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Dec 5, 2012 | 11:32 GMT

Russia Moves to Reinforce Its Alliances

Russia Moves to Reinforce its Alliances
STR/AFP/GettyImages
Summary

Russia is expanding its efforts to solidify and institutionalize its influence in the former Soviet states that are most politically aligned with Moscow. On Dec. 4, Russian military chief Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov said that the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance has plans to construct an integrated air and missile defense system among security bloc members. His announcement came a day after Kyrgyz Economy Minister Temir Sariev said that Kyrgyzstan would join the Moscow-led Customs Union in 2014.

Increasing economic and security integration with these countries will be key to Russia's goal of forming a Eurasian Union by 2015 and, more important, bolstering the country's presence in its periphery as its region evolves and becomes less predictable.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization and Customs Union have been important institutions for gauging Russian power since Moscow re-emerged as a formidable regional player in the mid-2000s. The military alliance — which has consisted of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and, until recently, Uzbekistan — is responsible for security integration and cooperation, while the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan deals with economic integration.

The military alliance saw substantial activity in the late 2000s, when it began to hold more frequent training exercises and expanded its size and scope to include the military alliance's Rapid Reaction Force. In 2010, Russia established the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan with the aim of gradually phasing out customs duties and increasing trade among member states. In November 2011, Russia announced that it would seek to form the Eurasian Union by 2015, which would essentially merge the security and economic blocs and possibly expand membership in the unified organization to other states. 

However, challenges and setbacks faced by each bloc in recent years have impeded the formation of the Eurasian Union. According to its charter, the Collective Security Treaty Organization could have deployed peacekeepers to defend the security of its member states on several occasions, including the ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2011 and the instability in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan in 2012. But Russia opted against intervention in such cases, raising questions about the intent and capabilities of the bloc. Moreover, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the security alliance in June and officially left soon thereafter over what it says was politicization of the group by Russia. This dealt a blow to the bloc's image and caused concern in Moscow that Tashkent might be considering strengthening security ties with other powers, including some in the West.

The Customs Union has also produced mixed results. While trade among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has grown since the union was established, it is behind schedule in phasing out some duties, and disagreements persist, particularly between Russia and Belarus, over what to do about existing duties on energy and certain key goods. The anticipated expansion of the Customs Union to include countries such as Ukraine also has not materialized, despite Russia's persistent attempts to convince Kiev to join. Kyrgyzstan had officially expressed interest in joining the Customs Union, but the time frame for its accession was unclear until recently.

In addition to the operational challenges each bloc has experienced, Russia's attempts to expand the Customs Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization into other former Soviet states have also run into problems. Regional divisions have been so rife that Uzbekistan — long the region's most independent-minded country — decided to act out against Russia's integration plans and leave the bloc. Ukraine, another country with which Russia is trying to integrate economically, was alarmed by Moscow's attempt to take control of Ukrainian state energy firm Naftogaz, and Kiev has consequently grown resistant to joining the Customs Union.

In this context, the announcements about the joint anti-aircraft/anti-missile shield and Kyrgyzstan's Customs Union timetable are notable. Russia appears to be shifting its focus from expanding the membership of these blocs to cementing its ties with the existing members that have proved most willing to work with Moscow. With 2015 approaching rapidly, Russia wants to make sure it is as integrated as possible with these states in both the economic and security realms. In addition, Russia's push for an integrated air and missile defense system is intended to send a message to NATO and the United States, which are trying to secure partners for NATO's Central European missile defense system over Russia's objections.

Russian Allies in Eurasia

Russian Allies in Eurasia

Member states in each bloc are the most obvious candidates for the Eurasian Union. Kyrgyzstan's membership in the Customs Union in 2014 would open the door for Tajikistan shortly thereafter. The only outlier would be Armenia — a complicated case given that the country does not share a border with Russia or any other Customs Union member. However, this is more of a technical question, since Armenia's economy is already dominated by Russia and the country is closely aligned with Moscow on security and military matters, even hosting 5,000 Russian troops.

This is not to say that Russia is content with its institutionalized influence being limited to these countries. Indeed, Moscow has officially laid out an ambitious agenda for its Eurasian Union. However, due to the changing regional dynamics surrounding many of these member states — such as China's increased economic presence and influence in Central Asia and Europe's efforts to diversify its energy sources away from Russian energy — it has become imperative for Moscow to try to lock down these states now.

Even these countries occasionally pose challenges for Russia — a consequence of internal instability in some cases and bilateral disputes with Moscow in others. But Russia knows that without a solid foundation for economic and security collaboration with countries already in the Customs Union or the military alliance, attracting other regional powers would become even more difficult.

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