than its rhetoric. However, it can be inferred that in response to Putin, US would remain on the sideline, either because its policy of sanctions will ultimately succeed in the end, or US lacks the resources to double down on Russia.
In sum, authors have tremendously explained the re-integration scheme of Vladimir Putin, and the response of post-Soviet states to this project. Authors rightly established that United States of America has failed to contain Russia from taking foreign encroachments in achieving its dream. Moreover, authors have brilliantly analyzed the case study of every state vis-à-vis Putin’s grand strategy and potential consequences of the states’ behavior towards the grand strategy. However, authors could not maintain an impartial analysis throughout the book which is contemplated as a primary pre-requisite for any academician. In addition to it, authors could not provide logical reasoning behind their speculation that “Putin’s grand strategy would be an ultimate failure in the end.”
S. Fredrick Starr& Savante E. Cornell, Putin’s Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and its Discontents, (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies Program, 2014), 210.