A fortune-telling piece published in the Financial Times yesterday attempts to predict the post-Putin future relationship between Russia and Europe, and offers some theories about why a Putin-led CIS Customs Union is unlikely to succeed.
Moscow’s current geopolitical goal, shaped by President Vladimir Putin’s nostalgic obsession with the country’s imperial past, is to recreate in a new guise something akin to the old Russian empire or the more recent Soviet “union”.
Mr Putin seems to harbour the naive notion that the leaders of the post-Soviet states will genuinely accept a subordinate role in a Kremlin-led entity. Some of the leaders do pay occasional lip service to that formula – but out of necessity, not conviction. All prefer independence: it is more pleasant to be presidents, prime ministers, generals, ambassadors and economic moneymakers at home rather than to be the provincial equivalents thereof in a larger Russian empire. The historically proven fact is that national statehood, once attained, is infectious and almost impossible to undo except through massive external force.
Today’s Russia is in no position to assert a violent restoration of its old empire. It is too weak, too backward and too poor. Its demographic crisis makes matters worse. The fact that the newly independent Central Asian states favour increasingly comprehensive arrangements with China is another concern for Russia, reawakening long lingering territorial nightmares.
It is only a question of time before it becomes evident to Russia’s social elites that Mr Putin’s heavy-handed efforts have very limited prospects of success. Sooner or later, he will no longer be president. And not long thereafter Russia – and especially its emerging new middle class – will conclude that the only path that makes sense is to become also a truly modern, democratic, and maybe even a leading European state.