In a New Year's message to U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote that Russia was "open to dialogue with the United States on the most extensive agenda." The message was a hopeful one for 2019, written to close out a year in which relations between Russia and the West continued to deteriorate along numerous fronts. In reality, Russia's standoff with the West will likely only intensify this year. A key evolution in Russia's strategy — indeed, in Russia's very identity — over the course of the Putin era is a big reason why.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power nearly 20 years ago, Russia has developed a Eurasian identity and strategy that has made it increasingly distinct from the West. Looming demographic changes and Russia's foreign policy maneuvering between the West and China will only solidify its Eurasian identity in the years to come.
From the Cold War to 'Eurasianism'
To understand this evolution, it is important to understand the context in which Putin came to power nearly 20 years ago. When he was appointed acting Russian president on Dec. 31, 1999, his country was reeling from a decade of chaos and instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economy was in shambles, the political system had fragmented, a separatist conflict raged in Chechnya, and oligarchs in many ways had become more powerful than the state. Even the country's very territorial integrity was at stake.
Over the next decade, Putin reined in the oligarchs and re-established a strongly centralized state. He squashed the Chechen conflict with a combination of brute military force and political maneuvering. And the economy, with the help of strong energy prices, surged. Putin's consolidation of power on the domestic front enabled Russia to reassert itself across the former Soviet periphery and beyond.
Russia's resurgence as a regional power brought it into greater confrontation with the West, as Moscow sought to stop and reverse the spread of European Union and NATO membership and Western influence into the European borderlands and re-establish its own influence and integration efforts. These dynamics were seen in the Russia-Georgia War in 2008 and intensified with the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014. The result has been a prolonged and growing standoff between Russia and the West, with its involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, plus military buildups and Western sanctions bringing Moscow's relations with Europe and the United States to their lowest point since the Cold War.
In the two decades since Putin ascended to the presidency, a distinct Russian identity emerged under him, one that can be called "Eurasianism." This identity includes components of a political ideology and a foreign policy strategy that are rooted in Russia's position in both Europe and Asia, and in geopolitical imperatives that long predate Putin. It's an identity key both to understanding Russia's policies now, and forecasting what can be expected in the years to come.
Eurasianism as a Political Ideology
An important political attribute of Eurasianism in the Putin era — one in line with Russian tradition — is the pursuit of collective stability over individual liberty. For most Russians, the country's chaotic experiment with democracy and capitalism in the 1990s proved that Western-style structures were not appropriate or effective within Russia. The political culture that has arisen under Putin is incompatible in many ways with the liberal, democratic values of the West. Indeed, Moscow sees support by the United States and the European Union for pro-democracy and human rights movements inside Russia as subversive attempts to weaken it.
Russia is run as a centralized state, with Putin representing himself as a strong, decisive leader who holds together a country that otherwise would splinter apart. While the Kremlin frequently cracks down on protests and independent media, it does allow selective demonstrations and at times will even concede to certain demands — such as allowing direct elections or adjusting unpopular pension reforms — if it comes under enough pressure.
Under Putin, Russian nationalism has replaced the universalist Communist ideology of the Soviet Union. However, because he must incorporate the country's more than 150 ethnic minorities — Tatars, Chechens, Ukrainians, Armenians and so on — into this nationalism as well as its ethnic Russians, Putin manages Russia's nationalist tendencies carefully. Orthodox Slavs are not the only face of Russia, and Putin risks alienating the country's minority groups and undermining the stability he has worked to reinstate if he pursues a nationalist line too strongly. The same is true for religion: Muslims in Russia number in the millions, and many are concentrated in the volatile North Caucasus region.
Russia's minority populations also are growing, while the ethnic Russian population is decreasing. Ethnic Russians made up about 77 percent of Russia's population, according to the last official census taken in 2010, but their low birthrates (1.3 children per woman, on average) means the ethnic Russian population will decline at a faster rate than Russia's Muslim population, which has a birthrate of 2.3 children per woman. Increased migration from the Caucasus and Central Asian states, which are also growing in population, will be necessary to meet Russia's labor needs and will swing the country's demographics even further. Russia will become less Slavic and Orthodox and more Asian and Muslim in the coming years, further distinguishing it culturally and politically from Europe and the West. The need to promote Russian nationalism — the greatness of Russia itself, not ethnic Russians — will only intensify.
Eurasianism as a Foreign Policy Strategy
Because Russia lacks significant natural barriers, a constant throughout its history has been the need to maintain a regional power to establish buffer space both in the east and west to protect its Moscow-St. Petersburg core. Thus, Moscow wants to keep the former Soviet republics in its fold — not necessarily officially, but certainly in a de facto manner.
It is no coincidence that the countries most closely aligned with Russia are members of the Eurasian Economic Union and its military counterpart, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the two primary integration blocs created in the Putin era. These states share numerous features with Russia in terms of their Eurasian character — strong leaders, state-dominated economies and an emphasis on stability over democracy. They also share strong suspicions of the West and its promotion of democracy and human rights.
Ideally for Russia, every state in the former Soviet Union would be part of the Eurasian union. But states like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have chosen to remain neutral, while other states, including the Baltic countries and more recently Ukraine, have sought a pro-Western path. Russia's goal is to align each of the countries in the former Soviet periphery with Moscow or at least keep them neutral. If not, Russia will aim to undermine their pro-Western governments and their Western integration efforts. The intent of the United States and its EU and NATO allies to deprive Russia of this sphere of influence is a key factor behind Moscow's enduring standoff with the West.
Eurasianism as a foreign policy concept is not limited to the lands immediately surrounding Russia. It extends to those countries that also behave in contradiction to Western liberal values and/or Western interventionism, and can include European countries that have illiberal tendencies. One example is Hungary, whose government Russia works to support in order to undermine EU unity on issues such as sanctions against it. The common thread is that Russia seeks to cooperate with countries challenging the U.S.-led world order, or at least stoke division within U.S.-allied blocs like NATO and the European Union.
Under Putin, Moscow has worked to build other economic and security relationships, not only to replace or supplement its weakened ties with the West, but also to enhance its global position as a counterweight to the West, and especially to the United States. One such place has been Syria. Russia's intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is motivated by its historical ties to the country, including maintaining a naval base at Tartus, and a strategic interest to combat the spread of the Islamic State. But just as importantly, Russia wanted to draw a red line around efforts by the West, and by the United States in particular, to force regime change in Syria. Russia's intervention was not to save al Assad per se, but rather to serve notice to the United States that it still carried sufficient military and diplomatic heft to hold its own in the conflict.
This, in turn, allowed Russia to expand its influence elsewhere in the Middle East. With its economic ties with the United States and the European Union on the downswing, Russia was interested in expanding its arms sales, with Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Turkey representing promising markets. Russia also wanted to expand its leverage against the United States in a crucial theater to Washington.
Perhaps the most important partner to emerge for Russia in the wake of Moscow's standoff with the West is China. Russia and China had been steadily tightenting their economic and energy ties since the early post-Soviet period. However, the Euromaidan uprising and Russia's ensuing standoff with the West accelerated the development of the Moscow-Beijing relationship, not only in terms of trade and investment but also on security and military aspects. Russia and China have also coordinated their efforts on political matters when it comes to U.N. Security Council votes on issues like North Korea and Syria, particularly when it means opposing the U.S. position in these theaters.
However, Russia's shift toward China is unlikely to last forever. China's own rise and overlapping spheres of influence in Central Asia, the Russian Far East and the Arctic ultimately will limit the extent of their partnership. This could pave the way for a future rapprochement between Russia and the West, particularly as China emerges as a more serious economic and military competitor for both the United States and Russia down the line.
Ultimately, Russia's maneuvering between West and East will further solidify the Eurasian aspect of its identity. The cohesion of the Russian state and society on the home front and Russia's ability to overcome external challenges and pressures, whether from the West or China, will serve as key factors shaping the evolution of this identity.