Russia in Central Eurasia: Is There a Choice?

In its optimal form, Russia’s long-term strategy in Central Eurasia could be geared towards further strengthening of the multilateral institutions involving both big (Russia, India and China) and smaller players. 

The modern world offers small and medium states much leeway in structuring relations with their great neighbors, while imposing numerous restrictions on the powerful nations themselves. For all their seeming omnipotence, the United States, Russia or China are constrained by a lot of circumstances in dealing even with their formal allies. In turn, Turkey, Iran, South Korea and European states (although the latter to the least degree) are much more free in making choices. In our day and age, this structural characteristic of world politics should be fully taken into account, if, of course, we do not want to imitate the current US administration’s style that is doing more harm than good to US influence worldwide. This refers in full measure to Central Asia (or better to say Central Eurasia), a region of key importance for Russia.

On September 28, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, will host a CIS summit that will be attended by the President of Russia. In October, he will pay a visit to Uzbekistan. Under the current circumstances, Russia clearly cannot afford to neglect a single multilateral format or a state on its direct security perimeter. An important achievement was Moscow supporting Kazakhstan’s Eurasian economic integration initiative, the first instance of rational cooperation between sovereign Eurasian states seeking to achieve national development goals. But what should be Russia’s long-term strategy in the region that is within just three or four hundred kilometers of its industrial centers in the Urals? And what natural constraints should this strategy take into consideration?

This geographic proximity determines the importance of Central Eurasia in the context of Russian foreign and security policies. The region’s considerable remoteness from Western Europe, let alone the United States, can make the fate of the young states in what was once Soviet Central Asia a target in a diplomatic (and, as it often happens, not very responsible) game by Russia’s adversaries in the West. Moreover, the risks of this kind are considerably enhanced as the United States is maneuvering for a position to attack China. It is no accident that European and US media have become highly concerned over China’s policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in recent months.

The strategic goal for the partners of Russia and China in the West is to inculcate in the countries in that region a perception of themselves as a geopolitical entity that is independent of and isolated from their great neighbors in the north and east. For a long while, the Central Asian leaders’ wisdom and their ability to maintain friendly relations with Russia even under the most difficult circumstances after the disintegration of the USSR frustrated the efforts directed towards this goal. Today, however, it cannot be said that the modern macro-regional context is an obstacle to the objectives pursued by the bright intellectuals in the West. Both Russia and China should approach their efforts in all seriousness.

China’s more active economic and political penetration of Central Asia is posing no problems or challenges for Russia. This realization was largely behind the 2015 strategic choice in favor of cooperation and the alignment of Eurasian economic integration with the Silk Road Economic Belt (now One Belt One Road). At the same time, the Chinese presence led to inevitable complications. First, the PRC’s investment activity and its style of dealing with the local authorities and communities have provided its ill-wishers with objective opportunities for accusing China of “neocolonialism the Chinese way.” It must be admitted that the Central Asian fear of succumbing to Chinese influence, though artificially fomented from the outside, is prevailing over apprehensions with regard to the imperial ambitions allegedly nurtured by Russia.

Second, with another superpower presence added to what was the case in Central Asia in the earlier period, the local states inevitably are left with a motive to seek a balancing influence. This balance can be created either through increased cooperation with third players or by evolving more stable micro-regional arrangements. What makes the situation different is that as distinct from the European CIS, the extra-regional players are unable to offer to the Central Asian states some or other form of association with the existing integration unions. This is both good and bad news. It is good because, unlike the situation that led to the Ukrainian tragedy, the small and medium-sized states in the region are not faced with the need to make a radical choice.

But it is also bad because the West is not viewing the Central Asian states as a space for resource development (with the exception of a comparatively small energy sector segment). This can make US and European policies in the region predicated on the desire to restrict the use of development resources for Russia and China rather than on their own development interests. It is also obvious that a socioeconomic explosion in one of the Central Asian countries or a surge of terrorist activities there will inevitably leave Russia the main destination for refugee flows. This certainty allows the Europeans and particularly their allies in the United States to be rather thoughtless about the regional security prospects. Given the strategic frivolity that firmly took root in the West, this may give rise to dangerous provocations, the more so since the relative reconciliation in Syria can suggest to the US and its allies a highly tempting idea to reroute radical forces in the most secure direction from the point of view of their economic and political interests.

In turn, Russia and China have the biggest stake in the stability of the political regimes and systems in Central Asia. But so far they have been unable to develop a common vision of an optimal model for maintaining this stability. Nor have they decided what outside guarantees could be offered without running a risk to incur charges of restricting their regional partners’ actual sovereignty. A working alternative here is likely to be a consistent effort to reinforce and institutionalize the existing multilateral venues. India might be a promising partner in this regard. A more active policy to involve New Delhi in Eurasian affairs could simultaneously expand the scope of choice for small and medium-sized states and will not bear an intellectual and political charge that is a priori hostile to Russia and China.

At the same time, it seems important to upgrade the strategic discourse on regional problems. In a situation where the world is witnessing the emergence of mega-regions, it would make sense to call into question the adequacy of the terminology used in relation to this region. Alexander von Humboldt, the German traveler and a founding father of the science of geography, was the first to identify Central Asia as a sub-region. Today it may be more appropriate to speak about Central Eurasia, a region naturally incorporated in a burgeoning broader community of equals, rather than about a narrow group of states that are somehow singled out from the common continental space.

Thus, in its optimal form, Russia’s long-term strategy in Central Eurasia could be geared towards further strengthening of the multilateral institutions involving both big (Russia, India and China) and smaller players. To be sure, the Eurasian Economic Union plays the part of the necessary integration core, with relations between its members characterized by great depth and sophistication, including where it concerns the implementation of the four freedoms of movement – those of goods, capitals, services and labor. But it should also be kept in mind that more flexible forms of international cooperation will be needed for dealing with other Eurasian states, whose accession will inevitably impose restraints on integration. In the final analysis, its main aim is to maintain stability and this is in full conformity with Russia’s interests. Today’s challenges to this stability are predominantly of extraregional nature.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.