In April 2014, a month after annexing Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared himself the defender of the Russkiy Mir—a “Russian world” dominated by ethnic Russians and encompassing most of the territory of the former Soviet Union. Observers in Russia and abroad had long interpreted the Kremlin’s interest in Eurasian integration as a thinly veiled effort to re-establish Moscow’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The seizure of Crimea was supposed to function as a demonstration of Russian resolve and a message to Moscow’s neighbors about the risks of resistance.
Three years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea. How is the “Russian world” project proceeding? Not well: In fact if anything it has gone in reverse. Putin himself has shelved the term. Excluding the Donbass and Crimea, Russian influence in Ukraine is at its lowest ebb since Catherine the Great. The Kremlin’s efforts to build the Eurasian Economic Union into a functioning trade bloc have scored mixed results at best. But the best evidence of the Kremlin’s failure to enhance its influence in the former Soviet space is its deteriorating relations with the country that long seemed the most natural candidate for entry into the Russian world: Belarus.