The course to transform Russia into an independent Eurasian center of power and world influence has today become the official policy of the Kremlin and the main direction of thought of the majority of Russian experts on foreign policy strategy. Vladimir Putin, who in 2000 had discussed with Bill Clinton the possibility of Russia’s entrance into NATO,1 taking the office of president in May 2012, declared, “We must all understand that the life of our future generations and our prospects as a country and nation depend on us today and… on our determination in developing our vast expanses from the Baltic to the Pacific, and on our ability to become a leader and centre of gravity for the whole of Eurasia.”2 In September 2013, during a conference of the Valdai international discussion club, he remarked, “Eurasian integration is a chance for the entire post-Soviet expanse to become an independent center of global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.”3
Vladislav Surkov, the chief intellectual of the presidential administration, just a decade ago, spoke of the necessity not “to fall out of Europe, to hold on to the West” as an essential element in building Russia.4 Today, he calls for stopping the “repeated and invariably abortive attempts to become part and parcel of the Western civilization” and predicts a hundred or, perhaps, 300 years of loneliness.5 The former Westernist Sergey Karaganov claims that Russia has exhausted the “European storehouse” and grounds his entire intellectual direction on working out the concept of “Greater Eurasia,” in which Russia occupies a central place.6
Such an evolution testifies to the disappointment over the European choice of Russia, and its new Eurasian orientation emerged as the result of a long and painful process, in reaction to the development of the international situation, and not as a consequence of an innate anti-European attitude of Putin or of the Russian elite as a whole. With the policy of the West after the fall of the USSR, Moscow was, in fact, put in an untenable situation, obliging it to wrestle with the choice: to fully subordinate itself to the geopolitical aims of the US and its allies, rejecting its own approaches to security, or to reorient itself from a pro-West posture to some other direction. As Putin remarked in his report to the Federal Assembly in February 2019, “Without sovereignty, Russia cannot be a state. Some countries can do this, but not Russia.”7 And it chose the course of creating its own center of power in Eurasia.
Will this choice be able to work or not—the answer is still unclear. Russia’s military might is fully in keeping with this inclination, but its economic development still noticeably falls short. Its historical experience in this area also is not substantial. To become an autonomous pole in the new region of Eurasia, which is still in the process of formation, requires at least four things. First, it demands a commitment by Russia to prioritize this region and think strategically about its place in the region. Most of this first positive scenario makes the case that the commitment is firm. Second, it depends on a domestic strategy for economic development befitting a country capable of becoming an autonomous pole. While coverage of Russia’s economy is beyond the scope of this scenario, I briefly note my reservations on how Russia’s economic rise is transpiring. Third, to become such a pole along side China, which is clearly solidifying its standing as a pole, requires managing bilateral relations skillfully, such as in carving out a division of labor between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) or, more broadly, the Greater Eurasian project and the Belt and Road Initiative. Finally, becoming a pole implicates Russia’s relations with other countries in Eurasia, which need to recognize this status for Russia. These last two themes will be addressed in my second essay.
The historic path to Russia’s emergence as a Eurasian pole
The very ideas of some special path of development for Russia arose in Russia not so very long ago, in the first half of the 19th century as a response to the revolutionary events in Europe. Until Peter I, no special discussions were conducted about whether a state with its capital in Moscow was an Asian or a European country. From the time it adopted Christianity from Constantinople in the 10th century, Russia considered itself a part of Christian civilization, independent of whether that civilization was located in Europe or partly in Asia. Peter I strove, according to Pushkin’s apt expression, “in Europe to cut open a window,” to do what was needed to make Russia a leading player in world politics, which was then concentrated in Europe. Peter’s European choice was driven not by an inclination to subordinate Russia to a more advanced Europe, but, on the contrary, to make her a great power. The European status of a rejuvenated Russia was officially announced in 1767 by Catherine the Great in the InstructiontotheLegislativeCommission. which clearly stated, “Russia is a European power.”8 Only under Nicholas I, being afraid of the revolutionary influence of Europe, was there formulated the ideological triad, “Eastern Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality,” underscoring the independent social and political structure of Russia, in which unrestrained autocracy without intermediaries interacted with the nation and cared about it on the basis of a principally different spirit. This concept reflected the division of society into social groups antagonistic to each other and the necessity for representative organs as defenders of the interests of these groups before the higher authority. In particular, the non-European character of Russia was reinforced by representations of other directions in its thinking, among which were unofficial and even openly opposed ones: Slavophiles, Pan-Slavists, Narodniki, and, emerging from them, Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc. Distancing Russia from Europe was the starting point for conjuring up an image of Asia or a mixture of Europe and Asia to find a new place for Russia.
The rise to power of the Bolsheviks was, on the whole, a victory of Western thought: indeed, according to Marxism the whole world is heading in one direction, and revolutionary Russia should not be an exception to the rule. Communists did not regard Soviet society as apart from the West in their civilizational plan; they only considered it as having pulled into the forefront on the ladder of social development. Moreover, all ideas about Russian society being distinct from the West, especially the conception of “Eurasia” that had arisen among emigres in the 1920s or the Marxist theory of the “Asiatic mode of production,” were forbidden in the USSR or, at least, were not encouraged. While communists denounced the US-led West and contrasted the bloc Moscow led with the capitalist bloc, this was part of a universal mission, not the embrace of a regionally situated civilization in pursuit of a different destiny than that criticized in the West.
The collapse of the USSR and victory in Russia of the “democratic movement,” in principle, did not signify a change in the Western orientation, and beliefs that Russia is part of world-wide unilinear historical progress. What was new was that Russia was now considered not advanced, but a backward country, situated at the bottom rung of world-wide progress within the Western “civilized world,” and ready to become a subordinate student. This position was a reaction to the failure of the Soviet experiment but not a principal shift to another ideological paradigm. Besides, it clearly contradicted the previous experience of Russian Western thought, which was always aimed not at subordinating Russia to Western powers, but at using Western achievements in order to transform Russia into a power, capable of standing with them at the same level.
Policies premised on ideological subordination could not long endure. The very scale of Russia, its history and political culture demanded that she be highly autonomous. Objective security interests, ignored by the West, drew her to a more active set of policies. The changing geopolitical situation in the world—the center of world politics and economics began to shift to the Asia-Pacific region—led many countries, including the US, EU states, and Australia, to turn to Asia. Accepting this shift in global dynamics, Russia searched for a place in the rising region.
Russia grew more concerned about security, at least around its borders. In declarations in the West that nobody had the right to establish a sphere of influence, Moscow saw the tendency in Washington to include the entire world in its own sphere, under cover of the ideas of universalism and unilinear progress. The concept of multipolarity, the idea of multiple, different civilizational paths of development responded to Russia’s interest, as well as to those of other major states dissatisfied with Western dictates: China, India, Brazil, etc. In Russia the theory of Eurasianism was recalled, after first gaining popularity in Kazakhstan, especially with the very controversial construction that ethnic Russians are distinct from Europeans, including other Slavs, since they had mixed with the mythical steppe “Turanian” element and forged on this basis their distinct civilization. This raised steppe tribes to the level of a distinct civilization linked to classical Eurasianists, especially Lev Gumilev, who became the subject of a cult there (in whose honor the Eurasian national university was named and who is often cited by President Nazarbaev). This idea grew popular in Russia later, to the extent that relations with the West worsened. Not a small role was played by the fact that the economic ideal of Eurasianism was not a full market economy of the Western type, but regulation by the state at the top with tolerance for private initiative in agriculture and small-scale industry. This model corresponded to Putin’s economic policies, which established huge state corporations, and to the majority model of the Central Asian states. The theme of Eurasianism spread quickly from the 1990s, but it took longer to fix on how a resurgent Russia would fit into an emerging region and split from the West.
In the Eurasian idea Russia finds a number of advantages. First, the tendency to become an independent pole in world politics corresponds to its historical role. Even when it considered itself part of Europe, Russia was always an autonomous state not subordinate to political dictates from outside. The Soviet experience also accustomed Russians to the habit of being a great power. Second, the economic system of today’s Russia, to a large degree, corresponds to the Eurasian ideal. All transformative historical reforms were done with the help of the state, which played the most active role in the economy. Third, the turn to its own region and more attention to Asia can facilitate resolving a strategic problem for Russia—development of its Siberian and Far Eastern regions, a problem often articulated and still very far from realization. Turning itself into a center of consolidation and integration in Eurasia can serve Russia’s security also through forging a friendly external environment beneficial to peaceful political and effective economic development. A big role here is expected to be played by further development and possible expansion of the EEU, its linkage with China’s SREB, a boost to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the unfolding in cooperation with China of the project of Greater Eurasian partnership.
The inertia of Westernism was so strong that Russia delayed formation of its own independent, Eurasian pole of world politics from the second half of the 1990s until it was awakened by crises in Georgia 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to its necessity. During this time period, Europe and the US, to a great degree, lost their role as leaders not only in ideas but in technology. China began to press them, as did other non-Western states. Therefore, it is fully conceivable that had Peter I lived today he would cut open a window not to Europe, but to Asia, acting more decisively as was his style. This, of course, does not signify the need to close the window to Europe. Rather, it is necessary to equalize the two directions, turning Russia from a poor relative of Europe into an intermediary between Europe and Asia, uniting the advantages of both and becoming some kind of juncture of civilizations. This is the intellectual product of the rethinking under way in Russia.
Russia’s capacity to be a pole
Is Russia capable of playing such a role? There is no answer yet. The US and Europe still maintain the status of the principal world centers of new technology. Will they permit Russia to pursue an autonomous course and, at the same time, to use these technologies or suffocate it with sanctions? For the time being, it is necessary to find some balance, but what will follow if sanctions are imposed against the main sectors of Russia’s economy? Could China compensate or would it be willing to do so for the economic and political losses from a worsening of relations with the West, and would that not lead to one-sided dependence on China? Finally, could Russians rebuild psychologically, recognizing themselves not simply as Europeans with some distinctiveness but as Eurasians, and not Asians but also not Europeans (or, simultaneously, as both). The tendencies of international development are favorable for Russia resolving its problems, but this requires that Russians themselves, above all an adequate response for the elite, work out with the leadership of the country correct decisions.
Of course, evaluation of a policy’s success depends on one’s understanding of its objectives, which might diverge depending on point of view. A majority of Russians, according to many surveys of public opinion, want to see their country a great and independent power, but also an economically effective state, which maintains friendly relations with its neighbors. In regard to independence and state power, success has already been achieved and will develop further. In the sense of economic effectiveness, this is not yet the case, but it—only to a small degree—depends on foreign policy and mainly on the government’s economic course. Turning Russia into an independent center of Eurasia would be facilitated by the development of economic cooperation with Asian economies—China, Japan, South Korea, and states of ASEAN—while preserving still limited ties with Europe (economic relations with the US have always been very insignificant).
Relations with countries in the West cannot be called friendly, but that is a price necessary to pay for independence. Yet, the question of economic effectiveness leads to attention not only to how to boost trade with European states in currently inauspicious circumstances, but also to how to forge closer economic ties in Asia beneficial to Russia’s accelerated development. Balanced ties with China’s economy have been debated in Russia since the 2000s. Recently, one focus has been whether the EEU will provide a foundation for Russia to strengthen its economic standing or will lose ground to a much more economically substantial, China-led SREB. So far, on the basis of its political and military prowess, Russia is having partial success in being recognized as an autonomous pole in Eurasia, but the economic factor leaves the future uncertain.
1. Gennady Sysoev, “Putin ne vozrazhaet protiv vstupleniia Rossii v NATO,” Kommersant, March 7, 2000, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/142046
4. V. Iu. Surkov , “Nationalization of the Future: Paragraphs pro Sovereign Democracy,” Russian Studies in Philosophy 47, no.4 (2009), 20,
5. Vladislav Surkov, “The Loneliness of the Half-Breed,” Russia in Global Affairs,May 28, 2018, https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/book/The-Loneliness-of-the-Half-Breed-19575
8. Eia Imperatorskogo Velichestva Nakaz komissii o sochinenii proekta novogo ulozheniia(Moscow, 1767), 4–5.