Monday, June 24, 2024

The Battle for Eurasia

Author: Hal Brands

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy

Date/Place: June 4, 2023/ US

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 3592



Keywords: Chinese-Russian Convergence, Fortress Eurasia, Free World, Swing States, Geography Factor, the US Strategy


The article highlights the key aspects of geopolitical conflicts among major powers in the current century, with a renewed focus on Eurasia. The opposing sides are represented by two distinct geopolitical and ideological blocs: the US-led “Free World” on the one hand, and “Fortress Eurasia” on the other hand, comprising countries such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, known as adversaries of the “Free World”. In addition to these blocs, there exist “Swing States” that are situated between them, hold considerable sway, and seek strategic advantages from both sides. These states present a challenge to the United States and play a significant role in determining the outcome of the forthcoming conflict.


The article is divided into three sections. The first section identifies the feature of major geopolitical rivalry in the current century between the “Free World” and “Fortress Eurasia.” Eurasia has long been considered the most crucial and closed strategic landmass in the world, as it includes the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world with the exception of the United States. After the end of the Cold War, Washington and its allies were dominant in all key sub-regions of Eurasia: Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. However, Eurasia in recent years has witnessed the rise of competing powers whose visions and aspirations converge around their common opposition to the status quo. Then, the Russian-Ukrainian war accelerated the rise of a new Eurasian bloc. The core revisionist powers in Eurasia: Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang, seek to shift the balance of power in their respective regions and view Washington as the primary obstacle. Each of these powers also depends on the others, as an attack on one of them by the United States or its allies would make the remaining powers more isolated and vulnerable to sanctions.

The author highlights a range of advantages that bolster the power of “Fortress Eurasia.” First and foremost is its geographical proximity, and in some cases, even contiguity with certain powers. This proximity has allowed them to enhance their self-protection and strategic gains, as demonstrated during the Russian-Ukrainian war. This proximity has enabled them to strengthen self-protection and achieve strategic gains, as evidenced during the Russian-Ukrainian war. This stands in sharp contrast to the past scenario for revisionist powers, where geographical distance, like that between Germany and Japan, hindered mutual assistance during World War II. Second is their military cohesion, as the war has increased the interplay between these powers and raised the ambitions of their defense ties. For example, Pyongyang sells artillery ammunition to Moscow, while Russia provides military support to North Korea in return. The same applies to the existing relationship between Russia and Iran, as they build a “full-fledged defense partnership.” Although China did not support Putin in Ukraine with lethal military aid, it provided him with “non-lethal assistance,” such as drones and computer chips to gain an advantage in the conflict. It is likely that China will offer more support if Putin faces defeat, and the formal alliance between China and Russia could potentially shift the balance of military power. Third is the advantage of building secure trade and transportation networks shielded from democratic interference. China, for many years, has been investing in pipelines and railways stretching across the Eurasian landmass to secure access to Middle Eastern oil and other crucial resources. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, provide energy to the North-South transport corridor, connecting the two countries via the closed Caspian Sea. Iran also instructs Moscow in sanctions evasion. Similarly, Russia and China deepen their cooperation in developing the Northern Sea Route, the least sensitive and exposed maritime pathway between Chinese ports in the Pacific and Russian Eurasia. Fourthly, there is the advantage of intellectual and ideological cohesion among the core powers of Eurasia. They share a common discourse of resistance against the US-led bloc, seeing Eurasian cooperation as a counter to American unilateralism. The author concludes that this integration will reduce the vulnerability of US adversaries to sanctions, strengthen their military capabilities against the enemies, foster broader diplomatic cooperation, and potentially lead to mutual material assistance in the event of a conflict with the United States.


In the second section, the author discusses the role played by what he calls “Swing States” in this intense rivalry between “Fortress Eurasia” and the “Free World.” The “Swing States” enjoy geographical and strategic advantages that allow them to seek benefits from both blocs and influence the global balance of power. The author focuses on a specific group of countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, and Pakistan, while also mentioning others such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Egypt to a lesser extent.

For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have redirected their economic and technological focus towards China. Both countries maintain strong ties with Russia, even amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and they now have more politically aligned ties with adversaries of the United States than the US itself. Türkiye, with its strategically important location, plays a dual game under the leadership of President Erdoğan. Ankara enjoys the protection of NATO while importing Russian air defenses. It supports Ukraine, while helping Moscow to avoid sanctions. Also, Ankara has become a key player in conflicts from the Caucasus to the Horn of Africa. It has even stood against American interests in these conflicts. Erdoğan, in another word, aims “to keep a foot in each camp.” Meanwhile, Pakistan, once a key partner of the United States, is now leaning towards China and sees it as a gateway to the Indian Ocean. India on the other hand is tilting towards the United States in search of protection against China, while still relying on Russia for weapons and energy. The interplay of ideology and self-interest makes New Delhi more comfortable maneuvering between the major powers rather than aligning strongly with either of them. Other countries across the Eurasian periphery, from Indonesia to Egypt, remain more fluid in their alignments. The “swing states” vary among themselves, but they all prefer to maneuver between competing coalitions, aiming to maintain open options and secure the best deals possible from each side. All the “swing states” have bolstered Putin’s war in Ukraine by assisting him in mitigating the impact of sanctions. 

They also contribute to enhancing China’s global standing. For example, the UAE’s desire to host a Chinese base on its territory would enable Beijing to project its military power into a sensitive region. Additionally, Pakistan’s close alliance with China allows the latter to escape the “Malacca Dilemma,” a chokepoint not under China’s control through which a significant portion of its westward trade passes. The choices make by Türkiye will impact the level of economic pressure faced by Putin, the strength and solidarity of NATO, and the geopolitical landscape extending from Central Asia to the Middle East.


The third section of the article presents a set of recommendations for Washington to fortify the “Free World” against the challenges posed by “Fortress Eurasia.” Firstly, Washington should work on strengthening its relations with allies in East Asia and Europe to fortify Eurasia and Europe against its adversaries. The US-lead bloc remains the most powerful, both economically and militarily. The author praises the US efforts to bolster alliances with Japan and the Philippines, enhance the eastern flank of NATO, and form coalitions like the QUAD, which links like-minded democracies across various regions. Furthermore, he believes that the next step should involve greater integration of defense among “Free World” nations in places where threats are more serious. For example, this could be achieved through pursuing a trilateral commitment between the United States, Japan, and Australia to resist Chinese aggression.

As a second recommendation, Brands calls for maximizing strategic alignment with the “swing states” while, at the same time, minimizing differences in areas and issues where harm is more likely to occur. This may be a challenging task, as it will require separating the essential from the important. For instance, it will mean identifying those issues where the United States should assert its influence aggressively to avoid significant shifts in the Eurasian balance, such as preventing China from establishing military bases in the Persian Gulf. Achieving this may necessitate Washington’s acceptance of moral compromises with the “swing states.”

For example, the United States could make Saudi Arabia a pariah or directly challenge India on local governance issues, but this would not be feasible without jeopardizing cooperation with these countries on matters of strategic importance. Here, the author implicitly urges Washington to overlook some of these countries’ “undemocratic” internal behaviors. Therefore, the author advises Washington to focus its discourse directed at these countries on shared and more attractive issues, such as sovereignty and territorial integrity, rather than emphasizing democratic standards. Furthermore, he warns the United States against punishing “swing states” for their diplomatic choices, as it may risk turning their hesitancy and ambivalence into hostility. Instead, Washington should gradually align the implicit incentives for these states to match the norms and perspectives of the “Free World” over time.


Finally, by depleting the Russian defense industry in the war, the author believes that this conflict has created an opportunity to help countries like Türkiye, India, Vietnam, and others move away from relying on Moscow’s military industry. As a result, it may lead to altering their calculations regarding various geopolitical issues. Brands concludes the article by reminding us that we are currently experiencing a new epic clash over Eurasia. “Winning it will require the United States to rally its free-world allies while also competing, imperfectly, to influence countries that won’t commit either way.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



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