Political analyst: Putin’s Eurasian Union is a response to rising China

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BNS

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Russia’s efforts to establish the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet territory to counterbalance the Chinese, not only the Western influence, political scientist Bobo Lo of the United Kingdom said in Vilnius.

“In the long run, Russians are more worried about the Chinese than the Europeans,” Lo, an analyst at the Chatham House institute, said in an interview to BNS.

In his words, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the independence of Ukraine as a historic misunderstanding, therefore, Kiev is Moscow’s priority in the expansion of Russian influence in the post-Soviet territory.

On the other hand, Lo said the European Union (EU) would be wrong to sacrifice its fundamental democracy principles for closer ties with Kiev.

Lo, who attended the Snow Meeting of political strategists in Lithuania earlier this week, also said that the Kremlin is not impressed by the boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and uncompetitive Russian economy will sway Moscow even further to perfectionism.

BNS: Do you think that Putin’s plan to create Eurasian Union demonstrates imperial ambitions of today’s Russia?

Lo: I don’t think Putin wants a traditional kind of empire and to recreate even a mini Soviet Union. But I think that he doesn’t see the neighbourhood in a genuine post-imperial way. Putin has a post-modern vision of empire; it’s an empire of new more modern type.

Some ex-Soviet republics are much more important than others for him. Ukraine is a number one priority for Russia. Putin doesn’t really regard Ukraine as a real (independent) country. He thinks the fact that there are two separate countries is kind of a historical accident. The other country, which is very important to Putin, is Kazakhstan. Ukraine and Kazakhstan is what makes the Eurasian Union. Belarus too, but Belarus is not as important.

Putin doesn’t really regard Ukraine as a real (independent) country. He thinks the fact that there are two separate countries is kind of a historical accident.

The second group of less important countries are Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The bottom category is Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. It’s not that Putin has a particular interest in them becoming members of Eurasian Union. The most important thing for him is that they do not sign (EU) association agreements and are not brought into the EU political and normative space. In other words, “if I can’t win, I want to make sure I don’t lose.”

It’s not really imperialism in a sense that “I want to build the empire”. But it shows a little bit of imperialism mentality because he essentially denies that these countries are fully sovereign, have the right to make free foreign policy choices.

BNS: Do you think it is likely that Ukraine will finally sign up with the Eurasian Union?

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Lo: Yanukovych will try and pursue a multi-vector policy. He has not signed the association agreement, but he hasn’t indicated that he will join the Eurasian Union either.

He knows that it is quite an unpopular choice because if he does that, then he will essentially give up Ukrainian independence, and I think that will create real problems even within normally pro-Moscow parts of political and business elite.

Yanukovych is going to tell Brussels: “You see the pressure that Russians are putting on me; you guys in Brussels need to be more reasonable, more flexible.” And he will say to the Russians: “I am in a bit of political fix, if you don’t support me and give me room for manoeuvre, then I will be screwed at home and you will get something worse than me.”

BNS: Ukraine’s refusal to sign an association deal in Vilnius was met with a disappointment in the EU. After that, what do you think should be the EU’s reaction, and is Eastern partnership programme still viable?

Lo: I take a different view to some political leaders in eastern part of the European Union. Their attitude tends to be: well, yes, Ukraine is not perfect but you have to be a little flexible here because Ukraine can be lost to Russia. But it’s very important for the Europeans to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture for me is the future of Europe and European values. If Ukraine does not improve its governance, continue to be a client-list state, where corruption and absence of rule of law is getting worse, then how can the EU say “we will take Ukraine in”.

You are right that Vilnius summit from the EU’s perspective is disappointment in terms of what Ukraine did. But there are many people in the European Union who say: “We cannot sacrifice our values for kind of quasi-geopolitical objectives.”

We should not have closer relationship with Ukraine merely to be anti-Russian. Sometimes Russian and European objectives will clash, that’s understandable. But your principle motivation should be to do what is best for the EU and future of Europe if you sit in Brussels. It shouldn’t be: this will annoy the Russians, let’s do it. That’s childish way to pursue the policy.

Your principle motivation should be to do what is best for the EU and future of Europe if you sit in Brussels. It shouldn’t be: this will annoy the Russians, let’s do it.

If EU member states sacrifice European values, then what do they have in the world, where is Europe’s credibility in the international order? Already people are saying – Europe is hopelessly divided, the European integration project is in big trouble, Europe is crippled by liberal indulgence, over expenditure on welfare, and that European values are just slogans.

This is a chance for Europe to say: “we do have principles and vision for Europe going ahead in the 21st century. But you destroy that vision if you say: it’s OK that you don’t have a rule of law, we don’t care. How can Europe live with itself if it takes that kind of excessively tolerant attitude?”

BNS: Now only Moldova and Georgia are continuing the Euro-integration path. Will Russia try to derail that path?

Lo: Of course, they will do it through a mixture of positive incentives and threats. They will say: the Eurasian Union can do this x, y and z for you and bring real benefits.

But with Moldova they will threaten to call in the Gazprom debt on Transnistria. They will also say: “Well, Transnistria has a Russian majority.” They will use it like they used Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia before 2008.

With Georgia I think they will take a slightly different approach. The Russians already have what they need – they have Abkhazia and South Ossetia as so-called independent countries, they have tremendous leverage on Georgia and they are trying to make sure that there is no reversion to a kind of (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvilli line. As long as they can have reasonably good relations with the current Georgian administration, the Orthodox Church in Georgia, then they don’t have to worry so much about Georgia’s European direction.

BNS: Some people in Lithuania think that the fact that the Russian President has never visited any of the Baltics is an example that Moscow still views them as part of its sphere of influence. What is the general Russian attitude to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia?

Lo: There is a major difference between the Baltic States and other ex-Soviet republics.

The Baltic States have much more tradition of independence, not only from the Middle Ages but between the two world wars. The Baltic States have always been very different in Moscow’s consciousness to Ukraine or Belarus. It’s not part of this imperial mentality in the same way as other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The Baltic States are members of NATO and the EU, so it’s too late. That battle has been lost, you can’t bring them over to the Russian camp.

The Baltic States are Russia’s bordering states with significant Russian ethnic minorities, especially in Latvia and Estonia. There is still a lot of cultural, economic and business ties. So, you still have a kind of what has sometimes been called trans-imperialism. You have these ties between elites, between commercial interests. So there is an attitude “we still have some advantages here that we can and will exploit”.

I know that some your politicians have been worried about the extent of Russian influence. This is completely understandable. But although Moscow thinks that it has particular political, security, economic interests here, the Baltic States fall into a very different category to the other ex-Soviet republics. Baltic States are ex-Soviet republics, but not part of the post-Soviet space. That’s the big difference.

BNS: President Putin has recently surprised many by releasing Mikhail Khodorkovsky. What lies behind that in your opinion?

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Bobo Lo | DELFI, Photo by K. Čachovskis

Lo: A lot of people in the UK where I live say that Putin is trying to improve his and Russia’s international image before the Sochi Winter Olympics. I think there is some truth in that. But also I think because Putin thinks Khodorkovsky poses no threat. Khodorkovsky is unpopular at home, Russians don’t like him, as they still remember what Khodorkovsky was in 1990s. Putin can afford to be generous and say “I can do it”.

More generally, Putin is conscious that Russia does not have a very good international image not just in the West but in other parts in the world too. It’s useful to show that he can be flexible and is sensitive in improving Russia’s image.

Also, I think he likes to surprise people, to keep people off balance, not to be predictable. If you are too predictable, then people can work you out too quickly. And he likes having that kind of tactical advantage.

BNS: Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė and some other leaders declared they would not go to Sochi Olympics because of the Russian policy. Do you think that Olympics boycott could have any impact?

Lo: I can’t speak about the president’s priorities. She operates in the Lithuanian political context. I just don’t know what it means over here.

But I can try an answer what it means for Moscow, and it means nothing. For Kremlin whether the Lithuanian president turns up to Sochi is neither here nor there. It’s not just because Lithuania is a relatively small country. I don’t think he cares whether Obama goes either. He doesn’t like Obama, Obama doesn’t like him, the Russia-US relationship isn’t very good, despite Syria. Obama didn’t go to the APEC summit in Vladivostok, he cancelled the bilateral (meeting) on the margins of the G20. So why would you worry if he turns up or not to Sochi?

For Kremlin whether the Lithuanian president turns up to Sochi is neither here nor there.

Maybe if Xi Jiping didn’t go, then maybe he would be a little bit offended.

BNS: What could we expect in Russia’s relations with China in a short-term and long-term?

Lo: In a short and medium term, this is relationship will continue to be pretty good. To have a confrontational situation like Russia often has with the United States is not something that Moscow is prepared to risk. Beijing knows that everyone is worried about the rise of China and it’s building up quite a lot of enemies at the moment. So, it’s important to have a decent relationship with Russia.

In the longer term there are fundamental problems in the relationship, and the biggest problem is China’s rise. The Russians are nervous that China is becoming too strong. They also worry that if there is ever a special relationship between China and the United States, that this will push Russia to the side.

People also worry about the future of the Russian Far East, because China not only dominates in economy in Eastern Siberia and Russian far east, but also is becoming more and more influential in Central Asia. And you have to ask what will happen in 5 to 10 years even in countries like Ukraine because China has a developing relationship with Ukraine in a number of areas, particularly arms.

China’s trade with Central Asia is greater than Russia’s. It used to be that China was just focused on economic priorities in Central Asia. Still true. But when your economic influence is so great, it has strategic geopolitical implications. If you are a Russian strategic planner, you have to at least allow for the possibility that it could be a dominant player in 10 years time.

Europeans imagine that the Eurasian Union is all about counterbalancing the EU’s Eastern Partnership, the EU’s political, normative and economic influence. But actually the Eurasian Union is almost as much about countering Chinese influence as it is about countering Western influence.

Moscow has its vision of multi-polar poli-centric world, in which Russia is an independent centre of global power. But to be a real independent centre of global power, you need to have your territory, your area, your sphere of influence. In the same way that the United States dominates the West, and China is becoming more dominant in the Asia- Pacific, Putin feels that Russia needs to expand its influence in Eurasia.

Europeans imagine that the Eurasian Union is all about counterbalancing the EU’s Eastern Partnership, the EU’s political, normative and economic influence. But actually the Eurasian Union is almost as much about countering Chinese influence as it is about countering Western influence.

BNS: After Russia imposed a dairy ban on Lithuania, commentators here mentioned both political reasons and Moscow’s economic protectionism. What is your view?

Lo: I think there are trade and political aspects. Politics is more important.

The best way to politically unbalance Lithuania, to make sure that Lithuania does not pursue policies that Moscow doesn’t like is to exercise these sorts of sanctions. But it’s also true that Russia is moving into a protectionist direction. Putin realises that, generally speaking, Russian products are not competitive in the world. Russia is not a competitive economy, except for energy and a few small other areas. What Russian brands do you hear about in the West?

It’s also true that Russia is moving into a protectionist direction. Putin realises that, generally speaking, Russian products are not competitive in the world.

In the lead-up to Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, Putin put all kind of provisions to try help, for example, Russian auto industry to cope with the expected increase in foreign competition. Again, it’s not just Western competition, in the car industry it’s Chinese and Korean competition.

It’s really important when we sit in Vilnius or wherever that we understand that a lot of Russian policies now are not just directed against possible threats and challenges from the West, but also from China. We take a Western-centric view.

Russian policies now are not just directed against possible threats and challenges from the West, but also from China.

But it’s not just about being anti-Western, it’s actually in a way about protecting yourself against foreigners of all kinds. In many respects the Russians in the longer term are much more worried about the Chinese than they are about Europeans.

BNS: The Snow Meeting is focusing on the EU-US relationship. Is Russia trying to influence it? President Grybauskaitė has suggested that Snowden may be part of it by commenting on his leaks: “you have to be cautious five times more” if the information comes from Moscow.

Lo: Russia would like to see continuing tensions between the EU and the United States. It would rather that these agreements didn’t go ahead, that there were political as well as commercial tensions between Brussels and European capitals on one hand and Washington on the other. However, it’s not pursuing concrete policies to try to split the EU from the United States. It hopes for the worst but not trying to do anything to achieve this.

Snowden turned out to be a problem for Putin. The Chinese knew that it would be a problem, that’s why they got rid of Snowden as quickly as they could. Perhaps there was some early ideas in Russia “maybe yes, we can embarrass the Americans”, but then Putin found that Russia was in an uncomfortable situation because Snowden is leaking secrets. And for a ‘checkist, kgbeshnik’, how do you justify the leaking of secrets? This is why Litvinenko was killed. The idea that Putin would actively support Snowden is unthinkable. If they could have got Snowden to board that plane to Venezuela, Putin would have been delighted.

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