2. When East becomes stronger
BSSB.BE neweasterneurope.eu 20/07/2018
* For the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, or EaP, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union meant that independence was as much an urgent crisis as it was an overnight opportunity.
The success on the EU side was also due to a more flexible set of the alternative measures to engage Armenia, evident in the policy of the “differentiation” and based on a more realistic recognition of the limits and liabilities of Armenia as a partner.
And although Russian pressure on Armenia was apparently overwhelming back in 2013, in reality Moscow’s goal at that time was more to compel Armenia to “say no” to the EU than to “say yes” to the Customs Union. And now the victory stands out as a success in salvaging and redefining a relationship between the EU and Armenia, one that only enhances Armenia’s position within the Eastern Partnership.
But in terms of Armenia’s surprise second chance at reaching a new partnership agreement with the EU, there is also an important lesson from the 2013 Armenian decision to reject its Association Agreement and to turn instead to the Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. That lesson, most significantly for the other Eastern Partnership states, reveals more about Moscow than Yerevan. For example, it is now clear that the “U-turn” or sudden shift in the policy actually occurred in Moscow before Yerevan.
The absence of the Russian pressure on Armenia through the nearly four years of the negotiations over the Association Agreement suggests two conclusions.
- First, for the past several years, Moscow clearly failed to see the EU engagement as a real threat. Such a view may have been rooted in Moscow’s perception of the EU as neither a significant geopolitical actor, nor as a serious rival.
- Second, the rather last-minute shift Russia’s policy, as demonstrated by the imposition of coercive measures on the other states such as Moldova and Ukraine, viewed Armenia as more of a “sacrificial pawn”, designed to send a more important message of strength to deter any similar European aspirations by Chisinau and Kyiv.
On a broader level, therefore, this shift in Russia’s policy towards EU engagement stems from a much larger and more assertive Russian stance, driven by an attempt to consolidate Russian power and position within the former Soviet space and to deter Western “interlopers” in what Moscow views as its natural “sphere of influence” or the “near abroad” referred to as blizhneye zarubezhye (ближнее зарубежье), which was elevated and expanded into a wider “post-Soviet space”. Moreover, this trend of a boldly assertive Russia only deepened in recent years, and now is evident in the larger context of Moscow’s more aggressive and confrontational policies towards the West.
Another demonstration of this trend was Russia’s heavy-handed use of coercive measures targeting some of its neighbours. Yet, the utility of such a combative and assertive posture for Russian President Vladimir Putin, both politically and personally, is also important. As seen in Putin’s own personal imagery as a firm and decisive leader, the projection of a strong Russia endows a degree of power-based legitimacy for Putin too, a significant asset given his own decline in personal popularity. In this context, Putin exercised a much more combative and assertive “power posture”, allowing him to display strong leadership as defender of Russian interests.
Clearly, Ukraine remains the primary theatre of operations for Russia’s strategy of retrenchment within its “near abroad”, or the former Soviet space. As Russia seeks to define and defend its own sphere of influence among the former Soviet states, EU engagement is now seen as an unacceptable challenge, equivalent to the perception of NATO expansion as a direct threat to Russian interests.
Within this context, Russian policy consists of three primary objectives: 1) to undermine the implementation of the EU’s Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; 2) to divide and destabilise the EaP by weakening the top-tier states (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), and restraining the remaining states (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus); and 3) to consolidate Russian power and influence throughout its “near abroad” by leveraging a combination of hard power, or “hybrid war” in Ukraine, and soft power targeting the internal vulnerability of the other EaP member states.
One key component of this more assertive Russian policy of consolidating its “sphere of influence” in the near abroad is the launch of a revamped “Eurasian Union” project with broader reintegration of the former Soviet space. Against a backdrop of Russian power and coercion, the Eurasian Union concept represents an attempt to integrate the states within the near abroad. The move is a natural expansion of the existing Russian-led projects of reintegration based on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but with further building on both the Russian-dominated Customs Union.
Yet in many ways, the concept of the Eurasian Union is both incoherent and undefined, marked more by its lack of practical benefits and absence of any substance. Even the potential economic incentive for the states to enter the Eurasian Union is fairly weak, with membership offering meagre and marginal economic benefits while gains would mostly accrue to Russia.
While the Russian attempts to institutionalise the “reintegration” of the near abroad is not new, the timing suggests a belated Russian response to the recent trend of greater EU engagement along Russia’s periphery and a reaction to the Eastern Partnership. But the viability of the Eurasian Economic Union project was undermined by two developments, the obvious Russian loss of Ukraine and a rather unexpected resistance to Russian dominance by Belarus and Kazakhstan, each of them strongly defended their own economic interests and political independence within the Eurasian Economic Union.
Imperative to “bridge the divide”
Thus, for each of the Eastern Partnership states, the current course of deepening ties to the EU will depend as much on their own capacity for reform as on their capability to defend their own national interests and withstand Russian pressure. Thus far, the most instructive effort to accomplish these objectives and to effectively “bridge the divide” has been to forge co-operation and foster collaboration between the civil society and reformers within each of the Eastern Partnership states.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: neweasterneurope.eu