Aha!! Several months back we talked about this very thing, and now it seems to be happening. Russia is building a free-trade zone
. In the Soviet era and probably still, Russia was little more than a Third world country with nuclear weapons. But since Putin has assumed power they have taken significant steps to improve the fundamental performance of their economy. Measures like the flat-tax, land reforms that have made it possible for citizens to own land, modest deregulation, have put Russia on a stronger footing. Don't get me wrong, they are still a long way from achieving western living standards but the course is encouraging. German Gref, Russia's Economics Minister, is often credited with these policies but you have to give credit to Putin for his conviction in Gref's vision and Putin's ability to withstand the thousands of constituents for soviet era practices. Putin rules the country like a czar, and some Russians feel that Russia must be ruled by a czar.
Having instituted these policies, the natural next step for building empire, in the post-Cold War world, is expanding the economy. Russia's economy being the strongest of the soviet republics and eastern-bloc countries, makes it the natural anchor and senior partner in a free-trade zone. The free-trade zone expands Russia's influence over the former-soviet republics. The current partners are a dubious bunch Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. All weak economies, probably why they are willing to cozy up to their former master. Belarus is ruled by a fascist. You won't see Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia signing up just yet, much less Poland or Hungary. But Serbia is definitely a possible member. Who knows what will happen in the future, but today this is a welcome direction. Expanding "empire" through trade is definitely preferable to Russian soldiers marching across these countries.
Building its ecomony is of great strategic importance for Russia. And not because of some competitive impulse towards the US or Europe; I honestly feel that Russians could not care less about Europe or the US. Russia faces a very real threat from China, Europe is not a threat with its burdensome regulated economy and toothless military. But China is another story. Russia's greatest military challenge and territorial threat comes from the east. China borders Russia and has a population that outnumbers Russia's 5 to 1. There are currently hundreds of thousands Chinese investing in Russia's far-east, a sparcely populated expance. Russia needs to make sure that it does not loose its western lands like Mexico lost it's territory north of the Rio Grande.