The fall of the Russian Empire, more even than that of the Austro-Hungarian or German, was fundamentally the broadest cause of the Second World War. When Lenin forfeited vast swaths of territory in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, it set the stage for a myriad of ethno-nationalist conflicts in the areas from which Russia withdrew. Such a sudden withdrawal, contrasted with the gradual shifts of sovereignty over the territories traded between Russia, Poland, Iran and Ottoman Turkey over centuries of wars, unleashed a cataclysmic rush for territory in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether Turk versus Armenian (to the west) and Greek (to the west) in the south, or the conflicts between Russian Estonian, Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian in Eastern Europe, the clumsily drawn and openly disputed borders of the post-1918 map of central and Eastern Europe as well as the western flanks of Eurasia, ultimately caused the scramble for territory and resources that began the Second World War.
The collapse of the Russian Empire also gave Britain and France a free hand in the Middle East. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and France continually feared Russia’s southward expansion from the Indus Valley to the Dardanelles. Because of this, Britain and France were originally set to make concessions to Russia as part of the secretive Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide the Middle East in 1916. However, the October Revolution meant that Russia was no longer a threat to British and French ambitions and Russia was subsequently dropped form the agreement.
After 1991, a similar phenomenon of ultra-nationalism in newly constituted entities was unleashed setting about a race for resources in small states among the great powers. Most notably, the US raced to consolidate its power in a post-1991 Middle East, Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. At the turn of the 21st century, as the US pushed further and further into Eurasia both via the Middle East and via Russia’s Eastern European borderlands, it became clear that a new war between Turkey, Iran and Russia may have been inevitable as each of the traditional powers of western Eurasia would become provoked into a competition for influence and resources in the states destabilised by the United States.
On the brink of new ‘old’ wars
Nowhere was this possibility more imminent than in the present conflict in Syria. If the US were able to push Iranian influence out of Syria and also Iraq, chances would have been that patriotic Iranians looking to develop regional influence would have turned north, coming within inches of Russia’s contemporary borders via Tajikistan to the east and the Caucasus to the west.
Turkey, fearing the northward expansion of its historic Persian rival could have easily conquered parts of Syria with the help of the US (which was a committed ally of Turkey when the present Syrian conflict began) and then shortly thereafter, pushed north via the Black Sea to Russia’s most important warm water maritime borders. At this point Turkey could have worked to expand its influence in southern Russia’s Black Sea regions and could have easily paid either the treacherous pre-2014 Ukrainian leadership or the post-2014 fascist regime a moderate amount of money to build ports all along the Ukrainian Black Sea. Cities like Odessa which were consecrated after Russian military victories over Turkey, would once again be Turkified for a reasonable fee to the rulers in Kiev whose loyalty is to no one. Turkey could also have well occupied Crimea as the post-2014 Kiev authorities knew that Turkey stood a far better chance at dominating a land now populated with Russians than an incompetent and corrupt Kiev cabal of westward looking oligarchs with no sense of military strategy.
Russia, having seen this happen would have been drawn into a wide ranging conflict which would have resembled a return to the Russo-Turkish and Russo-Persian wars of the past. Instead, multipolar modernity happened.
A new model for cooperation
The straightforward “win-win” approach to geopolitics and geo-economics as conceptualised in the thought of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has not only defined the new multipolar outlook of 21st century Asia, but it has prevented the great Asian powers from making war upon each other as they had in past centuries. One of the reasons that in the 19th century, western and central Europe became so wealthy is because the leaders of those states realised that it was economically advantageous to make war upon countries far from their borders, typically against nations with far less advanced weaponry and to then steal their resources and bring them back to Europe where European nations would peacefully sell stolen goods from Asia, Africa and Latin America to each other–all the while Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Iran were constantly fighting one another in blood-soaked wars.
Today, Russia, Turkey and Iran have come to the realisation that fighting among another is a futile experience. The advent of modern weapons and the images of the Soviet Union fighting the fascists in the Great Patriotic War has led Russia’s erstwhile enemies to think twice about fighting Russian soldiers armed with 21st century weapons. However, the prospect for regional disputes as described in the previous section still would have existed if not for the fact that Russia has embraced and helped to build upon the Chinese model of inter-connectivity which will ultimately flourish as One Belt–One Road advances throughout Asia.
Syria proved to be a seismic test for Russia. On the one hand, circumstance posed a challenge to Russia in the form of Iran. Would Iran and Russia begin competing for influence in Syria with Russia’s secular Soviet traditions appealing to the ideology of the governing Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party? Or would the fact that Iran and Syria were fighting against enemies intending to cause a genocide of Shi’a Muslims banned together against Sunni extremists at the expense of other potential allies?
An even more direct threat came in the form of a renewed Russo-Turkish War. Beginning in 2015, Russia and Turkey began competing for influence in a Mediterranean country just as they had throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in late 2015, many felt that war was inevitable.
“Win-Win” diplomacy vanquishes old ghosts
Instead of war between Turkey, Russia and Iran over Syria and the wider region–a minor miracle happened that has still hardly been discussed due to the lingering fog of the war in Syria. Russia increased its cooperation with Iran both on security issues and on economic issues. Rather than joining with the United States and stabbing a dagger into an old regional rival, Russia and Iran worked to counter western sanctions through an increased Eurasian partnership that will likely result in Iran shortly joining the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Russia is the largest member This will open up Iran to markets from Europe to the Pacific, all without US sanctions coming into play in any significant way. Through economic and security cooperation, Russia and Iran have managed to avoid any potential conflicts in central Asia or the Caucasus.
In respect of Turkey, Russia exercised the utmost restraint in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian jet and by the summer of 2016, it was Russia that helped support peace and stability in a fellow Eurasian power when the west seemed to be privately salivating over the prospect of a coup against Turkey’s President Erdogan.
The result has been the coming together of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the so-called Astana format to thrash out a respectful anti-imperialist peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. But the alliance between the great Eurasian powers has not merely been just about Syria. Each country is now intensifying relations with one another, comfortable in the fact that one can cooperate among neighbours and those in a near-aboard rather than compete. In this sense Iran, Russia and Turkey have learned the lesson Europe did in the 19th century, only instead of enriching Eurasia through the exploitation of colonies in far away lands, the anti-imperialist Eurasian model looks to trade investment for resources in sovereign state partners throughout the world and all without the imposition of political ideologies and economic models that typifies the neo-imperialist model of the United States.
Today, the great ‘new’ Asian powers of India and Pakistan must be careful not to make the same mistakes Iran, Ottoman Turkey and Russia did in the past. Pakistan and India owe it to themselves to adopt the modern Eurasian model which has already been embraced by China, Iran and Turkey. At present Pakistan has fully and wisely embraced this model while India looks to fall into the 19th century style trap that the neo-imperial US has set for it. Never the less, when it comes to playing zero-sum games, India is greatly outnumbered by the healthy concert of Asian nations.
Russia, Iran and Turkey did not come together at a time of peace but at a time of war–a war that could have seen Russia, Iran and Turkey become rivals, has led to history making cooperation between all three states. Meanwhile, a common enemy of all three countries is now the United States, a country that remains committed to competing for resources and influence based on the zero-sum model of 19th century power struggles, combined with the imperialist and neo-imperialist disregard for the rights of nations which are not great powers.
Ultimately Eurasia has won, modernity has won, cooperation has won while the US clings on to all it has left: the past.