MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin moved Thursday to further bolster his nation’s ties to former Soviet republics, as Russia’s relationships with the United States and Europe continue to fray over the conflict in Ukraine.
Putin met Thursday with his counterparts from Kazakhstan and Belarus in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to initiate the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union. Putin has long sought to form the bloc in hopes that it would provide an Eastern counterweight to economic and political powerhouses such as the European Union and the United States.
The new codes of the union, scheduled for launch on Jan. 1, will give the citizens of member states equal employment and education opportunities across all three nations. The three presidents also said Thursday that the deal would involve collaborative policies on key sectors, including energy, technology, industry, agriculture and transport.
“A new geoeconomic reality of the 21st century is being born today,” said Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. The deal, 20 years in the making, was “a hard-won achievement,” he said, and “a blessing for our people.”
“It’s your success, if not to say triumph,” Putin told Nazarbayev, according to Interfax.
Kazakh First Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev told reporters in Astana that the three countries had not yet discussed the possibility of instituting a single currency, Interfax said.
Meanwhile, Russia’s regional moves continue to spur anxiety. Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Ryszard Schnepf, told reporters in Washington on Thursday that his country is looking for a clear commitment of support from President Obama during his visit next week. Schnepf said Poland would welcome a greater U.S. military presence in the region as a check against potential Russian aggression.
He said Europe and the United States “need to take the steps to prevent the future possible aggressions.”
Some analysts quickly dismissed the Eurasian Economic Union, saying it was likely to have little practical impact.
“I don’t believe that the Eurasian union is [going to be] able to open the door for modernization,” said Alexey Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center. “That’s a big deal, because without modernization and real economic reforms, what does it mean, this union?"
But the idea of a Eurasian union has become particularly attractive to the Kremlin in recent months, as the crisis in Ukraine has sent U.S.-Russian relations tumbling to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Western powers have leveled sanctions against key Russian figures linked to the country’s annexation of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region two months ago, and broader sanctions may be on the way.
In March, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Putin of seeking to revive the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. The Soviet Union included Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and 11 other states, most of which remain under Russia’s powerful influence.
Putin has denied any intention to annex former Soviet republics, even though Moscow has supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and other former Soviet lands.
And Putin said Thursday that other countries were already scrambling to join the Eurasian Union. The participants discussed Armenia’s potential membership during their meeting. But it was unclear which other countries Putin thinks will join.
It also remained unclear whether the union would constitute an economic arrangement or something more political, Malashenko said. The crisis in Ukraine has made it “clear” that the Eurasian union is largely “a tool for Russia to realize its political goals,” he said. And for other would-be members, the sanctions have cast a pall over the entire union.
Still, inside Russia, many people are frustrated with what they see as domineering U.S. foreign policy and economic might, and they are angry at Russia’s flagging economy and endemic corruption. The combination makes the idea of a Russian revival, commanding new attention on the world stage, increasingly popular. And, thus, so is the concept underpinning the Eurasian Economic Union.
Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest tragedy in Russian history, and many Russians echo that rhetoric.
Inspired in part by mostly pro-Kremlin local media, Russians say they see value in the kind of strength and intimidating presence embodied by the Soviet Union, and they express support for Putin’s efforts to demonstrate that strength abroad.
Zachary A. Goldfarb in Washington contributed to this report.