It took very little time for former (soon-to-be-once-again) Russian president Vladimir V. Putin to set the tone for his expected next twelve years of rule. Although it had been discussed before in the press, and certainly is not a new idea, Putin chose to introduce as his initial foreign policy statement the creation of a union with Russia of two former Soviet republics — Belarus and Kazakhstan. This step is conveniently characterized as strictly economic in intent and provides the basis for what Putin referred to as a “Eurasian Union.”
However, there has been no attempt to hide the broader ambition of this union. Putin openly suggested “new partners” would be welcomed. The image was drawn of a gathering of other countries, presumably the “near neighbors,” into something akin to the European Union. Even a common currency was mooted. At the same time, Putin’s article in Izvestia introducing his new theme made a point of stating, “There is no talk of re-forming the USSR.” If that’s the case, what is this new entity going to be?
The answer to that question has yet to be given — by anyone. It is clear, however, that soon-to-be President Putin intends to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017 at the least with an expanded customs union that has the force — if not the political fact — of a return of the Russian imperial dream. And that is a geo-strategic issue with which not only Europe and the United States will have to deal, but also China and the not distant Middle Eastern states.
While the new/old Putin/Medvedev tandem will swear there is no intention of resuscitating Cold War conflicts with the West, the potential exists for at least vigorous political and economic competition. Putin needs to stimulate the Russian body politic to enthusiastically support his return as the clear national leader and guide. The time for ambiguity is past. The Russian instinct to follow “the strongman” is counted on by Vladimir Putin to give support to the suggested union of Eurasian states as a return to the perceived political power and international influence of Russia’s past.
The question exists whether the objects of Russia’s — and Putin’s — affection will be as eager to share this expectation. Previous efforts at reducing trade barriers with Kazakhstan reportedly have driven up internal Kazakh energy and food costs. This of course is denied by pro-union elements in Moscow and Astana. There is money to be made in the expected increase in trade by the new union, but it will be the commercial insiders who will be the big winners. The argument is put forward as usual about a rising tide floating all boats. The local wags note that those are usually yachts owned by the already favored.
What hasn’t received much attention is the plan announced by Medvedev last March of the creation of a Russian Silicon Valley project outside of Moscow in Skolkovo. The pressure is on the Russian scientific and technological community to come up with breakthroughs in the world of commercial science. Putin is known to be fully behind this effort and expects it to be “bird dogged” personally by Medvedev when he again assumes his old role as PM. Attractive offers already have been circulating among expat Russian technical experts to return home to participate in what is touted to be this first major scale post-Soviet enterprise.
Part of Vladimir Putin’s vision of his next go-round as president is to put Russia in the forefront of commercial scientific and technological product design. To this end Russian foreign intelligence will have increased its industrial espionage activities in Europe, Japan and the United States. Russia is well aware of the advances that China has already made through its industrial spying operations. Naturally the Russian military establishment is expected to reap ancillary benefits, but the real objective is to gain recognition and profits for Russian civilian technology and, equally important, Putin’s own status as a modern innovative leader — with little Dimi’s aid, of course.
No Western leader has arisen as a major individual factor in world affairs. Nor has China pushed forward one of its own as a predominant star. As Putin sees it, the way is open for him to establish himself — and Russia with him — in the next twelve years as the leading actor on the global stage.
It is clear that Vladimir Putin is on the path to create a lasting legacy as a modern type of Russian Czar — even though that term is never used. As one veteran Moscow journalist put it in whispered confidentiality: “Vladimir Vladimirovich wants to be emperor — emperor of something, anything. Forget about looking for a more complicated motive.”