Regional processes, the activity of middle states, as well as the unchanging policy of the balance of power in relations with the great powers, will create a demand for the active involvement of Russia in solving a number of local issues and problems. Moreover, the internal transformation processes in most of Russia’s neighbouring countries are just entering a decisive stage, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The main feature of the geopolitical position of Russia is that on every border of its vast territory (except for China) where one doesn’t find substantial topographic barriers, it is surrounded by a double belt of states for which a comparable level of military and economic might is unattainable. At the same time, only in the West Russia interacts with an association of powers that, in their totality, are capable of posing a threat to basic Russian interests and values. However, even in this case, interaction with a key partner — the United States — is determined within the framework of the global balance of power and is subject to its rules.
The space, where Russia is the main power pole, is modern Eurasia. Asia, in turn, is directly adjacent to this geopolitical space, but in terms of power it is concentrated around another major power in the modern world — China. Now relations between China and Russia are based on common interests and values in relation to the international order, as well as the absence of objective grounds for mutual contradictions in any foreseeable future.
In a sense, the two great powers rely on each other and ensure for themselves the most important thing — complete security along a large part of their continental borders. This provision allows China and Russia to fairly pursue a flexible policy towards other neighbouring countries, and gives them confidence in dialogue with the third global centre of power — the United States.
The immediate environment around Russia is represented by several groups of states, relations with which are equally important for it. It includes states that are members of the formal institutions of the West (NATO and the European Union), Russia’s neighbours that emerged from the republics of the former USSR in 1991, as well as a number of significant regional powers in the Near, Middle and Far East. A separate area of Russian foreign policy in Eurasia is India, which is both a regional and global player, a Eurasian and Asian power.
In the context of real multipolarity and the absence of the likelihood of building international politics around one centre for making major decisions, Russia will inevitably face a choice between the need to stabilise its immediate environment in certain institutional forms, and the development of flexible open interaction with different partners in relation to a specific situation or region. The latter does not mean, at the same time, the need to abandon the already-existing institutional forms of cooperation: the CIS, SCO, EAEU or CSTO. All of them should be preserved and even developed to meet Russian interests. Moreover, now there are new opportunities to determine the potential and limitations of the effectiveness of these associations.
Within the framework of changing Russian policy in Asia and Eurasia, several geographical and functional areas can be distinguished. First, there is the development of multifaceted strategic cooperation with China. This cooperation takes place both at the global and regional levels; it includes economic and military-political aspects. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly weakened the pace of interaction between the expert community of Russia and China, and we can hardly count on its recovery to previous volumes in the near future. However, the pandemic hasn’t become a serious obstacle to the development of trade and economic ties and practical military cooperation. In the latter case, we can observe a fairly high level of coordination of actions in relation to global and local challenges faced by both powers.
Second, the development of regional institutions of cooperation will retain its significance for Russia. It is hardly worth expecting that on the basis of these institutions in Eurasia in the foreseeable future, a community of states will emerge with the intensity of relations and the degree of mutual trust, which will correspond to the standard theoretical concepts of regional communities. At the same time, each of them is responsible for solving certain important tasks facing the participating countries. The CIS performs the function of maintaining a special spirit of relations within the framework of an interconnected economic, political and cultural sphere.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an important diplomatic platform where, in addition to Russia, China and their common neighbours, powers such as India, Iran or Pakistan are participating. The Eurasian Economic Union creates conditions for the opening of mutual markets for a narrow group of states and the creation of common mechanisms for adaptation to changes in the world economy. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation provides an effective way of coordinating the efforts of member states in the defence sphere, which is especially important in view of the uncertainty of the situation in and around Afghanistan.
The third group of issues concerning the Eurasian policy of Russia is connected with its neighbouring countries, which at a certain historical stage were part of the Russian Empire or the USSR. Due to its scale and the abundance of its resources, Russia does not need to consider these states as a space for resource development. Also, relations with them are not of fundamental importance for the security of Russia in terms of its national defence. However, Russia is challenged by the transformation of neighbouring countries into a territorial base for the actions of other forces or manifestations of religious and political extremism that are dangerous for Russia. The most important value for Russia in dealing with its neighbours is preserving and strengthening their sovereign statehood, so that they are capable of making foreign policy decisions based on an objective assessment of their geopolitical position.
Finally, in modern conditions, relations with the medium-sized and small powers of the “second belt” of the Russian neighbourhood — Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Japan, North Korea and South Korea — are becoming an important part of Russian policy in Eurasia. This group also includes the leading states of Western Europe, to the extent that they are able to exercise independence within the framework of their relations with the United States.
It would be impermissible naivety to think that the achievement of comparative stability west of Russia — the most important area now from the point of view of Russia’s security — would make it possible to count on an automatic decrease in the importance of events in other regions. Regional processes, the activity of middle states, as well as the unchanging policy of the balance of power in relations with the great powers, will create a demand for the active involvement of Russia in solving a number of local issues and problems. Moreover, the internal transformation processes in most of Russia’s neighbouring countries are just entering a decisive stage.Nor can we expect other global players to be able or willing to replace Russia there as the main centre of power. The increased activity of some regional partners is most likely to be combined with serious internal problems experienced by other neighbouring countries. Amid these conditions, an important task of Russian foreign and, in part, defence policy will be to maintain a balance between the capabilities of individual states and the stabilising role of international institutions.