Russia throughout the entire post-Soviet period has played an economically huge but politically disproportionately small role in the life of the former Soviet republics. The preservation of the economy and sovereignty of these countries depended and depends on ties with Russia. But local elites have often tried to please the West and distract the population from socio-economic problems by opposing Russia. The countries of the region will be forced to correct this anomaly, writes Valdai Club expert Vyacheslav Sutyrin.
The fierceness of geopolitical confrontation throughout the world not only adds uncertainty to forecasts, but also highlights trends toward a new world order more clearly. The aggravation of the struggle for the re-division of the world shows that international relations have not changed much over the past century. Any variations of “soft power” and “international institutions” are based on military and economic might, the balance of power and interests, and, ultimately, willpower.
The stability of states and regions amid the process of a new re-division of the world depends on nations’ defence capabilities, supply of strategic resources and internal cohesion. In this regard, Eurasian integration takes on a different meaning — it is not about integration with an illusory “world market”, but about the countries of the region ensuring internal stability and self-sufficiency.
The future of Eurasian integration will be determined by the new configuration of the world order and the results of Russia’s confrontation with the US/NATO. The latter is obviously not limited to Ukraine. On the one hand, we are witnessing a reduction in the area of US dominance to militarily dependent countries in Europe and Asia. This is evidenced by the defiant refusal to support the US position on Russia by India, China, Brazil and other countries, where more than 2/3 of the world’s population lives.
On the other hand, the attractiveness of the BRICS is growing. Following Argentina and Iran, which submitted applications last summer, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Algeria expressed a willingness to join. Even the United States is actually trying to split up the BRICS, demanding that India and China support anti-Russian sanctions. After all, BRICS claims to create a parallel global architecture to the one framed around Western institutions — one with its own management, settlements and logistics.
Today it is obvious that a strong Russia is the main factor in maintaining the military-political stability of the huge region of the former USSR, and hence Greater Eurasia. A weak Russia would not be able to quickly stop attempts to “Ukrainise” Belarus in 2020 and “Balkanise” Kazakhstan in 2022, in other words, to halt attempts at civil wars on their territory.
The geopolitical projects of the United States for Eurasia, which used to be at least disguised as a positive economic agenda (see “New Silk Road” or “Build Back a Better World”), have now given way to political power actions and manipulations to destabilise Eurasia. There is no reason to believe that Washington’s policy of military-political escalation towards Russia and China will change in the foreseeable future.
The natural response of Russia and other large countries is the creation of alternative institutions that allow them to move away from Western infrastructure (for example, BRICS+).
As far as the Eurasian integration project is concerned, Russia throughout the entire post-Soviet period has played an economically huge but politically disproportionately small role in the life of the former Soviet republics. The preservation of the economy and sovereignty of these countries depended and depends on ties with Russia. But local elites have often tried to please the West and distract the population from socio-economic problems by opposing Russia.
The countries of the region will be forced to correct this anomaly. Politics must be brought into balance with economics and geography. The level of coordination between the actions of local ruling circles and Russia on key issues of foreign policy, security and humanitarian policy should fundamentally increase.
The formats may vary. For example, the expansion of the competences of the Eurasian Union for security and humanitarian cooperation with the transformation into a new “union” format. Or deepening integration with Russia in a “bilateral” format. Various forms of political unification are also possible, especially if the danger that the countries of the region face destabilisation grows. The process of reorganisation can be turbulent against the backdrop of a worsening global socio-economic situation and US intervention.
From the point of view of the economy, it is desirable to expand the common economic space and the customs union, with Russia playing the leading role, to include Uzbekistan and other countries of the region. This will create a stable and self-sufficient macro-region with a domestic market capacity of more than 200 million people. The new geometry of external relations within this macro-region will take shape as ties are established between Russia and the largest countries of Eurasia. This will allow the participants of the EAEU to reduce logistics costs as well as access new markets and transit income, provided that they are effectively integrated into the macro-trends set by Russia’s foreign policy.
In “miniature”, the contours of this process can be observed today within the framework of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Thus, despite the current blockade of Belarusian exports, Russia ensures the supply of Belarusian goods to world markets. In the Leningrad region, with the support of Russia, the construction of a port for the trans-shipment of Belarusian potash fertilizers has begun, the cost is estimated at $500 million.
The implementation of the union programmes adopted in 2021 with Russia will save the Belarusian budget more than $1.3 billion a year in terms of tax administration, government orders and the integration of the information systems of regulators. And, of course, the main benefits are oil and gas at exclusive prices, free access to the Russian market and a security umbrella. At the same time, the allied programs adopted in 2021 aim to create a virtually barrier-free single economy within the framework of the Union State, and the united troops have already become a reality “on the ground”.
It is clear that the model of Russian-Belarusian integration is not ideal and is far from complete, but it has demonstrated visible results and prospects. The asymmetry of bilateral relations with Russia is obvious, but these relations help to resolve key military-political and social issues, while maintaining the economy, defence capability and civil order within the countries uniting with Russia.
A clear focus on Russia, sometimes called “dependence,” sets the necessary certainty and confidence for the security forces and officials in neighbouring countries, without which it is impossible to maintain control in crisis situations. This is what civilisational platforms (macro-regions) are needed for, so that small and medium-sized countries can trust the leading state and survive through integration with it. In this regard, cultural and humanitarian cooperation as a tool for building mutual trust will play the role of a strategic tool for integration. Its importance will grow in the foreseeable future.
Such alliances will also be able to protect countries from cultural and humanitarian woes. The re-division of the world is taking place not only at the geopolitical and technological levels, but also at the ideological one. Here, traditional values, the evolutionary path of development and (increasingly) human common sense are opposed to the cult of wokeism, transhumanism, neo-Trotskyism, etc.
Therefore, economic support for Russia and access to the Russian market for friendly countries should be linked with deepening integration in the political and humanitarian spheres: strengthening a shared sense of meaning and historical memory, promoting the Russian language, and counteracting nationalist ideologies.
The experience of the “multi-vector” countries of the post-Soviet world shows that promiscuity in ties and the inability of the elites to build strong relations with Russia lead to a crisis of statehood. In the context of growing economic turbulence, such a policy will increasingly lead its adherents to pursue civil conflicts, forcing healthy local forces to seek a Russian umbrella.