The Eurozone crisis may have eclipsed news from other countries, but a significant election is due to take place on 4 December in Russia. The result is a foregone conclusion: notwithstanding various signs of discontent among from the country’s population, the ruling United Russia party will continue to dominate the Duma, even if this requires the exertion of a certain pressure on voters.

However, this election will mark the beginning of a new phase of Vladimir Putin’s power. After a number of years of uncertainty as to whether the "moderniser" Dmitri Medvedev or the imperial Putin would emerge as the main architect of Russia’s future, it is now clear that the current Prime Minister and former president will almost certainly become president again next March — a development that will of course have consequences for the EU.

In founding Saint Petersburg, further west than the Moscow of the tsars, Peter the Great wanted to anchor Russia to Europe. Three centuries later, the Saint Petersburger Putin appears to be orchestrating a shift in the opposite direction.

For many people, the project for a Eurasian Union that he presented on 4 October sounds like a desire to recreate a kind of USSR, 20 years after its collapse — an event that Putin has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In practice, it will extend the customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to other former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps even to Ukraine if Kiev chooses to turn to Moscow instead of the EU.

However, this Eurasian Union goes beyond simple nostalgia. It highlights Putin’s desire to establish Russia as a continental power, halfway between a Europe that he no longer considers to be a partner on a level with Asia, which can provide him with markets for gas and oil and a base from which to deploy an alternative global diplomacy. For the Kremlin, China, Iran, India and Afghanistan offer more interesting opportunities than the crisis stricken states of the EU, which have long been divided on the issue of the attitude they should have towards Russia.

At the same time, Russia has not completely abandoned its western flank. It is increasingly present in Ukraine — a country that Europe is failing to anchor to its sphere of influence. It also keeps Belarus under an economic supervision that facilitates the survival of Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime — a defeat for European values. Finally, it is also preparing to deploy ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. So although it may be turning towards Asia, Russia will continue to be a problem for Europe.

But there is no reason why this has to be the case. European states cannot eternally treat Russia as a neighbour that is not to be trusted. Vladimir Putin, who appears to know what he wants, will certainly in power for a long time to come, and the advantage of the duration of his reign is that it should give the European Union time to work out what it wants in its turn. Europe should define a firm and open policy towards Moscow. If it does not, it will be marginalised yet again.