This is the second of a five-part series looking at the issues facing Ukraine and Moldova as they prepare to sign major agreements with the EU next month.
Mess with Moscow and you’ll be sorry.
That’s the message the Kremlin is sending Ukraine and Moldova as they move closer to signing key agreements with the European Union next month.
Russia fears the deals will pull the former Soviet republics further out of its orbit. With only weeks to go, the Kremlin is using economic coercion and political manipulation to try to convince Kyiv and Chisinau that a future aligned with Moscow would be more promising.
That future would lie in joining a series of economic projects aimed at cobbling together the remnants of the Soviet Union to achieve the Kremlin’s grand goal of establishing a so-called Eurasian Union.
President Vladimir Putin’s personal vision, the Eurasian Union is based on a current Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It aims to carve out a massive economic market in the region that would preserve “the historic Eurasian community in the new century,” Putin told a gathering of Western experts in Russia last month.
“Earlier, these projects were just priorities on paper, but now they’ve become quite an active component of Russian foreign policy,” said Irina Kobrinskaya, a senior researcher at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Ukraine plays a particularly important role in the Kremlin’s vision. A country of around 45 million people with a GDP of more than $180 billion, it’s a key market without which Putin’s planned union would be dead on arrival, analysts say.
Moldova is less important economically. But it is home to the pro-Russian separatist Transnistria region, which survives on a political and economic lifeline from Moscow and serves as the Kremlin’s base of influence on Europe’s eastern border.
Russia has made it more than clear that it would allow neither Ukraine nor Moldova to join the customs union while also integrating with the EU. So as those two countries have moved closer to signing — or, in Moldova’s case, initialing — free trade and association agreements at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius next month, Moscow has ramped up the pressure.
In July, it banned imports from leading Ukrainian candy maker Roshen, citing substandard quality. A month later, it halted all Ukrainian imports at the Russian border for a week in a move observers said would have cost the Ukrainian economy some $2.5 billion by the end of the year if the imports had remained blocked.
Experts in Moscow say those moves were a warning to Ukraine that its preferential trade regime with Russia, which waives tariffs on many imports, will disappear at Kyiv’s expense if it signs a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU.
“Ukraine will move to the category of ‘normal’ countries from Russia’s point of view: not a country that is seen as a potential part of the Russian sphere, but a country like any other,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Russian officials argue such measures will be necessary to stem an influx of European goods onto the Russian market — and they’ve done so with impassioned rhetoric.
“We have no idea why Ukraine is signing this agreement,” Sergei Glazyev, the Kremlin’s economic advisor, told the Rossiya 24 network last month, warning that the move would prove catastrophic for Ukraine. “It will cut the roots of our economic cooperation.”
Moldova has also felt the effects of Russia’s displeasure.
Moscow has banned wine imports and recently announced that almost 20,000 Moldovan migrants in Russia — a significant source of remittances for the impoverished country — are violating immigration laws and would be barred from entry.
Russia also sent its influential military industrial chief, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, to Chisinau and Transnistria to personally warn Moldovan officials that European integration would have disastrous effects.
He said Chisinau threatens to exacerbate tensions with the staunchly pro-Moscow Transnistria and issued a thinly veiled threat suggesting that Moscow may cut gas supplies later this year.
"Energy supplies are important in the run-up to winter,” Reuters reported Rogozin as saying on Sept. 4. “I hope you won't freeze.”
Brussels isn’t happy.
In one of the EU’s most pointed statements to date, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule railed against Moscow’s pressure on its former subjects.
“Let me be clear: the development of the Eurasian Economic Union project must respect our partners' sovereign decisions,” he said in a statement. “Any threats from Russia linked to the possible signing of agreements with the European Union are unacceptable.”
Such rhetoric seems to have only emboldened Moscow, however. Now, the Kremlin is setting its sights on EU countries that have encouraged Ukraine and Moldova’s drift toward Europe.
Last week, Russia suspended imports of all dairy products from Lithuania, a former Soviet republic of about 3 million that currently holds the EU presidency. Once again, Russian officials cited concerns over quality.
But while economics and energy are at the top of Russia’s integration agenda, they aren’t the only factors.
The Kremlin has increasingly played up the cultural, ethnic and spiritual ties among former Soviet states in an effort to bring them closer into its orbit.
It has dispatched Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill on working trips during the summer to Ukraine and Moldova, both heavily orthodox societies.
In Ukraine, home to a large ethnic Russian minority population, the Kremlin has aggressively promoted the establishment of Russian as an official state language. In Transnistria, meanwhile, the Kremlin is propping up a regime that has long considered itself part of Russian civilization.
Some Russian observers say European integration for post-Soviet Ukraine and Moldova will mean wresting them — and their significant ethnic Russian populations — away from their rightful place in a Moscow-led Eurasia.
“When we talk about the question of European integration of these states, questions arise from our government, as well as from the Russians who live in those countries, about the dangers of dwindling ties with Russia,” says Sergei Panteleyev, head of the Institute of the Russian Near Abroad, which advocates the interests of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Union.
He points to the Baltic countries, where he claims Russian minority populations — especially in Latvia and Estonia — have ended up disenfranchised after those countries joined the EU.
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How the Kremlin would retaliate if both countries conclude their agreements with Brussels remains unclear, however.
But many analysts agree that the greater battle for influence will continue, especially over Ukraine.
“When Russia started to increase the pressure, there was a feeling that Europe wouldn’t play an active role,” says Kobrinskaya, the foreign policy researcher.
Now, she adds, it’s clear the EU has joined the fight.