Why the West needs a new Eurasian strategy

Artem Kvartalnov

After the Ukraine crisis, Western policy towards Russia was simply extended to include Russian-led integration projects: the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was denied recognition, whereas European Union (EU) and EAEU economic cooperation was and is out of the question. Is this policy worth it?
Strictly speaking, when it comes to elaborating a Eurasian strategy, non-EAEU countries have a limited range of policy options to choose from. First, they could actively resist Eurasian integration through supporting alternative integration projects and inciting conflicts among EAEU nations. Second, they may passively counteract integration processes by means of neglecting the realities ensuing from the EAEU’s existence. Third, they could recognize the EAEU’s right to exist and establish comprehensive relations with the Union. Finally, they may use Eurasian integration to advance their own interests. The Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, which is one of the key EAEU bodies, is composed of 10 commissioners representing 5 member states, and the Board’s decisions are made by a qualified majority. Other governing bodies of the Union make their decisions by consensus. This means that Eurasian integration can serve as a check on Russia’s economic policies: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan can collectively block any official decision of the Union. Moreover, there is no indication that the EAEU ensures Russia’s effective leadership in the post-Soviet space: the Eurasian Economic Union lacks a positive agenda for the future, which actually makes Moscow’s role fairly contextual. Therefore, the perception of the EAEU as subordinated to Russia and its interests appears to be misleading: incredible as it seems, Western countries could effectively use EAEU institutions to promote their agenda instead of counteracting Eurasian integration as such.
To put it bluntly, any new international institution can be described as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with a particular content. Eurasian integration is a very young project, and its future identity is contingent upon many internal and external factors. Instead of serving as an instrument of Russian expansionism, the EAEU may well be transformed into a mechanism of Russia’s modernization and Westernization. Few people would argue today that ASEAN is hostile to Western countries, although the Association was initially conceived to keep South-East Asia away from both Soviet and American influence and involvement. So is there any reason to portray the EAEU as hostile to America and Europe? As of 2020, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which are EAEU members, maintain cordial relations with the West. These are the very countries that could serve as conduits for reshaping the EAEU according to Western interests and ideals by blocking unfavourable decisions and pushing a more pro-Western agenda, and they do have institutional capabilities to do so.
The second assumption underlying the resistance strategy is that Eurasian integration is a very weak project driven by the momentary interests of the Russian Federation. Hence, it is inferred that there is no point in maintaining the dialogue with the EAEU because the whole integration project is doomed to failure in the long term. This perception is emblematic of a very limited understanding of post-Soviet politics in Western countries: in reality, it is highly likely that the EAEU will outlast the political regimes that currently govern EAEU countries, as Eurasian integration is conducive to quite a few forces and interest groups present in the region. The third assumption of those opposing Eurasian integration is that the EAEU is a potential competitor for European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. This argument has a solid basis, since the intensification of Eurasian integration processes in the 2010s can rightly be characterized as Russia’s response to NATO enlargement and to the EU’s Eastern Partnership project. Samuel Charap and Mikhail Troitskiy refer to this competition between Europe and Eurasia using the term “integration dilemma.” They argue that “[b]y promoting engagement with the states of post-Soviet Eurasia largely through integration initiatives that are de facto closed to one another, the West and Russia have (often unintentionally) forced these states to make zero-sum choices.” The “integration dilemma” can strike at almost any post-Soviet country: Belarus, Moldova, and Armenia can fall victim to this dilemma, just as Ukraine did in 2014.
However, following the logic of the “integration dilemma” is a flawed strategy. What we have seen in practice is that a country’s accession to the EAEU has little impact on its relations with external actors. For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) freely operates in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, although these countries are frequently described as belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence. The Open Societies Foundations operate in Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, although George Soros, its founder and chair, has a bad image in Eastern Europe. This once again proves my point that influencing and shaping the EAEU is more effective than counteracting it.
Since the integration dilemma is still there, let me assume that the resistance strategy is a perfect fit. If so, counteracting Eurasian integration requires creating and nurturing alternative identities, which would be strong enough to defy the Eurasian core. This resembles the all too familiar strategy of isolating Russia through detaching it from other post-Soviet states, which was one of the roots of the ongoing crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Although Russian state media contends that the West has been adept at nurturing anti-Russian sentiments in the post-Soviet space, it can be said that the resistance strategy has been less successful and effective than is often supposed. First, while surveys show that strong pro-Western sentiments exist in Ukraine or Armenia, the situation is quite different in Central Asian countries, where Russia continues to enjoy unquestionable moral authority. Second, European integration is a more difficult path than Eurasian integration when it comes to institutional, political, and economic prerequisites, which means that popular support for European integration might erode over time if there is no or little noticeable progress in the integration process. Finally, detaching Russia from its neighbours is quite costly, since it requires this very progress, which presupposes conducting comprehensive political and economic reforms in post-Soviet countries and stimulating these reforms through financial aid.
All this means that the strategy of resisting Eurasian integration is unlikely to achieve its objectives at an affordable cost, whereas the policy of wisely influencing it seems to be more fruitful and less bellicose. Then why not adopt this policy for the good of America, Europe, and Eurasia?
—Modern Diplomacy