If geography is destiny, then Russia is fated to be the world’s great Eurasian power. The largest country in the world by far, it stretches from the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea, across a vast sweep of land, two thirds in Asia, a third in Europe. Its strategic location, rich natural sources, world-leading nuclear arsenal, and one of the strongest armed forces of any nation gives the Russian state its authority and geopolitical muscle, providing Moscow the opportunity to play an important and influential global role, more significant than its economy’s size (outside the top 10) might imply.
Historically, Russia has been a unique force of globalization. In the 20th century, as the leading country of the Soviet Union, it tried to spread communism in the world, creating a bloc of socialist nations. After the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, Russia’s next major integration project was the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), launched in its current format in 2015. The grouping brings together former Soviet states including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, with Moldova and Uzbekistan as observers. (Cuba too has observer status.)
In the short period of time since its establishment, the EAEU has signed free-trade agreements with Serbia and ASEAN members Singapore and Vietnam, and an interim accord with Iran. Free-trade negotiations with Cambodia, also part of ASEAN, are ongoing. The overarching mission of the EAEU, however, is to drive economic cooperation and integration in the Eurasian continent. To this end, in 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) which aims to consolidate related integration projects from Vladivostok to Lisbon.
But what lies behind the GEP – what are the opportunities it offers and the obstacles that could hamper its implementation? What political and economic benefits can the concept provide to Russia and its fellow EAEU members?
The Greater Eurasian Partnership strategy
The Eurasian continent is home to different civilizations, nations, states and organizations, which not only cooperate with each other but also compete or even clash, their contradictory interests leading in the past to bloody wars. Russia and the other EAEU members are geographically and logically the main bridge between Europe and Asia. But after the end of the Cold War, lingering incongruities between Russia and Europe have prevented any serious integration between the European Union and the EAEU and its precursors.
There are, for example, differences over norms of the world order, the Ukrainian crisis, the political transition in Belarus, human rights, and democratic values, among other matters. Tensions between Moscow and Washington have also been an impediment to closer ties. After all, the EU and the United States have deep economic relations and strongly aligned strategic interests, underpinned by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, which reaches right up to the borders with Russia and Belarus. US sanctions on Russia in response to Russian activity in Ukraine have limited the EU’s room for maneuver.
Russia’s differences with the EU have been the main obstacle to Moscow’s making headway with the GEP to its West. Instead, it has pursued its own “pivot towards the East”, where its overtures may be more welcome. For Russia, turning eastward means greater interaction with China, as well as stronger relations with India and ASEAN and opportunities for cooperation with Japan and South Korea.