MOSCOW – Russia’s success in getting Ukraine to pull back at the last minute from signing an agreement with the European Union obscures a deeper trend: Moscow’s relations with its neighbors have been on a downward slope for several years, and they show no signs of improving.
Ties with EU members Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Lithuania have experienced sharp strains since Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. The deterioration is evident closer to home despite Putin’s considerable effort to restore Russian influence in the former Soviet space.
“Putin has a vision of Russian interests that’s shortsighted and counterproductive,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who teaches at Columbia University. “Russians misunderstand and overstate their leverage in most of the relations they screw up.”
Ukraine is not alone in being targeted by a Russia that uses restrictions and bans on trade as a weapon. Moscow seeks to punish neighbors economically if they disagree on policy.
European Union leaders on Thursday implored Ukraine to sign the landmark association agreement and reverse the geopolitical defeat they suffered last week when the former Soviet republic sought closer ties with Moscow instead of Brussels.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych shocked the 28-country bloc by freezing the long-negotiated deal days before it was due to be signed. EU leaders continued to express guarded optimism for the future even as the first day of a two-day EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, appeared to end on a low note for the bloc’s effort to change his mind.
However, the EU can still look forward to a bilateral summit with Ukraine sometime later this winter or early next spring.
About 10,000 demonstrators in Kiev on Thursday demanded the signing of the agreement. Nightly protests have taken place in the Ukrainian capital since Yanukovych said he wouldn’t sign the pact. Some of the protesters have kept up a round-the-clock presence in tent camps.
Yanukovych’s government says Ukraine cannot afford to sacrifice trade with Russia for closer ties to the EU. But demonstrators said that is short-term thinking that denies the long-term advantages of closer integration with Europe.
Despite clear Russian trade threats, two former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, still intended to initial association agreements with the EU on Friday. Moldova has far more trade with Europe than with Russia. Even its outlaw region of Transnistria, populated by ethnic Russians, carries on 30 to 40 percent of its foreign trade with Europe.
Georgia’s new government is ostensibly friendlier with Russia than the one that fought a war with Moscow in 2008, but not so friendly that it would turn its back on European ties and European markets that offer far more potential.
Russia has wielded trade bans against both countries, based on supposed sanitary infractions, and promises to keep doing so. That has been one of its main tactics against Ukraine this year.
Even as Russia tries to exert its will within the former Soviet Union, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a foreign policy magazine, wonders whether the country isn’t going through its “Little England” phase. That is, he said, Russia is still trying to find its place in the world after the downfall of an empire, just as Britain did after World War II, and that can involve a fair amount of small-minded petulance and occasional compensatory swaggering.
Russia’s bullying has won few friends among Ukrainians, who are wary of rushing into a deal to join Putin’s Customs Union and will now look for any counterweight they can find.
Even Belarus, already a member of the Customs Union, though a prickly one, recently had a nasty dispute with Russia over control of the fertilizer trade that included the jailing of a prominent Russian business executive. A faction within Belarus’ authoritarian government believes that Ukraine’s proposed deal with the EU will make it easier for their country to trade with Europe, and thus give it more leverage against Moscow.
And some, both in Moscow and in the West, question whether the triumph in the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy is actually worth it. European officials have made it clear they are mightily annoyed at Russia’s threats to harm the Ukrainian economy and at its frustrating Europe’s “Eastern Partnership.”
Yet Russia has far more trade with the EU than it does with Ukraine and its other post-Soviet neighbors: a 4-to-1 differential in exports, and nearly 3-to-1 in imports, said Alexei Kuznetsov, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO).
The Customs Union trade bloc currently consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Armenia, which at one point hoped to sign an agreement with the EU, gave in to Russian pressure and has asked to join with its post-Soviet neighbors. Putin has talked about creating a Slavic league, with its own values, that would be apart from Western Europe (although neither Armenians nor Kazakhs are Slavs). But the Customs Union was designed as simply a trade bloc.
The hope was that it would help its members’ economies modernize, but this hasn’t happened.
Putin appears to have been encouraged by U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision in 2009 to dial back American involvement in Russia’s neighbors, especially Georgia, Ukraine and Central Asia. At the time, Obama was hoping to improve relations with Moscow as part of his reset of relations, and he also realized that the former Soviet countries do not constitute a prime American interest.
If Putin felt he had a freer hand, he was neglecting the EU as well as the calculations of the neighboring nations themselves. Critics say Putin sees all foreign policy in light of Russia-U.S. relations, and this may blind him to the complications and nuances closer to home.