On November 14, Dmitry Peskov the press secretary for the president of Russia, stated, “I am not a supporter of the theory that Russia is making some sort of drift to the East […] these words were said by political scientists… China will not be able to replace [Russia’s] multi-vector cooperation with other partners.” Peskov added that Moscow highly values cooperation with business partners from the United States and Europe, warning that “turns to one direction will inevitably result in shrinking our growth and development potential” (Lenta.ru, November 14). Sergei Karaganov, one of Russia’s key ideologists and advocates of the “Turn to the East” strategy, voiced a similar idea on December 4, though in a much more cautious way. Praising the achievements of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Karaganov nonetheless claimed that the most adequate step for Russia to take now would be tightening ties between the EEU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the European Union—thus, creating an inter-organizational and supra-regional nexus under the umbrella of a so-called “Greater Eurasian Partnership” (GEP). Karaganov further asserted that, “based on the analysis of undisputed successes and some problems, it would be prudent to undertake a tactical pause when it comes to the EEU” (Rossyiskaya Gazeta December 4). It thus appears that the idea of pursuing the GEP strategy is potentially becoming the dominant theme in Russia’s geopolitical discourse, gradually superseding Moscow’s previous Eurasian integrationist initiatives (see EDM, October 7, 2011; China Brief, June 19, 2018).
The roots of this concept go back some years. Notably, in 2015, Vladimir Putin specifically referred to Eurasia as “not a chessboard or a geopolitical playground, but our peaceful and prosperous home” (Lenta.ru, July 9, 2015). Subsequently, between 2016 and 2017, that stated characterization grew into the assumption that China—which, Moscow presumed, is unlikely to vie for the role of Eurasian hegemon—would be willing to develop its New Silk Road project on par with Russia’s own regional geo-economic and integrationist endeavors. Chinese cooperation in this manner would, therefore, allow Russia to confidently act in all four major strategic directions (European, Southern, Arctic and Asia-Pacific), in addition to a bolder policy toward the Americas. As such, the GEP space would serve as a platform for “a trilateral dialogue on global problems and international strategic stability between Russia, the United States and China,” Karaganov argues in mid-2017 (Interaffairs.ru, May 25, 2017).
The idea has had a mixed reception, to date. On February 8, during Russian Business Week 2018, a special panel entitled “Greater Eurasia: From Political Idea Toward Assembling Technology” concluded that, within a decade, China is likely to become the main “assembling point of Eurasia,” whereas Russia will be sidelined (Eurasia.expert, February 8). Several months later, in an article for Globalaffairs.ru, Viktor Larin, a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Science and a professor at the Far Eastern Federal University, provided an austere criticism of the idea. Namely, he states that “such concepts as ‘turn,’ ‘integration’ and ‘development’ applied to the Far East might seem real to Kremlin dreamers; but here, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, these are taken as simply another experiment.” Larin points to the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is an arena of struggle for influence between China and the US, whereas Russia can only adjust to this configuration. Larin concludes that “the Russian version of the ‘Turn to the East’ is nothing but an intellectual exercise of a group of Moscow-based intellectuals that is not genuinely supported by the Russian political elite” (Globalaffairs.ru, September 13).
Irrespective of such criticism, a group of Russian analysts (within the scope of the Valdai Discussion Club) released a report several months ago entitled “Toward the Great Ocean—6.” The document specifically proclaims success for the first stage of Russia’s “Turn to the East” and argues that the Russian Federation must now become an “assembling point” for the GEP—Russia’s “gates connecting this huge continent into a new entity.” Importantly, the authors claim that, thanks to Chinese initiatives, the center of gravity of global trade is now shifting from the high seas toward the vast continental interior of Eurasia (Valdaiclub.com, September 1).
This idea attracted a great deal of fact-based criticism. For one thing, maritime shipping still handles around 90 percent of all global trade (Un.org, Ics-shipping.org, accessed December 14), and as recently as 2016 the EU itself imported over 80 percent (by quantity) of third-country goods by ship (Ec.europa.eu, November 15). Moreover, recent economic analysis by the Kremlin-funded Greater Eurasia Project clearly concluded Russia cannot offer China anything other than natural resources. And its authors note, “Key branches of the Russian economy will be unable to compete if Beijing actually builds major infrastructural projects on Russian territory connecting China with Europe” (Gea.site, December 5).
Vladimir Nezhdanov, an expert with the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Integration Prospects, shares such criticism. He notes, first of all, that the Chinese leadership construes the Russian-dominated EEU as one of, but not the only body that could be useful for Beijing’s transcontinental One Belt, One Road (OBOR) transit and infrastructure initiative. In fact, the Chinese side is more inclined to consider the SCO as its main tool for accomplishing such regional objectives. Second, China thinks of Russia as its junior partner in Beijing-led integration projects in Eurasia. And in the absolute majority of regional projects financially supported by Beijing (including when in cooperation with Russia), China dictates the rules of the game for all involved. He concludes that, “given the available data, Russia does not have a single financially lucrative option of economic integration in Eurasia” (Eurasia.expert, December 4).
In the final analysis, three main aspects should be outlined. First, Russia is demonstrating an inability to lead its own Eurasian integration project. Reducing its focus on the EEU, Russia is increasingly tilting toward the highly illusory GEP concept. But instead of taking on the role of a regional integrator, Russia is rapidly turning into a subordinate element of China’s own far-reaching plans. Second, though continuing to actively play up cooperation with China, Russian elites are increasingly aware of the inherent dangers of this “strategic partnership.” Facing hostile relations with the West while being largely dismissed as inconsequential in the East (see EDM, May 14, December 12), Russia finds itself in an increasingly precarious position. Third, instead of clarifying its role and mission in the Asia-Pacific, Russia seems even more confused than a decade ago. The only beneficiary is Beijing, which is aptly capitalizing on Moscow’s misconceptions.