Prof Howard Schweber is a Fulbright scholar at Flinders University. In 2011, he spent six months as a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

It's not an iron curtain – more like an iron web. Russia sits squarely at its centre, and its strands are pipelines, laying stickily over Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, if Russia has its way, Georgia. With Russians due to vote in presidential elections on 4 March, this is a good time to examine the enduring elements of Moscow's relations with its near abroad.

The post-Soviet landscape has gone through phases. In the West we tend to overlook the fact that the dissolution of the Union occurred very differently in different places. In Poland and East Germany it was revolution, the tossing out of the old regime and glorious independence. The Baltic states had glorious independence too, but they also had large Russian populations as a result of decades of Russification, such that in Estonia in 1991 the population was less than 50% ethnic Estonian.

In Central Asia there was no 'revolution' at all – just a very strange meeting in August 1991 at which the governors of the various Soviet states agreed to dissolve the system. As a result, the day after the dissolution the same people remained in power: Kuchma in Ukraine, Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. These were individuals with deep ties to Russia, who had grown up in the Soviet system.

Furthermore, there remains a persistent cultural attitude of looking to Russia as the 'big brother', especially in Central Asia, where Russian remains the language of the educated elites. Finally, it is crucial to realise that at the point of political independence, the periphery states remained entirely dependent on Russia economically. Kazakhstan has oil, but no refining capacity, and the pipelines for usable oil and gas come from Russia. Central Asian oil and 'blue fuel' is likewise piped to Ukraine, and from there to Europe.

Russia's game today is to maintain its supremacy, preserve the relationship of dependency, and keep its client regimes in power. This is the new version of the Russian empire. The strategy involves reversing the old Marxian model of core-periphery relations: Russia subsidizes pro-Russian regimes by selling oil and gas at below-market prices.

The most elegant illustration is Ukraine. Prior to 2005 the murderous Kuchma was in power leading a pro-Russian client regime dominated by cronies in the gas business. 'Murderous' is not a metaphor; there is strong evidence that Kuchma ordered the murder of journalists and opposition figures. His own prime minister was set to testify to this effect when he was killed by two shots to the head hours before his scheduled testimony. Kuchma's ex-driver released a tape-recording of Kuchma ordering that a pesky be journalist be 'taken care of' shortly before the journalist in question was beheaded.

But Kuchma is not in prison at present: Ileana Timischenko is, and thereby hangs a tale. In 2005 Kuchma's anointed successor, Yanakovich, was defeated at the polls but stole the election. The result was the Orange Revolution, the first of a series of 'colour' revolutions that for a time seemed to promise that democracy might have a future in the post-Soviet states after all.

Unfortunately, leaders of social movements do not always make effective governors. The post-revolutionary government led by Prime Minister Timischenko was divided and dysfunctional, and in 2008 Yanukovich was re-elected. But in the meantime, then-Prime Minister Timischenko had insisted that Russia stop dealing with the cronies of its old clients and sell fuel to Ukraine's government directly. Which Russia was happy to do, at twice the price.

During the same period, Europe showed more and more interest in Ukraine, moving gradually toward bringing it into the EU. Then in 2011, just as Ukraine was being considered for EU membership, Yanakovich had Timischenko sentenced to prison for seven years for the laughably improbable 'crime' of paying too much for Russian gas. Those prices, naturally, had gone down again as soon as Yanukovych was back in power.

Moscow's goal seems to have been to ensure that Ukraine remained tied to Russia and cut off from Europe. Today, Ukraine is negotiating with Russia for even lower fuel prices, which Russia appears to be willing to grant — in return for a 40% share in ownership of the pipelines that run to Europe. Ukraine is resisting the deal, knowing that loss of control over those pipelines deprives it of the only leverage it has in dealing with Russia.

Those pipelines are key. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan form an arc around Russia's border with Europe. In July 2011 Kazahstan joined the Russian-dominated Customs Union (CIS). But not content with half-measures, it has now been announced that, starting in July 2012, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will be part of a new free trade zone, the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC). And the big plan is a Eurasian Union

The pattern is simple: as one Russian commentator put is, 'downstream' industries will remain in Russia, while Russian firms will invest in 'upstream' resource development. And all that oil and gas will then flow out again through the all-important pipelines. Russia already has Belarus and Kazakhstan tightly in its embrace, and Ukraine is falling into place. Only Georgia is left. With control over the arc of the 'near abroad', Russia would effectively control the entire overland flow of oil and gas to the West.

But that is only part of the picture. The other enormous significance of the new EEC is that it unifies Russia's near economic partners and provides, in the words of one commentator, 'an economic shield to protect its members against Chinese expansions.' More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user Alexander Gorlin.