The World

What Ever Happened to Putin’s Dream of a Eurasian Union?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. 

Photo by Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin traveled to Sevastopol today for a celebration of Russia’s annual Victory Day holiday as well as an affirmation of Russia’s now all-but-confirmed annexation of Crimea. “I think 2014 will also be an important year in the annals of Sevastopol and our whole country, as the year when people living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, and thus confirmed their faith in the historic memory of our forefathers,” Putin said in a speech broadcast throughout Russia.

Amid all the triumphalism, it’s easy to forget that reuniting Crimea with Russia was not Putin’s goal in the first place. Before President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine was overthrown in February, Russia’s major priority was the formation of Eurasian Economic Union, including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, meant to promote greater economic integration between the former Soviet states and counter European influence in the region.   

Ukraine’s participation was off the table after Yanukovych’s ouster and the events of the past two months have made it even more unlikely in the future. With Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko—a onetime staunch Russian ally whose personal relationship with Putin has appeared badly frayed for the last few years—openly voicing discomfort about Russian actions in Crimea, the rest of the planned union appeared unlikely as well.

Minsk and Moscow have evidently ironed out their differences, with Lukashenko announcing today, “We won’t block signing of this agreement. We managed to resolve issues which worried us.” The “issues” referred specifically to a long-standing dispute over oil duties. As Reuters notes, the alliance could turn out to be a costly one for Russia:

Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov told Reuters in March that Belarus and Kazakhstan received about $6 billion annually from Russia in direct and indirect support and said that could increase by $30 billion if all trade restrictions were lifted in 2015 after the union is created.

Ukraine was always the linchpin in the Eurasian Union plan. Aside from the symbolic value of reuniting two countries with a huge amount of shared history in some form of strong political alliance, there’s the sheer size of it. Ukraine has a larger population than Kazakhstan and Belarus combined. (Though energy-rich Kazakhstan has a larger economy.)

I was clearly a bit too skeptical back in February about Putin’s ability to transform the Ukraine crisis to his advantage, but it’s still the case that while today’s parades in Russian-controlled Crimea aren’t a bad consolation prize, the grand Eurasian alliance the president was aiming for isn’t materializing the way he hoped it would