One commonplace conception often found among Western analysts, whose inspiration appears to stem from the bipolar enmities of a Cold War that ended thirty years ago, is that Russia’s contemporary “pivot to the east” foreign policy embodies a reconstruction of Eurasianist ideology.
By way of a brief summary of a complex, multifaceted ideology, Eurasianism’s notable characteristics are said to be a belief in Russia’s exceptionalism, manifested in its pursuit of regional domination and global great power status and in its uniquely blessed Slavic/Tatar/ Turkic ethnicity and culture. In post-Soviet Russia it has also been influenced by the work of the British founder of the discipline of geography, Sir Halford Mackinder. In his 1904 monograph, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mackinder warned that the heartland of the world’s greatest landmass of Eurasia constituted a natural fortress which, under Russian domination, potentially threatened the seafaring powers of the West, which these days includes the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Mackinder’s work was translated into Russian in the 1990s and has been not only one of the texts used in tertiary institutions but has been a feature of contemporary debates in the country. From the beginning of the Cold War, the credibility of Mackinder’s warning about the rise of an indomitable Russia has been a feature of US containment doctrine, with its imperative that Eurasia’s peripheral ring of countries, including Eastern Europe, India, China, Central Asia and the Middle East, must be under the control of the Atlantic Alliance. Conversely, it is also implicit in the Putin government’s condemnation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s expansion and Western interventions in its traditional regional spheres of influence.
Mackinder was an empiricist – he argued that the facts of Eurasia’s geography, which included its huge, wealth-generating natural resources, clearly signalled that Russia was a geopolitical and geo-economic threat to the British empire. Other analysts have pointed to Eurasianism’s more metaphysical dimension: the peoples of this great natural fortress were land dwellers, with an ancient spiritual connection to the earth – in radical contrast to nomadic, rootless Westerners.
In today’s Russia, this perspective has been considerably amplified by one of the early translators into Russian of Mackinder’s work, Alexandr Dugin. As it happens, Dugin’s neo-Eurasianism incorporates the West’s worst nightmares about the intentions of post-Soviet Russia and has been regularly seized upon as significant by Western researchers. While claiming on negligible evidence that he is Putin’s expert foreign policy advisor, Dugin has insisted that East and West are irreconcilable, to the point that the two sides are engaged in an inevitable march to a war, that will be precipitated by the United States. With a wackier, more sinister slant, Dugin’s recent book, The Fourth Political Theory, also draws heavily on nineteenth and early twentieth-century esoteric and occultist doctrines about the imminent “End of Days,” in which there will be an apocalyptic conflagration. This will be followed by a “Golden Dawn” for the select few, presumably from among Eurasia’s spiritually-connected land dwellers.
Incidentally, my conversations with Russian colleagues as part of an annual Economics conference panel on Eurasianism at this month’s National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, strongly suggested that Dugin’s version of Eurasianism has never featured much in the world of scholarly inquiry in Russia. In other words, at least among the country’s academics, he seems to have rarely rated serious consideration. Interestingly, the focus of the HSE conference was on other more practical, empirical dimensions of contemporary Eurasianism. Here ideological considerations seemed secondary to the realities of creating what has been called by Japanese and Chinese politicians “the dream” of a prosperous unified economic zone, especially across the underdeveloped expanses of the region. The final conference day saw its most well-attended seminar on these challenges, which brought together, not only Russian researchers and policymakers, but representatives of governments and think tanks from China, Central Asia and Japan.
Presentations and discussion were centred on the concept of “Foresight,” with its direct evocation of the digital tools and technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The key features of Foresight include the accurate and objective analysis of existing problems, on which can be built innovative, imaginative, adaptive but flexible solutions – to the ravages of climate change, and in agricultural modernisation and food security, engineering, transportation, energy or biomedicine. Global networking is also integral to this conceptualisation of a new technological revolution. For instance, the Director of the HSE’s International Research and Educational Foresight Centre (ISSEK), Alexander Sokolov, pointed to the centre’s links with approximately 60 countries, as well as, since 2006, with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the European Commission and the World Bank. Ostensibly, it seems a fine, engaging vision of the potentials for the future planning of Russia’s Eurasian 21st century, one with an optimistic mission to transcend the rigid, repetitive rhetoric of confrontational geopolitics and incompetent, venal domestic and regional governance.
Still, for the sceptics, given the magnitude of the challenges, not surprisingly so far the HSE ISSEK’s evidence-based research acknowledges that in almost all areas of development it remains disappointingly aspirational. Its recent report points to a list of ongoing obstacles, such as the failure of companies to embrace long-term government initiatives, the lack of competence and awareness of foresight culture among key players, the need to develop a national expert system, and the government’s lack of a coherent distribution of resources or the systematic coordination of key ministries and agencies. By implication, the list is a catalogue of Russia’s age-old modernisation challenges, to which easy solutions have been hard to come by.
Dr Dorothy Horsfield is a foundation fellow of the Australian National University’s Australian Studies Institute. Her most recent book, “Russia in the Wake of the Cold War Perceptions and Prejudices,” was published in 2017.
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