Russia's Regional Master Plan Stretches from Turkey to Indonesia
The political earthquake of the Brexit referendum has already changed international relations in many ways. While the majority of experts in the United States dwelled on the parallels between the anger of British and American voters and the possible negative consequences for the global economy, only a few considered the referendum’s implications for American foreign policy, naming, as an example, a possible end to the American “pivot” towards Asia. At the same time, several events showed that Russia, proclaimed by the same experts as one of the biggest winners of the Brexit vote, does not have to rush to any pivots: the Eurasian vector of Russia’s foreign policy is already present, and becoming more significant with every year.
Yet, one thing should be made clear from the very beginning: this Eurasian policy has little to do with the very amorphous ideology of Eurasianism, whose influence is constantly overestimated by Western experts. Having had a not-so-positive experience with foreign policy influenced by ideology (initially by communism during the Cold War and, later, by liberalism during the last decade of the twentieth century), Russia’s foreign policy is rather pragmatic. It treats Eurasia as the macroregion where Russia is located and, for centuries, a natural priority area for Russia’s international relations.
It so happened that, exactly after the Brexit referendum, several events provided more grounds to analyze Russia’s diplomatic efforts in this space. Some of them, like Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan for the anniversary meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Heads of State Council and visit to China, were planned, while others—such as Turkey’s apology for shooting down the Russian plane in November 2015—definitely were not. However, all of them gave reasons to argue that Russia’s diplomacy delivers results in establishing Moscow as a powerful player with a truly Eurasian outreach.
To see this, let’s analyze the abovementioned events as they were happening. On June 23, Vladimir Putin arrived to Tashkent for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. Certain observers have been writing on Chinese dominance and Russian-Chinese differences for years within the SCO, but a thorough analysis of the latest developments provides enough argument to question these conclusions. Most notably, in Tashkent, with Russian support, India became a full member of the organization, which alone is a reason to reconsider statements about Chinese dominance in the organization. Furthermore, we should not forget that, despite the existing focus on security, with Islamic extremism being the main threat, economic cooperation is gaining weight on the SCO agenda, and Russia strongly supports this trend.
The latter might be explained mainly by the fact that neither Moscow nor Beijing considers, at the very least publicly, the Central Asian region to be an area of competition. The reasons for that are, first, that efforts by both powers to demand “exclusivity” from countries of the region would not be met by Central Asian rulers, who prefer balancing between two major powers; and, second, all promising projects here are costly for outside players, whether Russia or China. The reason for this is the limited ability of Central Asian republics to tackle various challenges, whether social, economic, political or security. Even Kazakhstan, far more successful compared to its struggling neighbors, has to deal with security threats. This all means that the five former Soviet republics are looking for the support of major powers and, while Russia has been deeply involved in the region for the last several centuries, it is not obvious that Beijing is ready, or eager, to take on this load.