NEW YORK – The escalating conflict in Ukraine between the Western-backed government and Russian-backed separatists has focused attention on a fundamental question: What are the Kremlin’s long-term objectives? Though Russian President Vladimir Putin’s immediate goal may have been limited to regaining control of Crimea and retaining some influence in Ukrainian affairs, his longer-term ambition is much bolder.
That ambition is not difficult to discern. Putin once famously observed that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Thus, his long-term objective has been to rebuild it in some form, perhaps as a supra-national union of member states like the European Union.
This goal is not surprising: declining or not, Russia has always seen itself as a great power that should be surrounded by buffer states. Under the Czars, Imperial Russia extended its reach over time. Under the Bolsheviks, Russia built the Soviet Union and a sphere of influence that encompassed most of Central and Eastern Europe. And now, under Putin’s similarly autocratic regime, Russia plans to create, over time, a vast Eurasian Union.
While the EAU is still only a customs union, the European Union’s experience suggests that a successful free-trade area leads over time to broader economic, monetary, and eventually political integration. Russia’s goal is not to create another North American Free Trade Agreement; it is to create another EU, with the Kremlin holding all of the real levers of power. The plan has been clear: Start with a customs union – initially Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan – and add most of the other former Soviet republics. Indeed, now Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are in play.