Russia wants new power bloc to counter West

A new political union, announced by Vladimir Putin as a major goal for his next presidency, will form a Eurasian counterpart to the EU. Some analysts see this as a major geopolitical threat.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who recently announced his intention to run for a third term as president, is on course to rule for as long as his notorious predecessor, Joseph Stalin.

And the similarities do not end there. Like Stalin, Putin presides over a corrupt and authoritarian government which is intolerant of criticism and holds an unshakeable monopoly on power. Also, Putin's Russia has a geopolitical approach which feels like a throwback to the Cold War.

Under Stalin in the 1940s and 50s, communist Russia sat at the heart of three concentric rings of allied nations. Outermost were international communist regimes in places like Africa or Latin America. These looked to Russia for direction and support, but maintained their independence.

Then there were the countries of the so-called 'Warsaw Pact' – Eastern European states liberated by Russian soldiers after the Second World War. Although governments in these countries were theoretically independent, they were really Russian puppets.

Finally there were the 'Soviet Republics' which, along with Russia, made up the USSR. These countries, like Ukraine, Estonia or Kazakhstan, were regarded as being part of the 'motherland' itself.

But in 1989, the Warsaw Pact countries broke away from Soviet rule. In 1991, in an event that Putin has called a 'geopolitical catastrophe', the USSR itself was broken up.

Russia was left impoverished, disempowered and alone. Meanwhile, the rival NATO alliance started absorbing nations going right up to the Russian border.

That is the situation Putin now wants to change. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has used oil wealth and military force to reassert Russia's importance on the world stage. He has crushed internal dissent, and is now starting the process of building a new international alliance to restore the Russian sphere of influence, starting with the ex-Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Belarus. In January, the three countries will become part of a grand 'Eurasian Union', with open borders and eventually even a shared currency. Putin hopes more countries will one day join.

Power politics

Armchair generals will say this is no cause to worry. Russia is in decline, demographically, politically and economically. An alliance with corrupt Kazakhstan and tiny Belarus is hardly going to trouble the might of NATO.

Diplomatic types will reply that military strength is beside the point. Once, it was possible to hope that nations would one day come to realise that everyone can prosper by working together, and cooperating on the world stage. Putin's new plan, however, signals a return to the 'zero sum' rivalries of the past, and is a major blow to dreams of a friendlier future.

You Decide

  1. Would a Eurasian Union be a good thing, a bad thing, or neither?
  2. Is it naïve to think countries can work together? Is conflict inevitable in world politics?

Activities

  1. Conduct an imagined dialogue between a Russian diplomat and one from a NATO country. How would their worldviews differ?
  2. See if you can find examples (from history, politics, economics or everyday life) of zero, positive and negative sum games. Which is which – and how does the 'sum' of the game affect how it is played?

Some People Say...

“This is the Cold War all over again.”

What do you think?

Q & A

'Zero sum'?
It's a term from the branch of maths called 'game theory'. A 'zero sum' game is a game where everyone is competing, as it were, for a piece of the same pie. If one person is winning – getting a bigger slice – someone else is losing out.
That sounds like a good description of international politics!
But it isn't. With international relations, countries can work together to increase the size of the pie itself. That's what happens with trade, for example: everybody wins. Games like this are called 'positive sum'.
So what's the problem?
Geopolitics is only a positive sum game if people cooperate. When there is hostility and mistrust, it can become zero sum. And in war, for example, the game is usually negative sum: everybody loses.

Word Watch

Vladimir Putin
Putin served two terms as President of Russia between 2000 and 2008. He was prevented from serving a third consecutive term by Russia's constitution, and so stepped down to become prime minister. The current president is Dmitri Medvedev, a loyal Putin ally who, it has just been announced, will step down in favour of Putin at upcoming elections.
Cold War
Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the USSR and its allies engaged in a long power struggle against NATO and the Western powers. Because the conflict never became a full-scale war, it is known as the Cold War.
Demographically
Russia faces a severe problem with the state of its population. Russians are getting older, birthrates are dropping and the number of workers is decreasing. This is likely to have severe negative effects on the economy.

Subjects

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