The Eurasian Customs Union expands

Ukraine enters as observer, while Kyrgyzstan joins the Moscow-dominated Union.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | June 6, 2013

The realization of Vladimir Putin’s “Eurasianist” agenda of reasserting Russian hegemony over the former Soviet Bloc has just scored a significant success. On May 31, the Central Asian post-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) — consisting of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—while Ukraine acquired observer status in the Kremlin-dominated body. This article will focus on the latter country.

The expansion of the Eurasian Customs Union is significant because customs unions have historically served to bring about economic integration which, in turn, paved the way for political integration. For example, the post-Napoleonic German Customs Union (Zollverein) helped unify Germany under the Prussian scepter. In more recent times, the Euro-federalists are utilizing commerce and a common currency to undermine the nation-state (hence, Karl Marx’s support for free trade) and consolidate their European super-state. Such agreements are never just about trade, and Putin knows this very well.

As soon as Ukraine’s Russian-born prime minister, Mykola Azarov, signed the memorandum granting Kyiv observer status in the ECU, a cleavage immediately appeared. The Ukrainians declared that their shift towards the ECU by no means diminishes their commitment to integration with the EU. The Russians, in accord with their characteristic “us vs. them” attitude, warned that Ukraine cannot have it both ways.

Since achieving independence in 1991, post-Soviet Ukraine has been torn between the Atlanticist aspirations of its western and central parts and the Moscow-oriented leanings of its Russified and heavily Sovietized east and south. The Orange Revolutionaries swung the pendulum in favor of the former, while the returning post-Soviets—in the form of the currently governing Party of Regions—diverted it back toward the latter. (In fact, Ukraine’s unreconstructed communists, whose popularity is disturbingly on the rise, support joining the ECU). Kyiv’s policy of “balancing” between Russia and the West has increasingly yielded to a drift towards Moscow.

In this context, some analysts nevertheless caution against assuming Ukraine’s post-Soviet establishment wishes to reincorporate the Central and Eastern European nation into a restored Russo-Eurasian empire. They argue, however Russified and Sovietized, the ruling Ukrainian elite and oligarchs would no doubt prefer the role of the sovereign masters of their own polity than that of servile boyars dependant on the whims of Putin or any other ruler reigning in the Kremlin. While there is indeed some validity to this theory, its problem is that it views the Ukrainians as completely in charge of their historical destiny. Simultaneously, it ignores other actors on the geopolitical stage, Russia in particular.

Even if the desire of the Yanukovych-Azarov clique to remain “big fish in a small pond” trumps the impact of post-communist connections and kinship, Moscow nevertheless remains the stronger party and has many ways, especially energy, to pressure Ukraine to do its bidding. As history has shown, Ukraine is the key to either rebuilding or containing any Russian empire.

However, there are additional factors facilitating the reintegration of Ukraine into Putin’s Eurasianist empire. First and foremost is the lack of American leadership and interest in Central and Eastern Europe and post-Soviet successor states. The Obama administration’s pet project, the “reset” policy with Russia, has deepened the sense of insecurity among many former “captive nations,” who fear that America will not support them vis-à-vis Moscow, and emboldened the Kremlin.

In addition, the nations of the Intermarium—the vast region situated between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas—have so far failed to generate greater geopolitical and economic unity. They have largely dealt with both the German-dominated EU and Russia unilaterally, rather than as a bloc. As a result, their common interests have suffered and the heart of Europe has been cut in two by the Schengen Line, thereby economically binding countries like Poland and the Czech Republic to Germany and Ukraine and Belarus to Russia. Although Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczyński, worked to forge a pro-American Intermarium bloc with sufficient strength to at least partly balance the Russo-German strategic partnership, his death over Smolensk saw Warsaw’s retreat from the project and Moscow’s renewed offensive to fill the vacuum.

Unless the two negative trends outlined above are reversed, it is likely that Russia will continue to successfully reintegrate Ukraine into its Eurasianist sphere of hegemony.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.