Numerous journalists and academics alike have attempted to explain the nature of the current Sino-Russian partnership. However, returning to an unlikely source – Fyodor Dostoevsky – may bring a fresh perspective to this debate, highlighting the role of identity in how China responds to Russia’s inferiority complex.
In the winter of 1881, Fyodor Dostoevsky turned his attention away from the world of fiction and towards Eurasian geopolitics. Writing in the wake of Geok-Tepe’s capture – a conquest which extended the Russian Empire’s dominion to Turkmenistan, he posed a simple question: “What is Asia to us?” The answer was equally straightforward. In a world where Europeans looked upon Russians as barbarians, “Russians shall go to Asia as masters.” The idea that Russia is neither European nor Asian has dominated Russian thinking in the intervening decades, and Russia has historically tried to mark out a space corresponding to this identity.
The fact that current Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov regularly cites Dostoevsky in his speeches is significant. Dostoevsky’s analysis of Russian identity remains critical for understanding Russia’s engagement of Eurasia today. While Russia has never ceased looking towards the region which Halford Mackinder, father of modern geopolitics, termed the “Heartland,” there has been a renewed vigour since Washington and its allies imposed harsher sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2014 emphasises Russia’s ongoing desire to re-engage its former Imperial and then-Soviet sphere. Currently, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia belong to this union while some speculate that Tajikistan and most recently Uzbekistan are being targeted as potential new members.
But can Russia be the “master” of Central Asia when China continues to expand its regional presence as well?
Over time, it has become more and more evident that Russia is losing out to its eastern neighbour as the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) progresses at a rapid pace. To give just one example, both Russia and China signed deals with Iran in September. Russia promised a modest $1bn for a powerplant plus an expected $10bn increase in EAEU-Iranian trade over the next few years. Meanwhile, China pledged $400bn in BRI funding and other Sino-Iranian projects. Simply put, Russia cannot compete with China’s investment promises.
Rather than fighting against China, however, Russia has been trying to woo the so-called Middle Kingdom. At the 2016 Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin heralded the “Greater Eurasian Partnership.” Putin continues to promote the EAEU and BRI as initiatives that must be united. In his speeches, Putin showers Xi Jinping with praise. While Xi returned the favour by recently calling Putin his “best and bosom friend,” he is comparatively reserved. For all of the Russia-initiated rhetoric about a united EAEU and BRI, China has shown little prioritisation of concrete cooperation projects. If Russia is the suitor in this relationship, then China is the somewhat reluctant bride.
The question then remains as to why the world has witnessed this apparent absence of rivalry over a region which Dostoevsky saw as Russia’s rightful conquest.
The explanation may in part come down to Russia’s inferiority complex and how China responds to it. Russia is a successor state which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was forced to turn inward and focus on domestic needs. Nevertheless, being a great Eurasian power is still part of its identity. Accordingly, Russia seeks to be treated as an equal partner, something the US is unwilling to do. China, on the other hand, treats Russia respectfully. Xi avoids reminding Putin that Central Asian countries are turning closer to China. By “inviting” China into its Russian-engineered “Greater Eurasian Partnership,” Russia maintains the image of power in Central Asia that it wants to construct.
As the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council met on October 1st in Yerevan, Putin hailed the latest cooperation agreement with China as “another step towards the alignment of integration within the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” The timing of the summit was no coincidence — it was also the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and of Sino-Russian diplomatic relations. While no Chinese delegation was present, the Russian president ended his speech by conveying the Russian people’s “best regards” to “our Chinese friends.”
This relationship works for both parties. By avoiding conflict, there is less need to build up an expensive military presence. Today the 4,000 kilometre Sino-Russian border is increasingly demilitarised. Meanwhile, Russia stands to benefit from the BRI if it can attract more projects like the Power of Siberia pipeline which opened on 2 December.
However, the ongoing cooperation proves that politics is more than material interests. It is about identities. For now, the Sino-Russian relationship will work as long as Russia feels recognised by China — that is, as long as Russia can maintain the illusion of being a master in Eurasia.
Dana Rice is the Editor of both Politikon: IAPSS Journal of Politikon Science and ENERPO Journal. She is currently a postgraduate at the European University at Saint Petersburg and the University of Tasmania where she researches Sino-Russian relations in Central Asia.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.