Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Concept of Eurasia - Part I

The concept of “Eurasia” illustrates well the problematic nature of geopolitics. “Eurasia” is one of the most important geopolitical concepts; as Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the center of world power.”[1] “Eurasia” encapsulates the problematic aspects of geopolitics, starting with semantics. Indeed, it is a portmanteau word with a slightly artificial ring to it, somewhat clumsily combining the words “Europe” and “Asia.” It is a typical geopolitical term; i.e. one whose different definitions reflect nations' different geopolitical interests. 

Originally, “Eurasia” is a geographical notion: in this sense, it is simply the biggest continent; the combined landmass of Europe and Asia. However, geopolitically, the word has several different meanings, reflecting the specific geopolitical interests of each nation. In the widest possible sense, the geopolitical definition of “Eurasia” is consistent with its geographical area. This is sometimes the way the word is understood in countries located at the fringes of, or outside, this area. This is generally what is meant by “Eurasia” in political circles in the USA, Japan and India.[2] Two other, narrower definitions of “Eurasia” are also worth noting: the European one and the Russian one.

When Western European political scientists talk about “Eurasia”, they generally mean Russia integrated into Europe (including Ukraine of course), economically, politically, and even militarily. At least since Napoleon, if not since Peter the Great, European strategists have understood the importance of allying with Russia, and the potential consequences of failing to do so. However, the current European view of “Eurasia” is, for obvious reasons, a far more recent concept, having emerged only in the last two decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, this political entity is about half the size, and has only 15% of the population, of the geographical “Eurasia.” Two observations are necessary with respect to what is assumed to be “Europe.” Firstly, in this case, “Europe” is seen as a single economic and political entity; i.e. the European Union.[3] Secondly, in this context of “Eurasia,” Europe” primarily means Germany. Not only has Germany emerged as the de facto leader of Europe both economically and politically after the recent financial crisis, but it also has deeper historical ties with Russia than most other nations of the European Union. It also has a stronger geopolitical interest in a political and economic integration with Russia, than the rest of the EU.[4] 

Therefore, from this Western European perspective, “Eurasia” means specifically the idea of Russia's close integration with the European Union in general and with Germany in particular (not the other way around, of course). What would this European concept of “Eurasia” mean in practice? As always, integration between nations can take place in several ways; economically, politically, militarily, and even culturally. “Eurasia” would mean at least the following, from a European point of view: at an economic level, the signing of trade agreements removing trade barriers and lowering tariffs as well as removing legal and bureaucratic hurdles to European investment in Russia; at a political level, an agreement of a EU integration model for Ukraine that is acceptable to Russia, the reduction of Russian border controls and Russian visa restrictions between the two entities, and increasing institutional collaboration; and at a military level, closer Russian alignment with the European Common Security and Defence Policy as well as, inevitably, NATO, as well as some coordination between security and military forces, and a substantial increase in procurement of European weapons by the Russian armed forces.[5] Most of these cooperation areas are already included in the concept of “Four Common Spaces” which was established in 2003 between the EU and Russia, but funded by the former.[6] 

Europe's geopolitical interest in “Eurasia”, as understood by European policy-makers, is clear and the would-be advantages for Europe are well known.[7] However, though Russia would make some gains in the long term from such an integration with Europe, Russia's geopolitical interests are clearly not complementary with the European version of “Eurasia.”[8] As one of the few independent nations of the world, Russia insists on establishing relations with Europe, “on a basis of equality and mutual benefit.”[9] This is something that Europe neither has the interest, nor the obligation, to accept. Not surprisingly, and often to the frustration of European policy-makers, naturally interested in pushing their own agenda of further integration, Russia has different geopolitical interests, as becomes clear from the Russian definition of “Eurasia.” 

The Russian concept of “Eurasia” is very different from the European one. It is a view that has older roots than the European one - not surprisingly, considering Russia's geographic position. Russian politologists traditionally view Russia itself, being both European and Asian, as “Eurasian.” The geopolitical area of the Russian concept of “Eurasia” corresponded initially more or less to the land area of Imperial Russia in 1914, including parts of Eastern Europe.[10] There is undeniably an influence of Panslavism in this definition; originally the idea of “Eurasia” was more romantically rooted in natural geography. It was the idea that the people scattered across the land called “Eurasia” shared common spiritual values due to its geographic traits, such as a flat land with few coastlines but important rivers, a particular climate (continental, often harshly so), and a certain landscape (steppe, taiga, tundra). This idea was more or less realised, but with difficulty, during the last phases of the Russian Empire and was then realised again with the Soviet Union after 1945, though not stably enough for enduring success.

Today, though this Russian geopolitical interest still exists, the physical area of the Russian “Eurasia” is now more realistically assessed. The Russian view today is that “Eurasia” consists of the land lying between Europe and Asia proper; namely, those made up of Western and Central Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, part of Caucasus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.[11] Just as in the case of the European concept of “Eurasia,” the Russian version of “Eurasia” is a geopolitical interest that underpins foreign policy in that part of the world. Thus, it is not surprising that today one of Russia's main geopolitical interests lies in ever closer integration with those countries that it considers part of “Eurasia.”

This review of the main definitions of the concept of “Eurasia” clearly bring forth the many different geopolitical interests that are understood by this word. The next post will treat the concept of “Eurasia” by looking at the important tactical aspect of geopolitics; namely the question of the realisation of the concept of “Eurasia.”


[1] Z. Brzezinski, highly influential National Security Adviser under US President Jimmy Carter. The quote is from his book “The Grand Chessboard” (Basic Books), p. xiii. Further: “A power that dominates “Eurasia” would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over “Eurasia” would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in “Eurasia”, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. “Eurasia” accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.” (p.31) 

[2] For instance, this is the way Zbigniew Brzezinski sees ”Eurasia”, naturally taking the US position. 

[3] Indeed, both Ukraine and Turkey have their own very specific historical, economic, and geopolitical relationship with Russia. And as for “Europe” meaning the EU in this case, this is not to say that the EU is not still quite far from being such a “single economic and political entity.” 

[4] This is all the more true today since Germany in the financial crisis has further increased its economic and political domination of the European Union. At the same time, the British are probably distancing themselves from the EU, if not de jure yet, at least rhetorically, and France has deep structural problems of its own, preventing it from driving the EU project together with Germany like it has in the past. Germany export-oriented industry is perfectly suited to address the Russian market, and at the same time it needs Russia's resources. Further, Germany has already got the most developed economic ties with Russia of any major nation. 

[5] Russia has recently bought French war ships. See RIA Novosti “France Floats Out First Russian Mistral”, Oct 15, 2013 (en.ria.ru/trend/warship_01102009/) 

[6] At the St. Petersburg Summit in May 2003, the EU and Russia agreed to reinforce their co-operation by creating, in the long term, four common spaces in the framework of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1997: a common economic space; a common space of freedom, security and justice; a space of co-operation in the field of external security; and a space of research, education, and cultural exchange. 

[7] Main advantages: The wealthy but struggling economies of the European Union could certainly benefit from tighter integration with the Russian economy for the resources the latter has to offer. These include both the human and natural resources of Russia. There is an obvious interest in getting close access to a large, low-wage and relatively well-educated population. It would bring energy security to Europe by removing once and for all the political and bureaucratic obstacles to the cheap and joint use of Russia's rich natural resources (gas and oil, but not only). Economically, the realisation of this concept of “Eurasia” would mean that European companies would gain direct access to the huge investment needs of Russian society. From a military perspective, a closer collaboration with Russia would add precisely the element of hard” power that Europe lacks in order to fulfil its geopolitical interest of dominating the world once again. It would also close once and for all the security issue that Europe perceives in having an independent Russia so close to its eastern borders, as the adherence to NATO of many Eastern European countries show. 

[8] See for instance, the following information about EU/Russian trade. Russia EU trade, at: russianmission.eu/en/trade 

[9] See quotation from Mr. Lavrov, Russia Foreign Minister, at: russianmission.eu/en/brief-overview-relations 

[10] This Russian concept of “Eurasia” can trace its origin to certain Russian émigrés in the 1920s Berlin, Prague and Sofia. For more details regarding the entire paragraph above, see История евразийского движения, at: www.gumer.info/bibliotek_Buks/Polit/nart/04.php 

[11] See for instance, this interesting discussion of the Russian view of “Eurasia.” Article by Dmitry Trenin, VPK daily, 29th January 2013, at : rbth.co.uk/opinion/2013/01/29/revising_the_concept_of_“Eurasia”_22305.html