Tsar Vladimir I

During the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Netherlands next week, Prime Minister Rutte will not meet a leader who wants to appeal to the flattery of Europe, but a contemporary equivalent of a Russian Tsar. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 reversed the result of centuries of Russian imperial policy. Putin called it ‘a disaster’. He is determined to restore that sphere of influence by founding the Eurasian Union (EU) with several neighboring countries in 2015. Next to the ‘Brussels EU’ a new EU emerges with Moscow as its center and with Putin as its big boss.

The European Union underestimates the scope of what Putin has in mind. Officials in Brussels look to Russia with a feeling of moral superiority, as a country of political chaos, arbitrariness, Gazprom, oligarchs and unrepentant vodka drinkers. Brussels is, after all, the center of political modernity with all its connaiseurs of the better wines. That makes Brussels blind to the strategy of Tsar Vladimir I.

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are the hard core of the 'Moscow EU’. The three countries already have a customs union - a kind of Russian Benelux - with agreements on free trade and movement of people. Power is the cement. The Russian army and security services form a unity with the two partners. Russia may use military action in Belarus at its discretion and the bulk of the officers in the Kazakh military consist of ethnic Russians. Remarkably, the President of Armenia, Serzj Sarkisian, also attends summits of the customs union, although Armenia is not a member. However, the Armenians are in trouble with Azerbaijan and Turkey, so support from the mighty Moscow is more than welcome.

The customs union preceded the free trade agreement that was signed in 2011 between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. To the Kremlin, it was essential that Ukraine come under Russian influence again after the elections of 2010. Support from Moscow to the pro-Russian presidential candidate Janokovich proved a great success. These countries form the core of the Eurasian Union Putin intends to launch in 2015.

Putin is still working on some renegades like Georgia and Uzbekistan, who gradually return to the Russian sphere of influence. In Georgia, the days of President Saakashvili are numbered and the new star in the political firmament, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is trying to restore the 'dialogue' with Moscow. Ivanishvili is a billionaire who acquired his assets in Russia. Over the last few decades Uzbekistan played an 'independent role' and became a hub for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. With the departure of the Americans from Iraq and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan once more comes within reach of Moscow. The Uzbeks have very few options. The same goes for Turkmenistan.

Those who want to discover the foundations of the 'Moscow EU’ simply follow the Russian oil and gas pipelines. Exports of energy are the fuel for recovery of the Russian empire. The first visit abroad of the new Chinese President Xi Jinping was to Moscow. China is becoming Russia’s largest energy importer. The only countries that got away are the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They are members of the ‘Brussels EU’ and NATO. Estonia is in the euro zone, Latvia will soon join as well. Not because the euro is popular, but because of their large neighbor.

Putin restores the image of Russia as a great power and the assertiveness of the Kremlin grows. Russia is blocking a UN resolution for a no-fly zone in Syria, while China quietly hides behind the njet.

The 'Brussels EU' fails to see this geostrategic turnaround. Through the Nabucco pipeline several European countries try to transport gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey to Europe, independent of Russia. The question is whether Azerbaijan will ever deliver gas, while the Turks could obstruct the transport whenever they want to put pressure on the EU.

Most disastrous is the energy policy in Europe. Germany abolishes nuclear power plants, and is becoming even more dependent on Russian gas. In France exploitation of shale gas is prohibited; in other countries it is controversial. The 'Brussels EU' puts all its money on windmills, financed by environmental taxes. Consequence: electricity prices spike, currently doubling those of the U.S., while the competitiveness of energy-intensive sectors such as chemicals erode.

Wine tasters versus vodka drinkers? The 'Brussels EU' is increasingly dependent on the 'Moscow EU’. For the trading nation of the Netherlands it is obviously a unique opportunity to do some good business in the growing empire of Tsar Vladimir I.