Just over two decades ago, Russia abandoned its historical empire to join Europe. Now some, as Hillary Clinton, say it is recreating its empire, while others, like Fiona Hill and Bobo Lo, argue that it is pivoting to Asia. In reality, Russia continues to be in search of itself, including its proper place and role in the world.

Russia has sought, and failed to become part of the European and Atlantic communities. Russia’s much talked-about democracy and human rights deficit was one reason for this; geopolitical and strategic calculations of its partners were another. With the recent global crisis, the world has turned again, and the issue has ceased to be relevant.

Like everyone else, Russia acknowledges the rise of Asia. With over 2,700 miles of common border with China, it physically feels it like few others do. Making sure that the Russian Far East and Siberia stay Russian in the 21st century is Moscow’s prime geopolitical concern. The principle means to address this is through a sensible development strategy, which includes reaching out to neighbors.

Russia, however, cannot and would not become Asian. For the first time since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Moscow has embarked on a geopolitical project of its own, rather than trying to accede to others’. There are clear economic, strategic, and humanitarian interests that warrant a serious effort to integrate more closely with the states that have risen in Russia’s former borderlands.

Belarus is closest and friendliest to Russia in all respects, and while small in terms of population and GDP, is absolutely to be engaged by any government in Moscow. Kazakhstan, with which Russia shares the world’s longest border—almost 4,500 miles—is rich in resources, has a sizeable share of ethnic Russians, and covers Russia’s most vulnerable flank. There is no question that Moscow needs to engage Astana.

This engagement is hardly one-sided. Both the Belarusians and the Kazakhs need the Russian market. Minsk also needs Moscow’s political support and financial subsidies, and Astana needs cooperation with Russia to balance Beijing. The engagement also has limits. Neither Kazakhstan nor even Belarus is prepared to give up much of its national sovereignty to the supra-national structures, for fear of being dominated by Russia. As for Russia itself, for all the good reasons for engaging with its two other partners, trade with both of them is around 7 percent of Russia’s global turnover. Thus, the emerging Eurasian Union, while real and useful, is also a relatively modest project.

  • Dmitri Trenin