MOSCOW—As the Putin-Trump bond appears to grow stronger by the day, the idea that Washington will simply cede to Moscow its desired “sphere of influence” is sinking in on the collective consciousness of Russia’s neighboring states. What used to be called “the near abroad” is quickly becoming “the fear abroad.”
What is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s real plan for the former component pieces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR—that crumbled in 1991 a quarter of a century ago?
That is one huge puzzle, and while several leaders of former Soviet republics welcome access to Russia’s market, they are not ready to surrender their political power to a resurgent Russian empire.
The first to show a fit of nerves in public is Putin’s closest ally, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is now threatening to jail anyone who insults Belarusian identity or calls for a merger of Belarus into the Russian state.
Lukashenko, who is known in the West as “Europe’s Last Dictator” and at home as “Batka” (Father), is warning former Soviet republics: “One should be cautious with Russia.”
If U.S. intelligence is right and Vladimir Putin was actually personally involved in a hacking campaign that helped Donald Trump win the American presidency, that must have happened for a reason. Does Putin think such a bold and risky move would give him free rein for his ambitions?
But that bigger picture is blurry.
If he really does get the green light from Trump, Putin could be planning to take more control of the Commonwealth of Independent States, to which many former Soviet republics belong. Or he could move Russian borders to wherever people speak Russian, to create the so-called Russky Mir (Russian World).
Or maybe Putin needs Trump’s help to reconstruct the entire old USSR?
After Trump’s victory, President Putin was in a great mood, and even joked to kids at a recent event linked to the study of geography: “Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere,” he said, chortling.
But in Belarus, they’re not laughing.
Last week Belarusian authorities arrested three local journalists, correspondents for the Russian online publication Regnum, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin, and Sergey Shiptenko, for inciting national hatred and calling Belarus “a mad pseudo-state.”
“Separatist calls are now strictly punished, our authorities promote values of our identity to make a point: We are an independent nation,” Irina Khalip, an independent journalist and analyst, told The Daily Beast. “Lukashenko is terrified by the annexation threat. He does not want to become some regional governor.”
If a few years ago anti-Lukashenko activists got in trouble for using the Belarusian language and national symbols, now banners promoting traditional values can be seen all over the country. One of them, for instance, depicts an office manager type who says that his favorite word is “pospekh” or “success”—in Belarusian.
Some symbols are suddenly irritating to the state authorities, especially the Ribbon of St. George, the major Russian military symbol.
On a recent afternoon a bus passenger spotted the ribbon on the driver’s rearview mirror in Brest, a town on the Belarusian-Polish border. The angry passenger reported it to the local authorities, who officially forbade drivers of public transportation to use the ribbon, which was very popular among pro-Russian rebels in Donbas and in Crimea, after the annexation.
In Moscow, certainly, grand dreams are growing grander by the moment. The chair of the public Movement of Development, Yuri Krupnov, says he hopes that Putin’s plan is much bigger than just the reconstruction of the USSR. “The plan is to unite the entire Eurasian continent,” said Krupnov. “But our economy is too weak right now, so it is unclear what economic revolution the president is planning for all these countries in this coming year. It should be something grand enough to mark the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.”
But the optimism unleashed by Trump’s victory in the United States must also contend with Putin’s not-so-impressive record during 16 years in power trying to extend Russia’s spheres of influence.
“All of Putin’s previous unions failed, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States,” independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told The Daily Beast. “China did not agree to help Putin revive the SCO, so today Putin is looking at Japan, looking for other allies in Asia. The circle of Putin’s wandering around the world is growing smaller.”
Certainly the first thing Russia wants from Trump is to get rid of economic sanctions imposed after Putin annexed Crimea and started supporting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. Then he can start rethinking grand designs for the near abroad.
“All the geopolitical models created by Putin’s minion Vladislav Surkov have failed, including Novorossia and Russky Mir,” said Krupnov.
“To move forward, to create a bigger Eurasia, we need to find some artificial way to boost our economy and make Russia attractive for the countries it is going to lead,” Krupnov told The Daily Beast.
Which way would that be?
Clearly, that part of the plan is still a secret.