The current Valdai Club international conference is devoted to the Middle East. This region has been a scene of domestic chaos and struggle between different local and external groups for the past 10 years. Thanks to its consistent policy, Russia’s role in the Middle East has become much bigger than Moscow’s influence there in the best Soviet years. The borders of the former colonial zones of influence are gone and a peaceful settlement in Libya is no longer solely Europe’s domain but a goal for the involvement of the broader international community. Stabilization in Syria is making gradual progress. Only a few years ago that country was about to disappear as a state.
All this is happening thanks to the limited and politically substantiated Russia’s involvement. Still, the Middle East is sooner a sad experience of how to improve a situation when things have already gone too far due to the irresponsibility of external players and the instability of regimes. Of course, it’s much better to prevent the onset of conditions that might invite military interference. At this point, the decisive role is played by the potential of the states whose security depends on the situation in this or another dangerous region. Central Eurasia is important to Russia and a region where it consistently pursues a strategy of international cooperation in peacetime.
The dramatic events in Kazakhstan a few days ago are an important sign for Russia, in particular, for assessing its policy in Greater Eurasia. First of all, these events call into question the greatest achievement of the Central Asian countries in the almost 30 years of their independence, notably, the stability of their statehoods and their resistance to external and internal challenges. At the same time, Russia must reevaluate its cooperation with China in this respect that was considered a major factor of stability in that large region only six or seven years ago. This region is critical to ensuring Russia’s national and domestic security.
International cooperation in Greater Eurasia has been a major area of Russian foreign policy and foreign economic ties in recent years. Some may argue that during this period the Russian Foreign Minister has had many more meetings at the high and top levels with the United States, Germany and other Western countries than with Russia’s neighbors, despite the far less friendly attitude toward Russia from the West. However, this statistics doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Quite the contrary, increased involvement at the higher levels indicates that conventional mechanisms of cooperation are not working well. A greater number of meetings at the Foreign Ministry’s senior official level is an indicator of problems and difficulties rather than the strength of relations. The character of Russia’s relations in Eurasia and Central Asia is not as difficult. Russia’s practical cooperation with China, Kazakhstan and other countries in the region at the level of governments, businesses, education and civil society is much stronger than Russia ever had with the West, even during the best years of their relations.
The scale of Russia’s involvement in the affairs of Greater Eurasia and even some excessive excitement of political analysts in this respect is easy to explain. This is Russia’s first foreign policy experience since 1991 where it doesn’t have to follow in the wake of someone or resolve emerging problems but has an opportunity to build an area of cooperation jointly with partners. After longtime wavering between the West and the East, Russia has embarked on its own strategic development plan and has begun looking for other partners since the middle of the last decade. In 2015, Russia and its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) invited China to sign a cooperation agreement. China agreed to sign, thereby making a tangible contribution to the international prestige and legitimacy of the EAEU. In 2016, Russia began to develop cooperation in Greater Eurasia that could unite different regional projects and organizations into a single network of constructive team efforts.
This was a new experience in Russia’s foreign policy. Russia came to Central Asia 400 years ago not of its own free will. It had to ensure the security of the physical connection between its European part and its territories in Siberia and later in the Far East. The experience of establishing direct control of the region by force brought both gains and losses for Russia and its peoples. However, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened an opportunity for a new quality of relations based on respect for sovereignty and related responsibility for order domestically.
In the past few years, Russia tried to ensure its security, for the first time, placing its bets not on force, although it is strong enough for that, but on beneficial international cooperation and integration. Russia took this approach from its relations with the European Union, which also negotiates under these principles. The brightest example is the system of decision-making in the EAEU where decisions are based on consensus. In other words, any country can block an enactment that is not beneficial for it. The EAEU countries are equally represented in the governing bodies of the union. Even Europe is gradually coming to realize that the EAEU is not the rebirth of the USSR but a project aimed at speeding up economic development and enhancing the sovereignty of its participants.
Cooperation with China was a response to two challenges. First, in 2013, the Chinese leadership announced the ambitious plan for cross-border cooperation as part of the One Belt One Road strategy. As Russia’s actions show, it saw this plan as an opportunity to attract China’s resources to promote the economic stability and development of the Central Asian countries. Second, China’s medium-sized and smaller neighbors are becoming increasingly apprehensive about China’s intentions with its increasing strength. It is possible to mitigate these apprehensions by involving China in multilateral mechanisms, thereby reducing opportunities for influencing Eurasian security by those countries for which it is not directly related to national security. This primarily applies to the United States and Europe.
But this is a good time to review the cooperation between China and the Central Asian countries, seven years after the One Belt One Road announcement. Relations between China and Central Asia states might be criticized even by friendly observers. At least, the number of jobs in these countries is incomparable to the growth of anti-Chinese attitudes there. There is no tangible progress in the development of regional infrastructure. At this point, Chinese leaders are more concerned about serious domestic problems, mainly the coronavirus epidemic. However, China’s economic might will not be seriously damaged by this, and in the next few years Russia, China and the Central Asia countries should resume the discussion of joint development projects in Central Eurasia.
This development is necessary for the security of countries that have borders only 300 km from Russia’s industrial centers in Western Siberia and the South Urals. The Central Asian states can be proud of their internal stability and the sustainability of their institutions. This is the obvious achievement of their leaders over the past 30 years. However, events similar to those in southern Kazakhstan could easily create the illusion of fragility of their political and law enforcement systems. This illusion could make their friends apprehensive and prompt the countries that are not vitally interested in regional security to interfere in their affairs. It is primarily important for the Central Asian states to maintain interethnic peace and protect their people from destructive political ideas.