Features | Diplomacy | Central Asia

20 Years of Russia’s Institutionalism in Eurasia

What is Russia trying to accomplish with the CSTO, SCO, and EAEU?

By Janko Šćepanović for
20 Years of Russia’s Institutionalism in Eurasia
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Over the past two decades, the Russian Federation sponsored and promoted several influential integrative organizations in Eurasia. These diverse bodies developed different foci, ranging from the hard security oriented Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to the economics driven Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), to the politico-security centered Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Moscow established together with China. While sometimes its efforts were dismissed as nothing more than attempts to “re-Sovietize” the Eurasian space, or were questioned for their intergovernmental character centered on the protection of the region’s entrenched governments, Russia’s true motivations were grounded in some practical needs. Among these, the most palpable were various security challenges that affected the post-Soviet space, a necessity of addressing globalization’s negative impact on the local economies, and a desire to settle a tense frontier with erstwhile Cold War rival China. Therefore, these institutions became essential vessels in Russia’s drive to deal with Central Asia’s complex environment, and also help it restore its formerly enjoyed status of a true global power.

What also needs to be noted is how, 20 years later, all of these institutions have significantly evolved from their modest beginning. This naturally followed Moscow’s changing view of their utility to its practical needs. While not being flawless by any stretch of imagination, the CSTO and EAEU made some noticeable achievements in improving regional military and economic cooperation and coordination. On the other hand, the SCO moved beyond its practical mandate and became a relevant international forum that brings together world’s largest non-Western nations. While Russia’s intentions toward it remain unclear, and its lobbying for SCO enlargement were criticized, Moscow generally sees a purpose behind every integrative mechanism it established or co-founded in the past 20 years.

Russia’s institutional push in Eurasia was always driven in part by its regional and global agendas. Regionally, Moscow was concerned by what it saw as an “erosion” of the post-Soviet space, which was particularly visible in a deteriorating security situation stemming from instability in Afghanistan, the civil war in Tajikistan, and the clashes between its former Soviet Republics. Particularly worrying was the rise of the nonconventional threats like terrorism and drug smuggling. Part of this erosion included also a loss of influence over the post-Soviet space, in particular following the pro-democracy “color revolutions” in several former Soviet Republics like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, which many in Russia saw as nothing short of West-sponsored plots. Hence, the CSTO is actually sometimes seen as an anti-NATO.

Columbia University scholar Alexander Cooley argues that the CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Community or EurAsEC (a precursor to EAEU), are Russia’s attempts to emulate Western models like the NATO and the European Union. In many ways these institutions were organizationally modeled on the Western counterparts, although they come up short in their achievements. Nonetheless, the true motives for their creation are actually found in the declining security and economic situation of the former Soviet bloc, and the failure of the early post-Cold War integration, especially as embodied in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Moreover, Richard Sakwa points out to Moscow’s feeling of rejection and a missed opportunity of forming a more inclusive pan-European security community following the end of the Cold War. After that episode, Russia then undertook its own integrative efforts, which coincided with a gradual restoration of its power, as well as its desire to reassume what it saw as its rightful place among the great powers of the world. Hence, we see a global agenda of Moscow’s institutional policy. Russia kept arguing for democratization of the international relations, and in its official documents it emphasized the centrality of the UN and the “polycentric” world order, as opposed to a U.S.-led unipolar one. At the same time, Moscow recognized that its best chance of remaining significant in such a world was to take leadership over a regional integration body given that conglomerations of states were better suited for participating in global governance.

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To this end, we see three key institutional bodies. On the hard security end, Moscow sponsored the establishment of two institutions that appear to have overlapping responsibilities: the CSTO and SCO. The former evolved from the 1992 Collective Security Treaty, a basic agreement that envisioned mutual support among its members in case of an imminent external threat. This, however, proved to be inadequate and was eventually transformed into a real military alliance in October 2002 with a secretariat and a secretary general, a developed bureaucracy, and functions similar to those of NATO, including crisis time consultations. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the CSTO was the formation of a capable joint rapid reaction force in 2009 between its six member states. Since then, Moscow and its partners held numerous and diverse military drills and exercises that simulated  peace-keeping, anti-drug smuggling, and anti-terror activities. In spite of these are tangible achievements, the organization’s clout over Central Asia is hampered by the lack of membership of strategically important Uzbekistan, and the continued refusal of NATO to deal with the CSTO as a relevant security provider.

On the other hand, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is often considered as mainly a Chinese project, given that it was the first noneconomic body that the People’s Republic founded and led from its inception. It emerged at a time when Russia was still very weak and realized that if it stayed on the sidelines it would let China have its way. Hence, Moscow opted to join and partner with the new grouping and thus become an equal decisionmaker. The SCO proved to be a good platform for defusing tensions between these erstwhile Cold War rivals by settling border disputes and troop deployments. It also provided support to Moscow’s and Beijing’s smaller partners, some of which were not just challenged not just domestic and regional threats, but were often criticized by (mainly) Western states for their human rights record. As its relations with the West deteriorated, Russia envisioned the SCO as an alternative organization to the America-led order, and a place for “great power posturing.”

Nonetheless, Moscow seems to be undecided, and perhaps even dishonest, about the SCO. It does not wish for the CSTO to be displaced by the SCO as the region’s exclusive security provider. On the other hand, in spite of a formal endorsement of the developmental function of the SCO, Moscow did not support it. Russia recognizes the limitations of its ability to restrict China’s expanding influence in the Central Asia. Some scholars noted that Russia’s support for the enlargement, and in particular the admission of India, was done to try and offset China’s preponderant position inside of the SCO, but it effectively weakened the SCO’s ability to do much given the intraorganizational rivalries. Hence, it would appear that Russia prefers to keep the SCO as a prestigious club for non-Western states with a limited practical role.

Finally, the third of Russia’s Eurasian institutions, the EAEU, emerged from a collection of economic integrative efforts that go back to the mid-1990s, and really took speed in the early 2000s when EurAsEC was founded. Years later it was bolstered by a customs union and a single economic space. These were ultimately transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union starting from January 2015. EAEU had more supranational functions than either the CSTO or SCO, and its Commission (much like the EU’s) can make decision by a majority vote, and thus (theoretically) overrule even the largest member (Russia). Moreover, Moscow learned from the limitations of going for a high membership organization like the CIS. Therefore, the initial members were Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan subsequently joining the club, all of which seemed more committed to the project. They were motivated in no small part by the collapse of the GDP in the post-Soviet countries during the 1990s.

The initial economic integration with Kazakhstan and Belarus sought to restore some of the earlier economic activity and re-industrialize the region, and prepare it for joining globalization as a bloc. Later when the EAEU was established, another goal was added — building an intraregional capacity to better deal with the negative side of global capitalism. In spite of the fact that Eurasian integration is rightly viewed as the most serious attempt at integration since the collapse of the USSR, some considerable challenges remain. There are problems with implementation of various, sometimes easily given, pledges. Also, the economic results are still not there, and the intraregional trade seems to disproportionately favor Russia. Moreover, while the union seeks to promote free trade between members, there are still issues with nontariff barriers.

Overall, certain criticisms of the Russian institutional initiative are valid and point out genuine problems such as the competition and overlapping responsibilities between the CSTO and SCO, and the persistence of nontariff obstacles in what is supposed to be a free trade zone of the Eurasian Economic Union. No less relevant is the apparent lack of a strong unifying ideology behind what is supposed be a Russia-led regional bloc. Nonetheless, an argument in support of Eurasian institutionalism can be found in international relations theory. Most of the regimes in other parts of the world were built upon the existing ones. In the post-Soviet space, integration is essentially an effort to reintegrate states that were once part of the same state and whose level of economic interdependence is already high. If anything, this makes the process easier and the participants more familiar with each other.

Ultimately, as one eminent scholar of Russia noted, Eurasian institutionalism is a contested project. Moscow has shown remarkable persistence in funding and sponsoring these processes, and it also has displayed a willingness to evolve them and move onto other projects with more favorable and suitable arrangements that fulfilled its geopolitical or geoeconomic needs. However, its ultimate success will depend on factors that escape Russia’s full control, such as great power relations and domestic calculations among its smaller partners.

Janko Šćepanović is a Ph.D. Candidate in Internatioanl Politics at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) of the Fudan Univeristy in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. He holds a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Gradute Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).