In the two years since Russia began its “pivot to Asia,” Moscow has touted its involvement in two major regional initiatives: the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). When presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a declaration on cooperation between the EEU and the SREB in May 2015, Moscow and Beijing agreed to coordinate their economic initiatives on the continent for the first time, potentially ushering in a new era of Eurasian cooperation.  

Both projects looked promising initially. Moscow’s involvement added global prestige to Xi Jinping’s SREB initiative, allowing above-ground transportation routes to run from China to Europe, and providing new markets for Chinese manufacturers and infrastructure companies. The SREB seemed to have the potential to bring China and Central Asia closer together and to strengthen the position of the yuan as the regional currency. 

Chinese recognition of the EEU seemed to fulfill Moscow’s desire to be respected as a global economic and political force, and set the stage for Russia to receive Chinese credit on favorable terms, as well as investment in infrastructure projects connecting the members of the EEU. 

For their part, the Central Asian nations expected engagement with China through the EEU to give them access to cheap Chinese money, as well as investment and employment opportunities. 

Despite their potential, however, these projects have thus far failed to make any meaningful impact on the integration of Eurasia’s largest economies.

The most recent EEU summit, held in Astana on May 31, did little to clarify the trajectory of the union’s relations with China; the leaders of the five EEU countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan) merely authorized the union’s Economic Commission to negotiate an economic partnership with China. The time frame for this project speaks for itself: bureaucrats involved suspect that the entire negotiation process will take upwards of ten years. 

In the face of EEU inaction, China has chosen to pursue bilateral agreements—rather than using the EEU as a platform for collective negotiation—which the Central Asian states have been eager to sign. What exactly Russia stands to gain from this arrangement is unclear. 

What has Russia done wrong and how can it correct its mistakes? 

First and foremost, Russia sees its partners in Central Asia as countries whose fate should be determined by neighboring superpowers; leaders in capitals east of Moscow have taken notice. 

This lack of respect for its allies reflects a more deep-seated problem: the Kremlin simply doesn’t have a realistic vision for the role Russia should play in Central Asia in the long term. Moscow still considers Central Asia to be exclusively within its sphere of influence, as a region that Russia should dominate economically, politically, and militarily. 

But nobody is willing to calculate how much this influence will cost. The powers that be in Moscow never pause to consider whether there are less costly alternatives, or why many post-Soviet nations are looking for partners other than Russia. 

The reality is that Moscow wouldn’t be able to maintain its economic dominance in Central Asia even if it wanted to. Countries that export the same commodities don’t tend to trade with each other on a large scale, even if they are neighbors and have historical ties—take Saudi Arabia and Oman, for example.

Beijing will ultimately start to fill the void as the largest commodities importer in the region. China is already the largest importer of raw goods from Central Asia, and recent data show that trade and investments from China are growing faster than those from Russia. Reversing this trend is unnecessary and, more likely than not, infeasible. 

The shifting geopolitical landscape will also diminish Russia’s role in Central Asia: in the next generation, Moscow will be only one of several power centers, alongside China, the West, and regional players like Turkey and Iran. 

Even as its political and economic influence diminishes, however, Russia remains the most important player in Central Asian security. Still, given Russia’s economic stagnation, Beijing is already thinking about supplanting Moscow as the region’s security guarantor in the long term. This inclination is clear from recent bilateral collaboration between the armed forces of China and those of several Central Asian nations, as well as from my conversations with Chinese experts advising Zhongnanhai.

In light of growing Chinese influence, how should Moscow maintain its interests in Central Asia? 

First, Moscow should stop thinking of the other members of the Eurasian Economic Union as junior partners. Russian and Central Asian weakness vis-à-vis China should inspire consolidation and cooperation rather than competition.

Second, Russia should stop being afraid of the SREB as an instrument of Chinese economic expansion. If the Kremlin continues blocking Chinese economic initiatives in Central Asia, Beijing will cooperate with nations in that region only bilaterally, completely bypassing Russia. Russia should take part in SREB initiatives along with its EEU allies and try to establish norms that benefit it and its partners. What’s more, the best global practices included in the founding charter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—negotiated after Great Britain and Germany decided to join the Chinese initiative—could serve as an inspiring example of intellectual leadership for Russia.

Third, Moscow should work not only with Eurasian governments but also with private businesses in the region. The recent creation of an EEU Business Council is a step in the right direction. It has the potential to operate as a platform where member states’ commercial leaders find common ground.

Russia can maintain its influence in the region by deploying its significant political resources to renew relationships with its Eurasian partners. Moscow should be wise and humble enough to be able to compensate for its waning economic influence by forging common interests with the Central Asian states and defending them in negotiations with China, the region’s new superpower. 

This article originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti.

  • Alexander Gabuev