Eurasia and Eurasianism in the 21st Century: Security, Identity, and Alliance Culture
The establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has a history going back much further than that of the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and bears potential exceeding the geographical boundaries of the union itself. The EAEU is indirectly connected to the history of Eurasianism and, since the joint Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS summit held in Ufa in 2015, has gained additional vectors, such as linking up with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative as well as the activities of the SCO encompassing countries of both Central and South Asia. This points to three interrelated factors: the role of alliances, their identities, and security regimes in the broadest sense of the term. In this article, the authors attempt to analyze these factors concerning the EAEU and, more broadly, the SCO as a similar structure operating in Eurasia. A descriptive methodology and interdisciplinary approach are employed, and an attempt is made to yield geopolitical foresight (forecast) with regards to several scenarios.
The process of integration within the Eurasian Economic Union, besides questions of trade regulation, the adaptation of national legislations, and the forging of favorable conditions for the development and growth of participating countries’ economies, inevitably involves questions of ideology and security. The EAEU project itself implies a supra-state identity which is in need of ideological conceptualization and substance. Insofar as, since the collapse of the USSR, all of its former republics have to one degree or another begun to engage in the development of their own national ideologies and politics of identity, any supra-state superstructure will need, in the very least, to re-conceptualize national projects and include them into a broader agenda. A more detailed and systematic approach necessitates the construction of a complex, adaptive architecture linking ethno-national factors, regional security, geo-economic challenges, and inclusive political methods. In technical terms (and in line with one of the principles of the integration strategy of the European Union towards new members) we can speak of the presence of multiple referential layers of integration and of the possibility of enacting varying paces.
The scope of such an investigation inevitably points towards the geopolitical context and geopolitical dynamics of regional processes. If from the standpoint of classical geopolitics the EAEU embodies the Heartland of Eurasia, which implies adhering to the strategy of land power and, as follows, confronting the challenge of sea power, then through the prism of critical geopolitics this binary opposition is rendered secondary, and instruments of power transcend borders. Unlike classical geopolitics, critical geopolitics pays greater attention to the “lower” levels of power rather than macro- or global economic processes. Critical geopolitics emphasizes not so much the sources and structures of power as the everyday practices of realizing power relations and the mental models which ensure them. Alongside political geography, critical geopolitics posits that spatiality is not limited to territoriality. State power is not wielded only within the territory of a state.
Such a posing of the question allows for a more flexible approach to projecting inter-state and supra-state projects without depreciating the significance of national sovereignties. In the post-Soviet space, there are two interconnected functioning projects, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the first of which emphasizes economic development, while the second is associated with questions of regional security. However, upon more detailed consideration, the development of the Eurasian integration project – even if exclusively of an economic trajectory – cannot be realized in isolation from security issues.
As pointed out by Professor A.D. Ursul, “security, in its most general form, is a means of preserving a given object in the face of different types of internal and external negative influences…The point of ensuring security lies in preserving an object in a form in which it can continue to exist and develop.” In previous time, security has been discerned according to rather limited criteria, in which the emphasis was put on the political, social, or ideological dimensions. A certain trend also focused on security in the face of man-made catastrophes and the surrounding environment. Only later did it become clear that, alongside ecological security, it is important to include other characteristics of the real process of development, such as the economic, political, legal, demographic, and informational dimensions, etc. These postulates are also appropriate for the EAEU. Yet disputes are arising over what should be of priority: the economic aspects of integration, or political structure. Nominally, given the name of the union, economics should predominate. However, economics is an instrument for the pursuance of the economy (khoziaistva) of society. In a state, politics is primary before economics, insofar as the very existence of the state depends on such. Certain economic criteria can be set as goals of the state and reflect the ethical code of the people. From Russia’s position, the economic aspect will always be a secondary element.
It has been noted that “Russia’s strategic goal should be the economic and military-political integration of the post-Soviet space.” The EAEU has a special function to fulfill to this end: “Eurasian integration presents Russia with the opportunity to return to ‘superpower status’, one which will not belong to Russia single-handedly, but as one (albeit the largest) element within the construction of the Eurasian space.”
Insofar as the EAEU is an open project, the question of the interests of potential new members is fully, naturally logical. In the opinion of Professor A.I. Smirnov, interest in joining the EAEU will be tied to geopolitical expediency, while economic components will only be secondary. The experience of the European Union and its inclusion of new members from among the countries of Eastern Europe confirms the geopolitical and not economic character of integration within this union. Moreover, the reluctance of multiple countries to abandon their national currencies and switch to the Euro is demonstrative of political priorities. The neutrality of multiple EU members towards NATO as well as, conversely, the active engagement of other members in the North Atlantic Alliance, and the creation of the Visegrad Group out of Eastern European countries – which became possible only after their joining the EU and NATO – must be taken note of. The situation with Brexit is also a reflection of geopolitical contradictions within the EU, not economic instability.
At the same time, the creation of a new geopolitical construct with corresponding security components – even if the role of all participants is agreed upon in technical order – inevitably raises the topic of ideology. When connected to the projection of power, ideology has several dimensions. As pointed out by Franklin Ankersmit, “ideology is always metaphorical. Ideology defines a point of view from which we are invited to see social and political reality.” In Ankersmit’s opinion, “if metaphor defines a certain political ‘point of view’ from which social reality is conceptualized, it is the state onto which this point of view can be projected. The state enables us to translate ideological, metaphorical insight into concrete political action. Without a state, ideology is helpless, without ideology the state has no program for political action.”  As follows, there should be some kind of interface or connection where philosophical, cultural, and religious aspects can feed political decisions. Ankersmit also holds that “the nonideological state is a stupid and ineffective state, and its capacity to learn will decrease accordingly.” The absence of ideology automatically means losing one’s position within alliances as well as a decrease in one’s ability to respond to external challenges, insofar as ideology is also directly tied to the foreign policy vectors of a state, whether concerning neighboring or distant countries, partners or opponents.
Independent of whatever school of International Relations, there exists the opinion that “ideologies, or actors’ foundational principles of domestic political legitimacy, are likely to impact leaders’ foreign policies by affecting their perceptions of the threats that others pose to their central domestic and international interests. The greater the ideological differences dividing decision makers from different states, the more likely they are to view one another as substantial dangers to both their domestic power and the security of their respective countries.” 
Among such external challenges, “the expansion of NATO and its advance up to the borders of our country has become one of the key geopolitical problems of the present.” In 2014, the contradictions which had accumulated in dialogue between Russia and Western countries reached a critical point and caused an unprecedented aggravation of relations.
Insofar as the space of the former USSR has seen the evolution of so-called “geopolitical pluralism”, it is very difficult to count on the development of deep integration. The good neighbor belt which has been one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities has been fractured, and the West has successfully formed part of an anti-Russian buffer zone. This creates risks for further integration processes in general, and for Russia’s role in the Eurasian space in general. Under the pressure of the West, it is necessary to more articulately substantiate decisions and alternative scenarios for both EAEU partners and other alliances.
A more flexible mechanism for responsive measures and planning can be achieved through the synchronization of key elements of the strategic cultures and national interests of EAEU countries (and more broadly those of the SCO). Firstly, insofar as the main tendencies in international relations are tied to the school of political realism in its different variations, the role of strategic culture and the interests of states will remain rather high. Secondly, the interconnection of strategic culture and national interests will directly shape an ideology on the basis of which a political agenda can be formed. Thirdly, allied partners’ perceptions of their national interests as their own can best be achieved given common value-based motives in cultural and political tradition(s).
Russian military experts have repeatedly noted the need for such a mechanism of a systemic nature, even if such has not been characterized as an ideology per se, but expressed in other terms. Such is often raised in the shape of the notion of a development strategy. “The will to wage war is, in essence, when considered in terms of prospects, the will to rule after war. Therefore, the aim of each side’s army is to develop and choose a strategy for victory for its side. The winning strategy will thereby, for some time, become the strategy of the whole global community.”
Taking into account the ongoing confrontation and potential for conflict, measures for deterring rivals should also take into consideration a detailed analysis of strategic culture, since “Deterrence…as a typical strategic concept, is concerned with influencing the choices that another party will make, and doing it by influencing his expectations of how we will behave.”
Insofar as strategic culture directly reflects collective identity, this latter concept is also in need of clarification. Identification is a complex phenomenon encompassing self-understanding, community, and connectedness. Rogers Brubaker discerns the existence of relational and categorical forms of identification. The first assumes the existence of some kind of network of connections, whereas the second points towards belonging to a class or group having common attributes, such as nationality, race, language, etc. A state can be a powerful “identifier” insofar as it “has the material and symbolic resources to impose the categories, classificatory schemes, and modes of social counting and accounting.” The optimal scenario is seen as the combination of both forms, in which clusters with clear identities are immeshed in deep and inextricable relationships. This ideal type for the state is somewhat more difficult to realize in systems of associations, unions, and alliances. No single recipe exists. In the West, the emphasis is on Transatlantic values and traditions; in Muslim countries the appeal is made to religious identity (e.g, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and in ASEAN countries the accent is on poly-cultural dialogue and the need for regional cooperation. At the present moment, the main emphasis within the EAEU is on the common historical past and geographical proximity. Another pivotal (albeit not accentuated) element within the EAEU is the course towards establishing a multipolar world. This provision has been enshrined in the foreign policy strategy of the Russian Federation.
As noted by A.Ya. Shcherbakova: “The Russian Federation is the most active state, after the US, on questions of the formation of a new world order, and it meets the following principles: Russia is a member of the UN Security Council, it is increasing its political and military prestige, using the diplomatic experience which it has obtained in resolving the conflict in Syria, it is defending its own sovereignty, strengthening national security, and actively fighting terrorism on a global level.” It has also been pointed out that “our country wields all that is necessary to take a leading position in both the economic and cultural spheres in the new multipolar world.”
However, in strategic documents, multipolarity has been primarily of a declarative character. There has been no precise definition of multipolarity nor – and this is important – has Russia expressed a vision of how a multipolar architecture ought to be built beyond its criticism of the US’ unipolarity and besides its statements on the need to participate in various associations.
Considering Eurasian integration, it has also been noted that “the implementation of a set of measures for strengthening the framework of the EAEU and its consolidation on the current integration track demands the development of an ideology of Eurasian integration.” This testifies to the vacuum of ideas in the current political process. It is obvious that the process of Eurasian integration is rising to a new level, and with time will lead to the formation of a new geopolitical center of world politics. A targeted ideology aimed at developing the EAEU might potentially represent one version of a strategy for multipolarity.
Yet another serious question is the practical realization of potential theoretical models. Specialists have noted that old methods and tool kits are no longer effective, in connection with which there is heightened interest in an “exit strategy”, in the rethinking of traditional views of strategic planning mechanisms, and in continuing work on integrating the priorities of national security policy into Russia’s macro-strategy.
Without a doubt, it must be agreed that “it is necessary to intensify the work of the EAEU scientific community on formulating an ideology of Eurasian integration.” Russian international affairs experts frequently suggest the use of “soft power” methods for the attainment of set goals. On the one hand, “part of soft power is the potential of partnership, flexibility, negotiability, and the ability to transform – all of these factors determine soft power as a key instrument of integration processes.” On the other hand, however, soft power cannot be used as a “one-for-all.” This is merely a general description of the phenomenon which demands authentic content. Yet there is another side, and “cultural-civilizational differences determine the development of societies to a greater extent than other factors. The transplanting of institutions, methods, practices, and technologies into a different culturo-historical system is not only ineffective but is, quite frankly, often harmful.”
Therefore, it is necessary to prepare multiple development scenarios which have the same priorities and target groups. In the case of a positive development in the situation, several scenarios can be combined to impart overall strategy with a synergetic effect and translate such into a field of integrated complexity.
One such scenario would be an integrated-adaptive approach. In accordance with this option, the EAEU should develop a sufficiently clear ideology to be applied as an umbrella model for members of the union. Such should be flexible, and its main postulates should correspond to the national interests of all the states belonging to the EAEU. To some extent, this also applies to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but then there arises the question of correctly understanding the Chinese perception of world order and Beijing’s long-term strategy.
A second scenario would entail a normative approach. This case envisions the gradual amendment of the Constitutions of the states belonging to the EAEU, as well as the adjustment of the organization’s Charter. This seems unlikely in the short term.
A third approach would be a multilateral mode of interaction. According to this scenario, the EAEU, CSTO, and SCO, as well as other initiatives such as the Belt and Road, would develop autonomously, without visible integration with one another, but within the context of the common interests of all these structures. This is the most likely development scenario. At the same time, it should be taken into consideration that the activeness of all organizations will differ in terms of the scales of tasks and responsibilities. In one way or another, Russia and China will play the role of the two motors, insofar as they are “regional powers belonging to the same subsystem of international relations, as well as great powers which have interests in practically all corners of the world.” The application of the umbrella ideology of Eurasianism in its various versions would be expedient in this scenario.
As for a fourth approach, insofar as the post-Soviet space has already experienced unsuccessful projects, such as the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development and the Commonwealth of Independent States, it cannot be ruled out that the EAEU’s activities might freeze, or even that a member-country may leave for one reason or another. Without a doubt, such would be the most negative turn of events, but such also demands analysis in order to foresee and provide for the timely blocking of such processes. The first three scenarios, including their synthesis in various formats, are therefore the most desirable.
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Co-authors: Konstantin Kurylev, Sergey Bazavluk, Vladimir Yurtaev.
Translator: Jafe Arnold
Originally published in Russian language in the “Informatsionnye voyny” magazine [Information Wars] 3:51 (2019), pp. 47-51.