Many of the great empires of the past thought of themselves as having grand global missions. The European colonial powers of recent centuries liked to think of themselves as bringing the advantages of Western civilization to less fortunate lands. The Soviet Union — at least among its more idealistic adherents — was dedicated to spreading the gospel of Communism. In turn, the United States embraced the spread of free-market capitalism and democracy as its international mission.
Today, the president of my country, Vladimir Putin, also has a grand vision of what Russia’s place in the world should be. The problem is that no one really knows exactly what his goals are or how he plans to achieve them. What’s worse, perhaps he himself doesn’t know. The big question is, what message does this send to the rest of the world?
It’s not that Mr. Putin hasn’t spoken about his vision, or rather, two of his visions. One is the protection of Russians who he says, by the accidents of history, now live in the world beyond the Motherland. The other is the creation of a vast Eurasian economic union. But these two goals contradict each other.
Mr. Putin has famously characterized the collapse of the Soviet Union as the 20th century’s largest catastrophe. He later pointed out that he was referring mostly to the “humanitarian” (rather than the ideological) aspect of that historic collapse. Since the 1990s, millions of Russians have found themselves outside their country’s post-Cold War borders. Russia, therefore, has to reconstruct and embrace its own, ethno-centric version of that new international doctrine — the responsibility to protect.
But before he could begin to act upon that goal, Mr. Putin had to set the stage. In the decades since the fall of Communism, Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin, were preoccupied with ending their country’s internal disarray. Mr. Putin has succeeded in doing so, but his agenda has been achieved through negative measures, by removing all hindrances to the smooth operation of the Kremlin — those bothersome elements that the West sees as the building blocks of democracy: a free press, impartial courts, citizens’ associations and opposition parties.
Thus, our president has succeeded in making the press compliant, Parliament acquiescent, the courts obeisant and business neutralized as a political actor. This has all been helped by strong economic growth and periodic outbursts of patriotic militarism, maintained through broad if unenlightened public support. (Although Mr. Putin has repeatedly declared that Russia has made an unambiguous choice in favor of democracy, he likes to point out that the “standards used in some countries could hardly be put into practice or are inapplicable in other countries.”)
This raises the question: Can a leader whose actions are so negative at home become a successful player in international politics? It is no accident that the conflict in Ukraine started over the prospect of Kiev signing an association agreement with the European Union. The Kremlin has a traditional antipathy to following rules set by other powers. And the European association agreement would have introduced a set of rules that Moscow would not have been able to control or change.
Mr. Putin has justified his Crimea land grab and his manipulation of East-West divisions in Ukraine by asserting that he was acting to protect Russians living abroad. Yet no evidence of harassment against Russian citizens has emerged. Even during the violence on the Maidan in Kiev, only one Russian citizen was reportedly killed. Nevertheless his persistent rhetoric was instrumental in persuading dozens of radical Russian nationalists to join separatist militias in Donetsk and Lugansk. Many of those volunteers have died fighting the Ukrainian Army. One can hardly call this a successful campaign to protect citizens abroad.
Meanwhile, his other big project, Eurasian integration, has been haphazardly unfolding. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia formed a customs union in 2010, went on to declare the creation of a common economic space in 2012, and last month signed a treaty to establish the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have promised to join before the end of this year, but the whole project has been undermined by the glaring absence of Ukraine.
The treaty proclaims that its adherents will benefit from “four freedoms” — of movement of goods, services, capital and labor. But many policy differences remain, and the formation of a supranational governing organization and joint monetary and financial policies have been postponed. The parties are expected to proceed to a uniform set of regulations in 19 economic sectors, but the rules governing the most important market — the oil and gas sector — may not be in place before 2025.
A union that includes Ukraine, with its population of 44 million (more than twice that of Kazakhstan and four times greater than Belarus), would have a more diversified economy and strong — if severely strained — ties to Russia’s industrial complex.
“From an economic point of view, Ukraine’s market and strong industrial base could have been a crucial element in the development of the integration process,” writes Timofei Bordachev, a prominent Moscow economist. He says that Ukraine could have acted as a counterweight to Kazakhstan, “whose political importance now outweighs its real potential” and that it “could have offered constructive opposition to Russia.”
And therein lies the problem. If Mr. Putin’s grand project is based on a vision of ethnic nationalism, he needs to continue putting pressure on Ukraine, including support for the Russian-speaking separatists in the east and south. If his priority is a Eurasian union, which depends upon international cooperation, he needs to include Ukraine.
The vision of ethnic solidarity might be tempting for the Kremlin because it is a proven tool to rally domestic support for almost any policy. But it’s a dangerous path that would further isolate Russia. The integration project, however difficult and less popular, has the potential to eventually produce lasting ties between Russia and the world.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.