Russia's Eurasian power play

Russia's Eurasian power play

by Pininvest Analysis

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Across Eurasia, the historic terms of engagement between the three major powers, Russia, China and Europe, will weigh heavily

Technological advance, facilitating the dissemination of information and fueling transportation and infrastructure build-up, is a challenge confronting legacies powers in every way

Russia's medium term prospects are closely linked to the country's reponse in this fluid, and still unsettled, geopolitical context

While external security has - in the Russian perception - been weakened since the fall of the Communist regime, military reach remains undisputed

International trade, the perennial sore point of the Russian economy but also the engine of global influence, leaves Russia struggling

Circumventing Russia's southern borders, trading routes going back a thousand years remain magnets of human activity 

A challenge... but also a warning ?




While the geopolitical future of Eurasia remains unclear, one may recognize that its reemergence as political reality is indeed probable

And  much of Eurasia's geopolitics hinges on Central Asia, the crucible of willful pressure from continental behemoths, foremost Russia and China

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan face an uncertain balancing act which is bound to transform the Eurasian landmass over time


The three major powers, Russia, China and Europe, will not shed the principles which drove their century-old strategies in war and in peace any time soon (if at all) but Eurasia will be transformed as they attempt to realign

In an effort to project how each one of the continental powers will rethink its strategic options, the historic terms of engagement will weigh at least as heavily as shining future fossil energy riches

This is especially true of Russia, which has come closest to define Eurasian power


Defending Muscovy

Russia’s history is one of expansion across Eurasia from the late 15th century on, in an effort to protect its original core – the Grand Duchy of Moscow, a Rus' principality of the Late Middle Ages

From early on, geography determined the indefensibility of the Russian ‘core’, wide open to invasion from the Asian steppes and from the North European Plain – with none of the natural barriers, mountains, rivers and oceans endowed to all great continental powers

And invasions have kept coming over centuries, from the Mongol invasion (1223-1240) slowed down but not stopped by the vast Eastern forests, to the battle of the Neva against Swedish forces (1240) in an effort to gain a Southern route through Novgorod followed by another attempt by the Teutonic Knights (1241), securing the fame of Alexander Nevsky

source - Alexander Nevsky - film by S. Eisenstein (1938) 

In the late 1400’s, Ivan III ‘the Great’ (1440-1505), Prince of Moscow, expanded north to the Arctic and north-east to the Urals, subduing the independent Great Russian lands and forcing ultimately Novgorod and its huge northern empire to accept his sovereignty (1478)

By the mid-16th century, Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’, Grand Prince of Moscow before becoming Russia’s first Tsar (1533-1584), defeating the Astrakhan Tatars (1556), definitely blocked the Mongol invasion route by pushing south and east, beyond the Urals in the east and to the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in the south, gaining access to key North-South trading routes

The Urals - border between European Russia and Asian Russia credit

With his successful campaigns, Ivan IV secured Russia’s core, buttressed by the mountain range in the South (facing Persia) and the steppes in the East (facing the Mongols)

Conquests in the East were completed with the conquest in stages of Siberia (1580 – late 1600’s), reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1639 and covering all of northern Asia

The final push was led westward by Peter the Great (1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796), incorporating Ukraine and moving the frontier west, onto the Carpathian Mountains (south-west) and the Baltic territories


The sustained effort to achieve a measure of security over close to three centuries (with the clock ticking since the late 1400’s under Ivan III) provided Russia with the barrier of geographical immensity, an almost insuperable physical barrier to invasion, except for one… the west, the North European Plain is a gap, not a physical barrier

Entry point for Western invasions, Russia was confronted to extreme danger three times since the early 1800’s, in invasions led by Napoleon (1812), by Wilhelm II (1914-1917) and by Hitler (1941-1945)

With very close calls in 1812 and even more so in 1941-1942, the lesson was not forgotten in the settlement following the German 1945 defeat by securing control over Poland (the narrowest 300 mile segment of the European Plain between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian mountains) and over Eastern Germany


Eurasia, a geopolitical question mark

While this brief overview cannot begin to pretend covering Russia’s often tragic history, the guiding purpose running through the country’s strategies across centuries appears to stay unchanged – guarantee security of the core, originally Muscovy and more broadly the country’s large industrial centers

Eurasia, as geopolitical entity, was and still appears to be entirely absent of Russia’s security gambit – with low population density and a patchwork of minorities, the continent’s vastness was a buffer, raising the cost of invasions well beyond any possible benefit for the invader

Eurasia– strictly from a Russian perspective – was a necessary cost of defense, a commitment paramount to the country's security but of no consequence in the broad continental scope

Burdening the national economy with the distribution of costly food provisions across Russia's vast spaces, relying on weak transport infrastructures and requiring a tight security apparatus to maintain control over restless frontiers, the immense landmass has only fairly recently become a major source of energy export

1988- 2017 Natural resources as % of Russia GDP - source The World Bank

As of 2018, Russia was the second largest gas producer worldwide and the third largest oil producer. Gas exports grew 5.4% to 248 billion-cubic-meter, representing 26% of world total and oil exports 13%

While redressing the economic balance, gas and oil exports as abundant sources of foreign currency – and wellspring of geopolitical influence – hardly seem to bring Eurasia’s full potential to fruition, leaving a question mark over the country’s ability to compete with China and Europe economic powerhouses


Russian insecurities 

To nurture more uncertainty, the fall of the Soviet Union and the roll-back of Russian influence has, in the Russian perspective, truly been earth-shattering with the loss Ukraine, the Baltic States, the rim of the Caucasus and Central Asia

By returning the country to the 17th century borders of the Russian Empire, the Duchy of Muscovy, the Tatar lands and Siberia, Russia’s indefensibility is, once more, a central, potentially destabilizing, factor

While projecting the future is generally rash, Russia’s long history provides some useful pointers


The seas, vast and deep

Access to seaports has been Russia’s focus, seemingly forever...

Mount Athos, the Garden of the Mother of God...

Support, since the mid-19th century, of the  Eastern Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos, the eastern part of the Greek Chalkidiki Peninsula, in the northern Aegean, has been said not to be devoid of strategic considerations, within striking distance of the Turkish Straights

Chaldkidiki Peninsula credit Wikipedia

By denying Russia the means to extend its naval power in the Mediterranean and by maintaining the Ottoman Empire as a European power, following its defeat at the hands of Russia (Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878), the Congress of Berlin (1878) satisfied Great Britain

However, at the insistance of Russia, art. 62 of the Treaty provided important diplomatic patronage for the non-Greek monks on Mt. Athos, guaranteeing the autonomous existence of a Russian community in Ottoman territory 

While Russia's interest waned since the Russian monastery of Agios Panteleimon housed 1500 monks in the early 20th century, falling to 35 monks in 1990, this is not true today, witness the two visits President Putin paid to the community (in 2006 and in 2016), preceded and followed by vast numbers of Orthodox influential  Russians, as well as Ukrainians and Belarusians

Panteleimon Monastery - credit

Landlocked naval bases...

Control over the Crimean Peninsula (2014) was bound to be mostly – if not exclusively – about the military basis of Sevastopol, base of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea but the fleet as well as the Novorossiysk Naval Base (reestablished in 1994) on the Black Sea still have to pass the Bosphorus Strait and the Strait of the Dardanelles to reach the Mediterranean

Equally questionable is the potential value of the military installation on the Baltic at Kaliningrad and at Saint Petersburg, accessing the North Sea through the Skagerrak between Norway and the Danish Jutland peninsula

and Syria....

To complete the naval military picture, the forthright support lend to the Syrian regime may have had much to do with the Russian presence since the 1970's at the port of Tartus, the Russian Navy's only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot, cemented by a 2017 agreement allowing the facility's expansion under sole Russian sovereignty and more recently by a 49-year lease (April 2019)

According to the Times of Israel, as of December 17, 2019, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus that Russia will spend $500 million to modernize the commercial port of Tartus


If lack of sea access has been a sore point, the limitation of transport infrastructure across Russia's vast expanse weigh on the country's potential on every front, in terms of military responsiveness and of internal security effectiveness, both pre-requisites of centralized power

But, while the existing communication network by rail, by road and by air suffices arguably to address the requirements of centralized command, this is not necessarily true of trade


Trade routes, riches beyond borders

Since the High Middle Ages (11th and 12th centuries), much has changed but the backbone of the Eurasian trading routes has proven to be singularly resilient

A small detail of the detailed map of Medieval Trade Routes by martinjanmansson highlights intense communications North and South of the Himalayas, slipping into Central Asia, rounding the southern rim of the Caspian Sea, or alternatively through Persia and serving the entire Middle East onto the Anatolian plateau, to Constantinople and the European shores beyond

Excerpt of the Medieval trading routes - mapped by martinjanmansson (credit)

By zooming on the map, the Silk Road in its diverse multitude of trading routes comes to life, nothing less than roaring exchange and communication girding the southern rim of Eurasia

And north of the Tibetan plateau, way north, life itself appears to have seeped away

Certainly, east of the Ural Mountains, life was unbearably harsh but the sense of ‘nothingness’ dominates on a blank map...


In the West, dating back presumably from the 8th and 9th  centuries, the Via Regia ran east through the Holy Roman Empire, supporting trade of fine woolen and linen cloth out of Flanders, wood, pelts, wax from the east

Via Regia - credit M. Dörrbecker (Chumwa)

The route went as far as Vitebsk on the Dvina river (flowing north west into the Baltic), Smolensk and Kiev, both on the Dniepr river (streaming south to the Black Sea) – with critical portage between the Dvina and the Dniepr (from Vitebsk to Smolensk) - a river system providing transport between the Baltic and the Black Sea

Extending - somewhat optimistically on Mr. Dörrbecker's map to Moskow (founded in 1147) - trading routes followed waterways beyond Smolensk deeper into what was at the time the land of Rus

With the foreknowledge how  the valuable German indigo (Isatis tinctoria) of the Thuringian Basin and the mining products of the Saxon Ore Mountains were traded in the route's middle section, the later's survival as 'Hohe Strasse' between Leipzig and Frankfurt after the 14th century demise of Via Regia's extension  does not surprise

One wonders if the Eastern trade could match the valuables, handed from one trader to another in a continuous stream of merchandise traveling along the multiple Silk Roads to destination by way of Constantinople, onto the Great Fairs of the Middle Ages


In many ways, the ancient trading routes remain today the silent witnesses of opportunities and challenges across Eurasia

While Russia is - in a broad measure - territorialy secure, unsparing attention has to be paid to trade, the porter of riches and the messenger of dialogue and compromise  across the world 

Constrained by geography, Russia has been late to the party of trade but we will argue in our follow-up note how trade opportunities will finally take the full measure of Eurasia's geopolitical weight