Wider Eurasia
The Southern Circuit of Russia: New Dynamics

Taking into account how the internal situation is developing in a number of Central Asian countries, we cannot exclude the possibility that in the future, these “allies” of Russia will follow in Armenia’s footsteps. Whether Russia itself needs this, and what strategy it can offer as a paradoxical answer, we will have to find out in the coming years, Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev writes.

The uniqueness of Russia’s geopolitical position lies in the fact that it is the only world power naturally focused on the four most important strategic regions of Eurasia: Western Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Northeast Asia. When it comes to prioritising foreign policy efforts and interests, these areas represent both a challenge and an opportunity for Russia. It’s a challenge because it requires simultaneous attention to so many different regions and creates conditions for Russia’s opponents to force tensions in a variety of geographical areas. However, it is also an opportunity, because it allows Moscow to interact with dozens of external partners at once and link different areas within the framework of its diplomatic activities, which are of a pan-Eurasian and global nature.

The military-political conflict with the Western countries, whose main battlefield is Ukraine, now occupies a central place among Russia’s geopolitical priorities since it is directly related to its national security in the most traditional meaning of this concept. So, if in other regions threats are indirect or hypothetical, in the West they are quite real and may be measured in terms of an expressly anti-Russian military bloc which is ready for conflict. Cooperation in the Asian region and partnerships with China are connected not only with the fact that Moscow and Beijing have relatively similar views on a fair global order, but also with the absence of serious security challenges to Russia’s territory and population in Asia. In Asia, there is no alliance of powers for which the struggle with Russia would mostly determine foreign policy, and the United States, although actively present in the region, does not have organisational and spatial resources there comparable to NATO.

Under these conditions, the region neighbouring southern Russia presents the most room for foreign policy manoeuvring. This includes relations with the states of the Middle East and those which belong to the “southern belt” of former Soviet republics — the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Now all these neighbours of Russia — near and far — are, unlike the countries of Europe or Asia, witnessing dynamic changes in their foreign policy position and internal development. In part, this affects Russia’s position regarding these regions; it can limit relations or, conversely, open up new opportunities for Russia to takes advantage of. At the same time, it remains important for it to determine the main contours and philosophy of its own policy, which cannot be a simple response to opportunities and a desire to find an answer to threats.

The only enemy that superpowers have to fear are themselves.

Therefore, Russia’s policy towards its neighbouring countries should be based on the understanding that it is in a unique position: tactical defeats and successes on the foreign policy front are not factors that matter for the continuation of Russian statehood. However, it would be a mistake to either loudly rejoice at our achievements in this area (which have been really few in recent years), or to dramatize the difficulties that we encounter quite regularly. Given that Russian statehood has an enduring nature, the ability and need to control the behaviour of its neighbours may change depending on the availability of resources and a clear understanding of why Russia itself needs it. Moreover, in principle, we should not strive to formulate a clear and intelligible strategy in relation to neighbouring countries — this contradicts Russian foreign policy culture.

Asia and Eurasia
Great Powers and Their Allies: The Experience of Global Confrontation
Timofei Bordachev
In the event that relations between Russia and its allies were assessed in comparison with similar practices in the United States and Europe, then Moscow would have every reason to express continuous dissatisfaction with the behaviour of its junior partners, with the exception of Minsk, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev. But is it possible, and is it necessary, to demand more from them?

However, there is a conceptual issue. In practical terms, this means that at the level of expert and political discussion, it might be worth taking a critical look at the currently dominant strategy of “maintaining influence.” It may be worth considering more flexible approaches that combine a shift away from defensive thinking and, at the same time, a willingness to take more decisive action when it is really necessary. There is no need to unilaterally curtail political interaction with neighbours or the presence of Russian forces there. In any event, there is no need to see the changes in their behaviour as a national foreign policy drama. Moreover, practice shows that even the most serious influence is not a guarantee that neighbours or allies will not turn out to be sources of tactical security challenges. The participation of a large number of natives of Saudi Arabia in the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 is a clear confirmation that allied relations and, it seems, control over the desires of the elites cannot completely ensure that there is no trouble. In the same way, it would be somewhat arrogant for Russia to think that the loyalty of the ruling regimes is a complete guarantee that threats will not come from these territories.

Now Russia’s strategy in the southern part of the former USSR is evolving, and this process is increasingly determined by the internal demand to achieve the main goals of security and development. Under these conditions, the basic patterns and ideas that have determined our policy in these regions for a long time may be subject to revision, albeit purely at the conceptual level. This rethinking may be based on an assessment of the historical experience, which reflects the fact that Russia already appeared in Transcaucasia and Central Asia during the imperial stage of its foreign policy, when the main tasks directly related to the security of the main territory of Russia were being solved.

In other words, Transcaucasia and Central Asia were initially acquisitions obtained in the course of Russia’s competition with the European colonial empires. First of all — the British empire, i.e. they are a product of foreign policy, and not of solving the most important problems of internal development and security. In this regard, we will always face certain difficulties in understanding how much Russia really needs Transcaucasia and Central Asia on a scale comparable to Belarus or Ukraine. Even if we recognise the likelihood of some threats emerging from there or the possibility of acquiring benefits there, this fundamental contradiction will still have an impact on how vigorous Russian policy will be. Whether we like it or not, it will always face a lack of fundamental understanding regarding why Russia should have an active presence in both regions.

At the same time, Russia’s opponents assume that it will pursue a defensive strategy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, aimed at keeping both regions in its sphere of influence. Even if, in fact, this influence becomes more and more illusory, which may be inevitable, given the evolution that the states of both regions are going through. With this behaviour, Russia risks provoking its strategic opponents in the West to even more actively strive to disperse its forces and create new points of tension in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Given the fact that all regional governments now or in the future may face certain problems of a socio-economic nature, the blame for the deterioration of the situation there will certainly be placed on Russia. The same applies to possible interstate conflicts or other types of military-political tension. A striking example in recent years has been the situation around Armenia, where the objective evolution of statehood has led to the loss of foreign policy positions and the loss of the ability to be a reliable ally of Russia in the region. As a result, rather than serving Russian interests at a time when Russia itself is fighting with the West, Armenia has become a new source of foreign policy concerns and opened the door for the United States and Western Europe to negatively influence Russian interests. Taking into account how the internal situation is developing in a number of Central Asian countries, we cannot exclude the possibility that in the future, these “allies” of Russia will follow in Armenia’s footsteps. Whether Russia itself needs this, and what strategy it can offer as a paradoxical answer, we will have to find out in the coming years.

Asia and Eurasia
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Timofei Bordachev
It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.