MOSCOW— Russian President Vladimir Putin once described the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Two decades later, he is laboring to create what some critics call a "Soviet Union Light."
On a visit Friday to the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, President Putin oversaw the signing of a 30-year extension of Russia's lease on three military bases there, home to 7,000 troops and Russia’s largest military deployment outside its borders.
In return for the lease extension, Russia promised to give Tajik migrants work permits valid for up to three years. Every year, one million Tajiks working in Russia send home $3 billion, crucial aid for their impoverished nation.
As the base deal was being signed, warplanes from Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - all former Soviet republics - began 10 days of joint air-defense drills, codenamed “Clear Sky.”
Meanwhile, back home in Moscow, members of Russia’s Duma were celebrating Monday’s electoral defeat of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvhili. The new prime minister of Georgia is to be Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his billions in Moscow in the 1990s.
Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said in Tbilisi that Russian officials believe time is on their side. Moscow ruled Georgia for almost two centuries, including the 70 years it was part of the Soviet Union, and wants to restore the ties that were broken during the two countries brief war in 2008.
“Russians wants to restore diplomatic relations,” Rondeli said. “Russians want Georgia to accept reality, as they say, and to accept this Russian advancement into the Caucasus.”
One year ago, presidential candidate Vladimir Putin announced a goal of creating a Eurasian Union by 2015. Lawrence Sheets, South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, said one big step toward that goal is winning back Georgia.
Sheets, speaking in his office in Tbilisi, said President Putin is trying to reassert Russia's influence abroad, to establish "some sort of rump Soviet Union, if you like, [and] also to put pressure on Georgia, so that Georgia comes back to the fold.”
Indeed, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday that he will work to bring Georgia back into the Confederation of Independent States, a loose federation of nine of the 15 former Soviet republics.
Georgia, NATO "red line"
In Tbilisi, however, Prime Minister-apparent Ivanishvili, met with NATO’s top official for the South Caucasus and pledged his government will go forward with Georgia’s application to join the NATO alliance.
For Putin, NATO membership for Georgia would be crossing an unacceptable "red line."
Russia’s president envisages a federation of sovereign states, with everyone's foreign, defense and economic policies guided by the Kremlin. A common-currency project had been proposed, but that was shelved after the eurozone problems erupted.
Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst for Russia and the former Soviet Union at HIS Global, watches Putin’s progress from her office in London.
“Russia wants to become a global power broker," she said, "and it also wants to spread its ... political and economic influence, and it just makes logical sense for Putin to, first of all, reinstall [Moscow's] political and economic influence over the former Soviet countries.”
Winning over Ukraine
Putin’s first move came in January, when Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan joined a Moscow-dominated Customs Union. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are expected to join that group soon, but the big stumbling block has been Ukraine - the second largest member of the old USSR by population.
The Kremlin thought Ukraine was in the bag when Viktor Yanukovych was elected president there in January 2010. Yanukovych quickly extended Russia's lease on its Sevastopol naval base in Crimea by 25 years. Since then, however, he has tried to balance Moscow’s demands with Kyiv’s desire to join the European Union.
Over the last 18 months, a succession of Russian envoys dispatched to Ukraine to win further agreements have returned home empty-handed.
“There is an exaggeration of the ability of Putin, of the Russian government, to bring changes in other former Soviet states,” said analyst Gevorgyan. “They may have wishes. They may try to do something. But I do not see them having the power to actually bring to the helm of government their own guy.”
The 2015 deadline
Why did Putin say he wanted a Eurasian Union in place by 2015?
By then, some Moscow analysts predict the United States will be fully out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington will refocus its attention on Russia.
Of course, if Mitt Romney wins next month’s U.S. presidential election, that day could come sooner. The Republican candidate has singled out Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”