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May 10, 2017 | 10:09 GMT

Russia Regains Its Momentum Across Eurasia

Vladimir Putin and the CSTO
(ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union will soon gain more clout across Eurasia.
  • The region's precarious security environment and Europe's persistent divisions will force the blocs' members to cooperate more closely with Moscow.
  • But membership in the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union won't expand in the near future, limiting their use to Russia as a means of wielding influence in its periphery.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has worked hard to rebuild its influence in its former states. But the buffers the country once had, stretching from the Baltic states to Central Asia, have become more independent as time has passed. Though some have remained allies, others have formed new ties, more often than not with the West. For Russia, securing these borderlands is imperative, and it has used the tools at its disposal — including military cooperation and economic blocs — to do so. Until now, these organizations intended to bind Eurasia closer to Moscow haven't quite hit their stride. But the region is changing, in a way that may directly help further the Kremlin's goals.

From One Union to Another

The first institution Russia built to succeed the Soviet Union was the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It comprised all of the former Soviet republics with the exception of the Baltic states, which sought out partnerships with the European Union and NATO after gaining independence. Though the CIS was meant to replace the political, economic and security cooperation that existed before the Soviet Union fell, the group became largely symbolic, and its members developed domestic and foreign policies on their own. Eventually, Georgia, Ukraine and Turkmenistan left the bloc as tensions with Russia rose, leaving only nine official members behind. (Ukraine and Turkmenistan, however, remained associate members.)

Though the CIS sank into irrelevancy, two of its subgroups have emerged as Russia's premier integration blocs in Eurasia. One is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), established in 2002 to focus on security and military matters. It consists of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The other is the Eurasian Economic Union, which debuted in 2015 as a natural progression of the 2010 Customs Union formed between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The union currently contains all of the CSTO's members except Tajikistan and focuses, as its name suggests, on economic integration.

CSTO Members and EEU Members

At first the two blocs were seen as a sign of Russia's resurgence in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as Moscow used them to institutionalize its influence in its periphery. Russia was able to deepen its regional economic integration and clout through the Eurasian Economic Union while presenting the CSTO as an alternative to NATO, building Russia's image as a strong global power — especially against the West.

Integration Falls Short

The only problem for Russia was that its image didn't reflect reality. Only Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, while the CSTO lost Uzbekistan as a member in 2012. Lackluster participation in both blocs showed that less than half of the former Soviet states were willing to align more closely with Russia. The Baltic states were firmly entrenched in Western institutions, and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova hoped to someday follow in their footsteps. As for Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all three opted for neutrality when it came to international blocs, siding with neither East nor West.

Even the countries that regularly participate in Russia-led institutions have had disputes with Moscow within them. In the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia has had several economic spats over trade policy and export prices with other member states, particularly Belarus. Moreover, the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union in the beginning of 2015 came just months after the collapse of global oil prices and the passage of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its role in the Ukrainian conflict. Both dealt a heavy blow to the Russian economy, leading to three years of recession and a decline in trade between Russia and Eurasian Economic Union states.

In the CSTO, events within the borders of specific member states have exposed its limitations as a responsive military bloc. For example, Kyrgyzstan requested the bloc's intervention when violence broke out between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the country's southern provinces in 2010. But CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha — acting as a conduit for the Kremlin — declined, calling the conflict a domestic affair. The CSTO likewise chose not to get involved in the escalating dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016, despite the Armenian government's calls for the CSTO to provide political support.

The CSTO's cohesion most recently came into question when it had to nominate a successor to Bordyuzha, who had served as secretary-general since the bloc's establishment. The vote to determine his replacement was postponed several times last year, largely because Belarus and Kazakhstan opposed the appointment of an Armenian secretary-general. (The succession process was designed to go in alphabetical order, giving Armenia the first nomination.) Both countries have strong relationships with Azerbaijan and neither backed Armenia politically during the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. There was even speculation that they were against plans for an Armenian to take the helm of the military bloc altogether.

A Region's Changing Inclinations

Their rocky past aside, the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union have seen some positive developments in recent months. The impasse over the former's secretary-general appointment finally ended during an informal summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on April 14. At the meeting, all of the bloc's members — including Belarus and Kazakhstan — agreed to nominate Yuri Khachaturov, the long-serving chief of the General Staff of Armenia’s military, as the organization's next leader. The resolution, likely mediated and brokered by Moscow, put Khachaturov on the path to formally take office on May 2.

The appointment comes not a moment too soon. Militant attacks and protests are increasing across Eurasia, forcing CSTO countries to cooperate more closely with Russia on security and military issues than ever before. On April 19, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov said after a CSTO session that Central Asia would soon enter into the CSTO's unified air defense and anti-missile defense system. There have even been unconfirmed reports that the CSTO is considering the deployment of a rapid response force to Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Belarus and Russia reached an agreement in April on a monthslong deadlock over natural gas and debt disputes, spurring the Belarusian government to sign onto the Eurasian Economic Union's Customs Code. (Minsk had been the only holdout in signing the code, which sets uniform import duty rates across the bloc.) With Belarus in tow, the code can now take effect on July 1. Moldova, which has long leaned toward the West, also applied and was approved for observer status in the bloc on April 14. Moldovan President Igor Dodon has clearly been seeking closer economic and political ties with Russia for his country, and though observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union is nonbinding and falls short of actual membership, it signals the president's inclination to work with the bloc in the future.

The Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO are gaining momentum in Eurasia. A precarious security environment in the region, coupled with enduring divisions in the West, has left former Soviet countries with few options but to turn to these blocs and settle some of their differences. Still, the institutions will only be as effective as the number of members they have, and neither is likely to expand any time soon. Rather, the blocs will serve as just one part of Russia's broader efforts to extend its reach throughout its periphery as Moscow continues to contend and compete with the West in its standoff over the Eurasian borderlands.

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