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Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

REDEFINING A NATION

Analyst urges Russia to look West


THE END OF EURASIA: Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization, by Dmitri Trenin. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002, 351 pp., $24.95 (paper)

If nations were people, then Russia would have post-traumatic stress syndrome. Over the past decade, the former superpower has been reduced to a geopolitical carnival act. Most people just don't think about Russia anymore; those that do seem to pine for the old days of a Cold War standoff with an unmistakable formidable adversary. When Russia is in the news today it is because of a terrorist attack, organized crime, corruption, a collapsing military, an environmental accident or a new demographic disaster (tuberculosis, alcoholism, AIDS) -- take your pick.

For all its troubles, Russia poses perhaps the most important geopolitical question at the beginning of the 21st century. It is the physical bridge between Europe and Asia, and its southern flank is one of the key borders between the West and the Muslim world.

Dmitri Trenin, a career Russian military officer who is now the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has written an extraordinary and thought-provoking book on Russia's place in the world. I cannot recommend it enough.

Russia's main problem is borders. Where are they? What purpose do they serve? Those questions may sound silly for most states, but Russia is a sprawling entity that covers 17.1 million sq. km -- as big as the United States and Canada combined -- stretching across 11 time zones and covering 13 percent of the world's land surface. Historically, Russia has known no real border; it expanded outward as a matter of course, in an endless search for security from adversaries that lurked just across whatever borders there were. That was the rationale for the Cold War buffer states of Eastern Europe, but the original impulse stretches back to the Mongol invasions of the 15th century. As Trenin explains, despite more recent invasions by Western powers in the last several hundred years, "the memory of these historically more distant threats is also present in the Russian collective psyche."

Endless expansion allowed Russians to sidestep vital questions of national identity. Who, or what, is a Russian? The original kingdom quickly joined with Ukraine (Kievan Rus) and then inexorably expanded until the end of the Cold War. One historian has called the history of Russia "a history of colonialization," raising crucial questions for both colonizers and the colonized. What made a Chechen, a Turkmeni or a Crimean "Russian"?

Borders may define a state, but today, Russia's has several sets of "borders." There are those with Ukraine and Belarus that, while formally demarcating national frontiers, are sometimes erased in the name of a single "Russian" entity. There are the borders of republics that make up the Russian Federation. Those republics have been flexing their muscles since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although breaking away from Russia is a legal impossibility for them according to the Russian Constitution, their threats to do so are likely attempts to increase leverage with Moscow.

There are borders with the former Soviet republics. Some of these states -- particularly in Central Asia -- lack power and authority and rely on Moscow for assistance in vital government functions. Finally there are the borders with the "outside world": Eastern Europe, the West, the Muslim South and Asian states.

Each of those borders raises a question about national identity. Some 50 million Russians live outside of the nation known as Russia: Why? And what does that say about individuals who are legally defined as Russian, i.e., current citizens?

Trenin notes that "generations of Russians have formed their conception of their country simply by looking at the map." As a result, there arose a romantic conception of the state as bridge between Europe and Asia. Depending on the individual's outlook, Russia was either a transmission belt for civilization to less developed regions or a buffer against contagion from the hordes.

While Russia today closely resembles the Soviet Union -- it has 70 percent of the Soviet Union's land -- and still appears to play the role of bridge or buffer, Trenin argues that it is no longer the center of gravity on the continent. The failure to pick an identity, either East or West, means that Russia is all things and, ultimately, nothing. As he explains, "Eurasianism is a dead end; a pretentious neither-nor position erects an unnecessary barrier on the Russian-European border, while doing nothing to strengthen Russia's position in Asia, or even the greater Middle East."

Trenin believes Russia should unequivocably cast its lot with the West. "The only rational option is to fully stress Russian's European identity and engineer its gradual integration into a Greater Europe." Moscow should set long-term goals of joining NATO and the European Union, while accepting that they will only be accomplished in decades. The goals will both reassure neighbors of Russian intentions and provide benchmarks for internal development.

He also counsels a realistic assessment of Russia's place in the world. Russia is big, but it is too poor and underdeveloped to reassert itself as a pole in global politics. Russia must accept middle-power status; a lowering of ambitions will allow the leadership to focus on achievable objectives. Foreign policy must become "a resource for the country's internal development rather than follow the opposite historical pattern of using Russia itself as a resource base for some grand design on the world."

Trenin believes that Russia's geopolitical destiny is most likely to be tested in Siberia and the Far East, a land of incredible riches that is in social, political and economic disarray, thousands of kilometers from the center of power in Moscow. Globalization is pulling the far-eastern regions into closer ties with neighboring countries.

He is not optimistic about a settlement of the territorial dispute with Japan. While a deal is in both countries' interest, the odds are getting longer. Neither government shows the political will to compromise, while increasing interest in the region by other nations increases Moscow's leverage. The competition for influence within the Russian Far East -- a competition that includes foreign powers and the central government in Russia -- is a vital component of Northeast Asia's future.

This brief summary cannot do justice to the complexity of "The End of Eurasia." Trenin extensively discusses the problems within each of the Russian frontiers, as well as on each of Russia's borders: those with the West, the Muslim South and the East.

"The End of Eurasia" provides a important reminder of the role that Russia can play in our world. The scholarship and the reasoning that animates the book should also remind us of the great contributions Russians can make -- and all that we have lost with Russia's demise.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.


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