- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

MOSCOW (AP) - As a counterweight to the European Union, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is pursuing an ambitious dream rooted in memories of Soviet glory: The Eurasian Union.

It’s a strategy to pull former Soviet satellite states back into Moscow’s orbit through a combination of incentives and threats. And embattled Ukraine, a huge country of 46 million people, has lain at the center of the game plan.

Putin has put the Eurasian Union at the top of his presidential agenda, voicing hope that the new grouping could become a major economic powerhouse on par with the EU. He has sought to lure ex-Soviet nations with cheap energy and loans, while also expanding his military presence in these countries whenever he can.

Russia’s offer of $15 billion to make Ukraine drop a trade accord with the EU was a carrot in Putin’s Eurasia program. His deployment of troops to take over Crimea is a stick.

Here is a look at how Russia has fared in bringing other former Soviet neighbors under its thumb:

IN PUTIN‘S POCKET

Putin understands that it’s not just military might that matters in winning allies. Cash counts, too.

He formed an economic bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010 with a goal to bolster mutual trade through the removal of customs barriers. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan also want to join, and Tajikistan could be on membership track, too.

This Customs Union is the basis for the Eurasian Union, a more ambitious economic bloc set to be formed in 2015.

Belarus, led by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko - dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” - has been Russia’s closest ally. Lukashenko has kept most of the economy in state hands and depended on cheap energy supplies and loans from Russia to keep it running. Belarus also has been an important military partner, hosting Russian military facilities and conducting joint maneuvers with Russian forces.

Kazakhstan, led by autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is the second largest country by territory and economy among the ex-Soviet nations. Nazarbayev has maneuvered between Russia and the West during more than two decades in power. But Russia has little leverage over Kazakhstan, whose energy riches and booming economy make it nearly an equal partner.

Armenia, whose economy has been crippled by a blockade imposed by arch-enemy Turkey, has been a staunch Russian ally. It has depended on Russian loans and hosted a major Russian military base.

Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished Central Asian nation rocked by political instability, hosted a U.S. air base key for supporting operations in nearby Afghanistan. The base is now being shut down under Russian pressure. Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian air base, which is set to expand.

Tajikistan, one of the poorest ex-Soviet nations on Afghanistan’s northern frontier, hosts an estimated 5,000 Russian troops and depends on Russian economic aid and remittances from migrants working in Russia.

WESTWARD GAZE

Story Continues →