U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference that Russia is attempting to "re-Sovietize" Eastern Europe and Central Asia, referring to Russia's plans to establish the Eurasian Union by 2015. Clinton voiced U.S. opposition to such plans and Russian officials responded by dismissing her statements, stating that the Eurasian Union was about economic integration and that using the Soviet term was a cliché.
Such back-and-forth between Russia and the United States is reminiscent of the days of the Cold War, and would on the surface appear to conflict with the U.S. reset policy towards Russia. But what this rhetoric reveals is that the geopolitical tensions between the two countries have never really gone away, particularly when it comes to competition between Moscow and Washington over the former Soviet states on Russia's periphery.
The Eurasian Union will likely be Russia's primary avenue for re-establishing influence in its near abroad in the coming years. Beginning with a Customs Union that Russia launched with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010, Moscow's goal is to expand this economic grouping in scope and in membership to form the Eurasian Union. Already Kyrgyzstan has formally applied to join, and Russia has been trying to get other former Soviet states — particularly Ukraine — to join the union as well. Though Russia has officially denied that such a grouping would be anything more than economic in nature, it is no secret that Russia wishes to bring these countries closer to its orbit in the political and security realms.
One of the main driving forces behind such a project would be to not only entrench Russia's influence in these countries, but also to make sure that foreign influence — especially from the United States — stays out. Fresh in Russia's mind is the wave of color revolutions that spread across the former Soviet space in the previous decade, from Ukraine to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan. This happened at a time of relative Russian weakness, when Russia was recovering from the economic chaos of the 1990s and getting its own political house in order. In the following decade, Russia was able to recover much of its power, which was backed by high oil and natural gas prices, combined with U.S. distraction the Middle East and South Asia.
Russia has been able to push back on Western influence in many former Soviet countries and sought to build off of these gains by institutionalizing its influence via the Eurasian Union. This has obviously caught the attention of the United States, which is interested in limiting Russian influence. The question moving forward is whether the United States will have the ability to follow through with Clinton's firmly worded statements. Despite the conclusion of the war in Iraq and the looming withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is not exactly overflowing with resources to double down on Russia. The Middle East is still flaring, and East Asia (not Europe) has been determined by the Obama administration as a foreign policy priority. Perhaps more importantly, the chaotic experience of several countries in the post-color revolution period makes them less open to Western influence and political intervention.
This makes it difficult for the United States to truly stand up to Russia in its periphery in the manner it did in the mid-2000s. But this is not to say that Russia has overtaken the region — far from it. Moscow has faced its own complications in its Eurasian integration plans, as many of its neighbors are also wary of what they see as too much Russian integration and encroachment. These dynamics will make Russia's pursuit of building up the Eurasian Union a complex and contested effort in the coming years.