Vladimir Putin’s Dreams Of Strategic Depth

Even as America itself crumbles, the American Idea continues to pre-occupy the Continental mind. The EU, the euro and Maastricht all have their roots in early 20th century European fears of looming American power and economic scale – whether the shirts were red, brown or with French cuffs. The Corporal’s solution of forced integration to meet America in the 1950s or 60s as an equal? A variation on a theme.

Due to modern technology and the communication it makes possible, the international relations among peoples have become so close that the European, even without being fully conscious of it, applies as the yardstick for his existence the conditions of American life …

Today, the euro’s brittle weakness underscores the fundamental flaw of that post-war alternative, EU model. Economic integration must be married to the political.

Putin and many Russians have always known this. Indeed, in 1991, had Gorbachev been a better politician, the plan was to replace the Soviet Union with a confederacy of independent states. All those ideas hastily tossed after the botched coup.

Now, Putin openly makes the case for an integrated economic space to achieve the economies of scale and depth necessary to be a viably independent player on the world stage. Putin isn’t trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. Why should he? It failed. His goal is a more modern geo-strategic equivalent. Its starting point? A common customs integration among Belarus and Kazakhstan. Other ‘Stans are expected to hop on board soon according to Putin (and let’s overlook that Belarus suspended participation this summer when its economy stumbled).

There is no talk about rebuilding the USSR in one way or another. It would be naive to try to restore or copy something that belongs to the past, but a close integration based on new values and economic and political foundation is a demand of the present time.

Putin’s concept of a ‘Eurasian Union’ naturally triggers alarm bells across Eastern Europe, in former Soviet republics and even here. The Russian Right, after all, has long pushed for Moscow’s re-assertion across the Near Abroad. The Georgian War is a recent memory. Russian coercive energy politics blatant. Putin, however, is thinking about more than traditional Soviet nostalgia. His views on scale, international order and power are linked to his Continental predecessors from 100 years ago. Putin seeks to have Russia become the gatekeeper and driving force controlling a free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This is literally his continental answer.

As President (again) Putin signals he will protect Russian interests in the Near Abroad that many in Russia say have been neglected. He also seeks to squash Polish and Swedish efforts to cultivate their own gatekeeper role by reaching out to former Soviet republics.

The essential anachronism is not the Soviet Union. It’s ironically trying to beat last century’s American model. Japan, 1945-1989 remains the poster child for successful State Capitalism. The 4 Tigers and China followed. Asian mercantilist development created unprecedented wealth without old fashioned scale, using instead international markets and American tragedy of the commons. Singapore, a single city, enjoys enormous wealth and regional influence. Putin is re-mixing the Old Skool beats. (To be fair, Putin can point to Brazil and India as modern examples with domestic developmental scale).

Nonetheless, Putin’s Eurasian Zone implicitly assumes the existing international order and markets will pass. He’s recently said the U.S. economy is an unsustainable ‘parasite’ – provocative language he deliberately uses for domestic Russian politics and his own lexical preference. His vision hints at something new, more explicitly zero sum, whether it be for natural resources, capital, access to consumers, etc.

We end where we began above. The euro crisis shows economic integration also requires political/policy integration. There’s little doubt Moscow expects nothing less with its embryonic zone. Putin’s initial hand isn’t all aces. Even Belarus, a traditional Moscow ally, is pushing back on Russian controlling interests in their state industries. As a role model, Russia is not what it was during Putin’s early years. Today’s Russia faces significant fiscal and development problems. Oil wealth is a fickle thing. Deficits are expected to explode. Capital is leaving the country. Demographics remain shaky. Even Putin realizes corruption eludes his own boundaries. The military’s been promised modernization, too.

Medvedev as next Prime Minister will drink the poisoned chalice of overseeing cutbacks, falling standards of living, etc. He will have to knock over many rice bowls.

For Putin to set forth a new vision of a globally pivotal Russia now? Smart politics. The forthcoming campaign even Putin admits will be a nadir of dirty, destructive politics. A Russian-led zone that aims to referee integration with Europe provides an optical distraction. Putin also must hope it buys some time, too.