Originally Published 2020-08-04 17:09:59 Published on Aug 04, 2020
Constructing greater Eurasia: The challenges ahead for Russia

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world was grappling with the question of future of the international order as both the rising and established power jostled to consolidate their positions and expand their influence. The ongoing crisis is only expected to exacerbate this ongoing churn in the global order, with the US-China rivalry projected to intensify, even as it remains unclear what will ultimately replace the post-Cold war American hegemony. However, the power shift towards Asia has been evident for quite some time now, as the global geo-political and geo-economic influence moves eastwards.

It is in this state of flux that Russia has made its turn to the east, driven both by domestic compulsions of economic development and the rising importance of Asia for the world. The 2014 breakdown of relations with the West only gave a further impetus to the Asian vector of Russian foreign policy that had already been pronounced in the form of pivot to the East. In this process, China emerged as the key partner for Russia, marked by a steady uptick in political, economic and defense ties. Despite the power asymmetries in the relationship, the partnership has continued to grow while remaining short of an alliance. The impact of this relationship has been visible not only in the pivot to the east, which has been seen as tilted towards China, but also in the more recent pronouncement of Greater Eurasia.

In 2016, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the idea of Greater Eurasia – which has since been described as an integration project ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This would involve cooperation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with SCO, ASEAN and the EU. Russia has sought cooperation with a wide-range of players – including China, India, Europe, South Korea, Pakistan and Iran for building an extensive partnership.

Here, as mentioned above, relations with China have emerged as the key towards realization of the greater Eurasian partnership, to be achieved through linking the EAEU and the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative. The trade and economic cooperation agreement of EAEU with China was slated as laying the ‘foundations for a comprehensive Eurasian partnership in the 5 plus 1 format.’ Hence, Russia has put the EAEU – the economic union where it contributes 90 per cent of the GDP – at the center of its vision for Greater Eurasia. At the same time, it must be remembered that Greater Eurasia is as much a political and strategic vision as it is an economic one, which means that more than an economic union will be needed to accomplish its stated goals.

From conceptualization to realization

Now that Russia has articulated how it sees Greater Eurasia, it is important to see the effectiveness of its proposal and the challenges that the domestic, regional and global situation will place on this ambitious goal. In terms of building bilateral relations with countries from Atlantic to the Pacific, Russia will have to mount a massive effort to reach out to regional states across this huge landmass. Russia’s relations with states across this geography - not to mention its domestic capacity to significantly improve ties - vary widely.

For instance, while it remains a critical partner for Central Asian countries and has significantly revived its presence in West Asia, its relations with Europe are yet to recover from the lows reached post the 2014 crisis. The pivot to the east has faced concerns of an overdependence on China even as Russian presence both in South Asia and East Asia leaves much to be desired. Here, Russia will have to strike a balance between building its strategic partnership with the rising power while also seeking to ensure that power asymmetries do not negatively impact pursuit of its own national interests. This will become even more challenging if the predictions of a heightened US-China rivalry come to fruition in a post-pandemic world, creating challenges for global stability.

In Asia-Pacific, its key relationship with India needs to be nurtured - especially in the economic domain - if it wants to strengthen its regional position. The efforts in the direction have been complicated due to the rapidly evolving regional situation and a reinvention of geographical constructs. The competing visions being put forth for the vast geographic expanse of Asia will form another challenge for Moscow.

Already, the debate around ideation of Indo-Pacific has seen the US, India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN put forth their respective visions.  If Russia wishes to build Greater Eurasia, it will have to engage with the ongoing regional debates, despite its reservations. As some scholars have noted, Russia would benefit from engaging with those ideas of Indo-Pacific that are non-confrontational in nature and at variance with that of the US, including the ones by ASEAN and India.

The bipolar rivalry between the US and China, expected to worsen in the post-COVID world, will only complicate matters for Russia. While relations with China remain of primary importance, it will have to demonstrate its independence from the rising power if it is to be seen as a neutral power in East Asia. The deterioration of its ties with the US has made striking a balancing act complicated for Russia in sub-regions where its bilateral and multilateral engagements remain largely limited in nature.

Apart from overcoming challenges of improving bilateral relations, Russia’s vision of Greater Eurasia will also have to deal with the dynamics of multilateral organizations it seeks to engage for the realization of its policy goals. These include, most prominently the EAEU, as well as the SCO, ASEAN and the EU, where complicated internal dynamics and diverging objectives will make management of ties a tightrope walk.

Since its formation, the EAEU has become Russia’s ‘main strategic initiative’ in the region in the economic domain and is at the center of its economic interactions with states and multilateral institutions. However, Russia has had less success in convincing EAEU members to move towards political coordination, as the latter remain wary of any political association and have steadily resisted any steps that might compromise their sovereignty. The EAEU member states are also in the process of diversifying their own foreign policies.

At present, the intra-EAEU trade has remained ‘relatively low’ even though welcome developments in terms of trade agreements with Vietnam and Singapore have taken place with negotiations ongoing with India, Egypt and Israel among others. This has come in the backdrop of Russia seeking to increase coordination between EAEU and ASEAN, and an MOU to increase economic cooperation between the two entities was signed during the Russia-ASEAN summit in 2018, a testimony to the leading role Russia plays in the EAEU diplomacy. But the weak economic linkages of Russia with the region and the recent nature of its outreach means will impact its ability to implement projects and diversify the trade portfolio.

In the case of SCO, the organization has had a limited impact on regional security due to the ‘mistrust’ among its member-states. The inclusion of India and Pakistan, despite its advantages, makes internal cohesion even more difficult due to the strained nature of Indo-Pak ties. Given that India and China too are seeking to manage each other, formation of an SCO-wide agenda to cooperate with EAEU is going to be a challenge. Even Russia had earlier resisted Chinese proposals to focus on economic issues through formation of a bank and free trade area within SCO and sought to keep relations focused on security issues. Relations with EU remain far from satisfactory, having not recovered from the 2014 crisis. A plan of action will be needed on this front as well, given that EU is also considered to be part of vision for Greater Eurasia.


It is evident that while several announcements have been made regarding Greater Eurasia, specific details regarding on-the-ground policies remain unclear. Whether it relates to specifics of ‘aligning EAEU and BRI’ or cooperation with other multilateral institutions, the ‘concept remains rather vague.’ The recession and the oil price crash threaten to drag down the already stagnating Russian economy. If domestic structural economic reforms are not undertaken, it will have far-reaching consequences for its grand foreign policy vision. Already, the economic weakness has hampered a successful pivot to the east and a continuation on the same path would impinge its ability to deliver on the ground in Eurasia.

The rationale for Greater Eurasia is well enough – seeking to exploit Russian geography to become the center of a growing region. However, in the absence of a balanced multi-vector policy and backed by a strong domestic economic growth, its ambitions will be difficult to fulfill. While China will continue to remain Russia’s pre-eminent partner in the short to middle term, Russia needs to shore up its domestic capacities and build coalitions across the board through both bilateral and multilateral means that will act as a springboard for its broader vision of Eurasia. As of now, Greater Eurasia remains a work in progress in an evolving world order.

This essay originally appeared in Russia in Global Affairs (in Russian)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs ...

Read More +