_ Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director , Valdai Club. Moscow, 9 July 2020.
In Greater Eurasia, there are no basic conditions for integration and collective security to be built through the unconditional dominance of one power, as is traditional for the West. But this also creates opportunities for development of institutions based on a balance of forces recognised by the participants – great, medium and small powers. Moreover, for the first time in its history, Russia is interested in fostering such a balance and excluding from it those states for which regional problems of security and development are not fundamentally important.
China and India are countries that are powerful enough to compete with each other, but neither of them has the totality of military and political resources to ensure a complete victory. At the same time, they face common security challenges. First of all, there is Islamic religious extremism in the neighbourhood they share. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, after its creation, was used quite successfully by the participating countries to cooperate in this area and to resolve the reasons for territorial contradictions. Now the question is whether it can be used to mitigate a conflict between its most populous member countries.
In addition, the new aggravation of the territorial conflict between India and China raises the question of whether there are prospects for multilateral cooperation in Greater Eurasia. Russia has been promoting this concept for almost five years and is considering it at all levels as its main plan for the entire macro-region and its future. Now, the initial interest of the main regional partners in its narrative is being replaced by a decrease in general attention to the idea of Greater Eurasia as a whole. First of all, because everything is obscured by the growing global conflict between China and the United States. Also, because Russia itself has stopped and begun to think about how reasonable it will be to continue to bet on the development of multilateral cooperation and institutions in the region, and whether it is critically important for its national security. Russia’s steps in creating wider international partnerships will be specifically determined by which means it decides are the most appropriate for ensuring its own security.
For Moscow, the establishment of mechanisms for international cooperation in which it would not play a fully leading role is a fairly new experience. There are several reasons why the appeal of such a policy has grown since the beginning of the 2000s. First, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia lost direct control over the states located on its immediate periphery. Nevertheless, Moscow continued to exercise decisive importance in all of these countries in matters of security, with the exception of the Baltic countries. In addition, Russia reasonably believes that extending direct territorial control and presence no longer play a decisive role in preventing those threats to its internal territories that may come from outside. In the final stages of its existence, maintaining a huge empire, as well as the communist ideology, already represented a burden rather than an advantage for the Russian state.
Second, over 30 years of independence, Russia’s neighbours have been able, to varying degrees, to take advantage of the opportunities that the integration of the world political and economic space has opened up to them. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, this space has become much more democratic and now offers many alternatives. For Central Asian states, China and its economic opportunities are such an alternative. Although the countries of Central Asia are afraid of China, they do not refuse to attract it to solve certain problems related to their own development. These factors, along with a significant weakening of Russia itself in all areas except military strategy, helped it to experiment in the mid-2000s and try to create regional organisations where the most important factor in the world is not the strength of one of the participants, but their common benefit and material interests. The most striking example of such an experiment was the Eurasian Economic Union. Its composition is largely focused on the experience of European integration and seeks maximum justice in relation to the interests of all participants, regardless of their size and ability to independently ensure their survival.
But at the same time, Moscow’s efforts to build multilateral cooperation face serious challenges. The most important of these constraints is the continued power of Russia itself. According to the exact definition of Dominic Lieven, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia lost its empire, but retained its main diamond – Siberia, with its colossal expanses and unlimited natural wealth. This treasure ensured that it wouldn’t become a third-rate European power, as happened with Britain, Austria, and Turkey after they lost their imperial possessions. Among the countries of the Old World, the only exception is France, which, among other things, maintains a military presence in a number of resource-rich former African colonies. The preservation of such resources is both a source of power for Russia and a limiter of diplomatic flexibility.
To some extent, thanks to its territories and its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is roughly equal to those of the United States, Russia is still the least reliant on international order. This creates opportunities for phenomenal foreign policy behaviour, based on the size of its economy and population. But at the same time, Russia does not feel the need to create order and alliances in order to solve the problems of its survival. This makes its attempts to build truly multilateral regional institutions especially appreciative.
Moreover, Russia really does not have experience in ensuring its security through participation in regional “concerts” or unions. At the beginning of the 19th century, this was clearly manifest during the Vienna Congress, when achieving a long-term balance was a matter of fundamental importance for Britain, Austria, Prussia or France, and a desirable, but not necessary, condition for a successful future for Russia. Even if we pay attention to how modern Russian theorists turn to the experience of the “European concert” of the 19th century, we will see that this “concert” for Russia was not a way to maintain regional balance, but governance by the strongest.
In Greater Eurasia, Russia really came as close as possible to the fact that its security and foreign policy successes depended on how it succeeded in combining the many often conflicting interests of sovereign powers. The entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of India and Pakistan was assessed by many observers as the beginning of the end of this relatively successful institution. Indian foreign policy ambitions, the conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as historical suspicions between China and India, are all objective factors. It is also no less objective that at a certain stage of its development, the SCO already faced the problem of the interests of its most important participants not coinciding – Russia wanted more cooperation in the military sphere, China in the economic sphere. This, in principle, was understandable, because everyone sought to realise their power potential where they were most convincing. The expansion of the SCO can be interpreted as an attempt by Russia to give the organisation a new dimension – international diplomacy. This can expand the number of interests and involved power potentials, which is beneficial for the internal sustainability of any organisation. In other words, after the entry of India, the SCO’s structure evolved from bipolar cooperation into multipolar cooperation.
We must not forget that the reduction of mutual suspicion is a central function of international cooperation institutions. According to the basics of the liberal theory of international relations, institutions increase mutual trust and different types of exchange, which ultimately makes the conflict less profitable than cooperation. The life of institutions begins with diplomacy and an understanding of the relative balance of power capabilities between the participants. Now the SCO is precisely a political institution, despite the fact that over the years of its existence, an infrastructure has been created within its framework for deeper cooperation. It will certainly be preserved and will be improved, taking into account new, less significant, challenges.
However, the present future of the SCO, as the Sino-Indian conflict confirms, is precisely in the field of “high politics.” In Greater Eurasia, there are no basic conditions for integration and collective security to be built through the unconditional dominance of one power, as is traditional for the West. But this also creates opportunities for the further development of the institution based on a balance of forces recognised by the participants – great, medium and small powers. Moreover, for the first time in its history, Russia is interested in fostering such a balance and excluding from it those states for which regional problems of security and development are not fundamentally important.