Eurasia has long been the world’s key strategic shatter zone because it is where the richest and most powerful countries—the United States excepted—are located. And since the early 20th century, this sprawling supercontinent has seen vicious brawls for geopolitical primacy. Today China, Russia, and their autocratic friends are leading another epic clash over the world’s largest landmass.
By Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for FOREIGN POLICY
The war in Ukraine may have many positive outcomes: A Russia bled white by its own aggression, a United States that has rediscovered the centrality of its power and leadership, a democratic community that has been unified and energized for the dangerous years ahead. There will also be one very ominous outcome: the rise of a coalition of Eurasian autocracies linked by geographic proximity to one another and geopolitical hostility to the West. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s folly rallies the advanced democracies, it hastens the construction of a Fortress Eurasia, manned by the free world’s enemies.
Revisionist autocracies—China, Russia, Iran, and, to a lesser degree, North Korea—aren’t simply pushing for power in their respective regions. They are forming interlocking strategic partnerships across the world’s largest landmass, and they are fostering trade and transportation networks beyond the reach of the U.S. dollar and the U.S. Navy. This isn’t, yet, a full-blown alliance of autocracies. It is, however, a bloc of adversaries more cohesive and dangerous than anything the United States has faced in decades.
All the great conflicts of the modern era have been contests over Eurasia, where dueling coalitions have clashed for dominance of that supercontinent and its surrounding oceans. Indeed, the American Century has been the Eurasian Century: Washington’s vital task as a superpower has been keeping the world in balance by keeping Eurasia divided. Now the United States is again leading a coalition of democratic allies on Eurasia’s margins against a group of centrally located rivals—while crucial swing states maneuver for advantage.
Countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India have a critical role in this era of rivalry, thanks to the geography they occupy and the clout they wield. In many cases, these powers are determined to play both sides. Containing the Eurasian challenge will involve strengthening the bonds within and between the United States’ alliance networks. Yet what makes the current moment so daunting is that opportunistic swing states will also shape the fight between Fortress Eurasia and the free world.
Eurasia has long been the world’s key strategic shatter zone because it is where the richest and most powerful countries—the United States excepted—are located. And since the early 20th century, this sprawling supercontinent has seen vicious brawls for geopolitical primacy.
In World War I, Germany sought an empire from the English Channel to the Caucasus; it took a trans-Atlantic coalition of democracies to beat the challenge back. In World War II, Germany and Japan conquered Eurasia’s vibrant rimlands and drove deep into its heartland; an even grander, more ideologically diverse coalition rallied to restore the balance. In the Cold War, a centrally located superpower, the Soviet Union, tried to overawe a free-world coalition on Eurasia’s margins. The specifics change, but the basic clash—between those who seek to rule Eurasia and those, including the overseas superpower, who oppose them—endures.
After their Cold War victory, Washington and its friends were preeminent in all of Eurasia’s key subregions: Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Yet challenges have since reemerged from rivals that have increasingly coalesced around their shared hostility to the status quo. And just as major crises often speed up history, the Russia-Ukraine war is accelerating the rise of a new Eurasian bloc.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a bid to remake Eurasia by force. If Russia had conquered Ukraine, it could have restored the European core of the old Soviet Union. Moscow would have had a commanding position from Central Asia to NATO’s eastern front. The Sino-Russian strategic partnership would have seemed ascendant, while the democracies suffered another demoralizing defeat. That scenario unraveled with Putin’s shambolic offensive. Yet the war has still had profoundly polarizing effects.
It has undoubtedly galvanized the advanced democracies. NATO is rearming and expanding. Democracies in Asia have supported Ukraine and sanctioned Russia for fear that successful aggression in one region may encourage deadly adventures in others. Countries linked by liberal values and support for the U.S.-led international order are strengthening their defenses from Eastern Europe to the Western Pacific, and they are rethinking economic and technological ties to the tyrannies in Moscow and Beijing. What U.S. President Joe Biden calls the “free world” is again taking shape. So, unfortunately, is an autocratic coalition.
Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang all seek to overturn the balance of power in their regions and view Washington as the primary obstacle. All worry about their vulnerability to sanctions and other punishments the United States and its global posse can impose. All need the others to survive because if the United States and its allies destroy any one of them, the remainder become more isolated and vulnerable. Finally, all are located within Eurasia and enjoy proximity, if not contiguity, with at least one other revisionist state. As the Russia-Ukraine war heightens global tensions, these autocracies are drawing together, for self-protection and strategic profit.
Soldiers in the foreground take a photo of soldiers from Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea as they pose under a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Feb. 14, 2019.
This trend isn’t new, of course. Iran and North Korea have long shared missile technology and other means of mischief; the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has been developing for decades. But if the war has strained that partnership, it has also underscored the convergent aims and anxieties of the revisionists. It has thus accelerated integration at the world’s Eurasian core.
A Eurasian bloc is cohering militarily, as the war fosters overlapping and increasingly ambitious defense ties. Russia’s military relationship with North Korea has become a two-way street, as Pyongyang sells Moscow badly needed artillery ammunition. Russia and Iran, meanwhile, are building what CIA Director William Burns calls a “full-fledged defense partnership.” That partnership involves transfers of drones, artillery, and, reportedly, missiles that have strengthened Russia on battlefields in Ukraine; it may presage the transfer of advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft, air defense systems, or ballistic missile technology, which would make Tehran a tougher enemy for the United States and Israel.
China, for its part, hasn’t openly supported Putin’s war with lethal military aid, for fear of U.S. and European sanctions. It has, however, provided so-called nonlethal assistance—from drones to computer chips—that helps Putin protract his fight, and Beijing would probably go further if its most important ally were facing defeat. For now, the conspicuous presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s defense experts during his recent summit with Putin in Moscow signaled that the larger military relationship—which already features joint exercises, arms sales, and significant technological cooperation—continues to race past the limits many Western observers expected a decade ago.
It wouldn’t take a formal Sino-Russian alliance to upend the military balance. If Russia provides China with sensitive submarine-quieting technology or surface-to-air missiles, it could profoundly change the complexion of a Sino-American war in the Western Pacific. In today’s Eurasia, well-armed revisionists are making common cause.
They are also restructuring international trade. Commerce, or weapons shipments, that traverses Eurasia’s marginal seas can be seized by globe-ranging navies. Dollar-dependent economies are vulnerable to U.S. sanctions. A second aspect of Fortress Eurasia, then, involves building trade and transportation networks safe from democratic interdiction.
For years, China has invested in overland pipelines and railroads meant to ensure access to Middle Eastern oil and other crucial resources. Beijing is now seeking to sanction-proof its economy by reducing reliance on foreign inputs, a project that has gained urgency thanks to the Western economic war on Moscow. Russia and Iran are energizing the International North-South Transport Corridor, which connects the two countries via the land-locked Caspian Sea, as Tehran instructs Moscow in sanctions evasion. Likewise, Russia and China are deepening cooperation to develop the Northern Sea Route, the least vulnerable maritime path between China’s Pacific ports and European Russia. When “international trade is in crisis,” as Putin said euphemistically last November, Eurasian integration is essential.Members of the media hold microphones above a long table of officials as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (second from left) meets with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from right) in Moscow on Jan. 10, 2018
Indeed, Russia-Iran trade has spiked since February 2022, while China has become Moscow’s key commercial partner “by a wide margin,” as the Free Russia Foundation reports. Bilateral trade in Russian oil and Chinese computer chips is surging; Russian firms are turning to Hong Kong to raise capital while skirting sanctions. And as Chinese technology spreads throughout Eurasia, its currency proliferates, too.
This February, the yuan overtook the dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow Exchange. China and Iran are also experimenting with cutting the dollar out of bilateral trade. “Geopolitics will not, of course, lead to the global dethronement of the dollar” anytime soon, Alexander Gabuev, the director of the new Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in Bloomberg in March. But it could promote a Sino-centric economic and technological bloc at the heart of the Old World.
Finally, this Eurasian bloc is cohering intellectually and ideologically. The Sino-Russian joint statement in February 2022 portrayed the two countries as defending their autocratic political systems while resisting the United States’ Cold War-style alliance blocs. Iranian officials describe Eurasian cooperation as the antidote to U.S. “unilateralism”; Putin deems Eurasia a haven for “traditional values” besieged by Western “neoliberal elites.” Because the current war has severed Putin from the West, it has also resolved Russia’s perennial debate about which direction to face. For the time being, Russia’s destiny is Eurasian.
To be sure, there are limits. Whatever Putin says, the North-South corridor will never put the Suez Canal to shame. A globally integrated China won’t have to go all-in on Eurasia as a more isolated Russia must. Tensions lurk within the league of autocracies: Some Russian nationalists, if not Putin himself, must worry that a Eurasian orientation ultimately means economic vassalage to Beijing. In the meantime, however, Fortress Eurasia will make life much harder for Washington and its friends.
Eurasian integration will also make the United States’ antagonists less vulnerable to sanctions. It will strengthen them militarily against their foes. It will lead to wide-ranging diplomatic cooperation—such as stronger Russian support for China’s position on Taiwan—or perhaps even material assistance to one another in a war against the United States. If Russia had the opportunity to help China bleed the United States in a fight in East Asia, does anyone doubt it would have the motivation?
Even short of that, Fortress Eurasia will make the world safer for violent revisionism. The more secure these countries feel in their Eurasian stronghold, the more support they have from one another, the more emboldened they will be to project power into peripheral regions—the Western Pacific, Europe, the Middle East—and beyond.
Biden isn’t wrong, then, in describing a great struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Yet this binary doesn’t fully capture the Eurasian landscape. The Russia-Ukraine war has also underscored the importance of strategically located swing states, which seek advantage from both Fortress Eurasia and the free world and affect the balance between the two.
In the Persian Gulf, a resource-rich region at the crossroads of three continents, longtime U.S. security partners now deem monogamy less rewarding than polyamory. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are shifting, economically and technologically, toward China. Both keep strong ties with Russia, even amid its war in Ukraine. Anti-communism once provided ideological glue in these monarchies’ relations with Washington. Today, however, modernizing autocracies have more in common politically with the United States’ rivals than with the United States itself.
To the West, Turkey occupies the intersection of two seas and two continents, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, likewise, playing a double game. Ankara enjoys NATO’s protection while importing Russian air defenses; it supports Ukraine while helping Moscow to evade sanctions; and it has become a key player in conflicts from the Caucasus to the Horn of Africa, often in opposition to U.S. interests. How Turkey aligns, in other words, varies from issue to issue. And so long as an ambitious, increasingly illiberal Erdogan rules, it will aim, as Turkish analyst Asli Aydintasbas wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2021, “to keep a foot in each camp.”
Then there is South Asia. Pakistan, once a critical U.S. partner, now leans toward Beijing, which sees it as a conduit to the Indian Ocean. India, conversely, is tilting toward Washington for protection against China. But it still relies on Russia for arms and energy, and ideology and self-interest make India more comfortable navigating between the great powers than tying itself to any of them. It is a mistake to think New Delhi has irrevocably made its choice: At some point, Prime Minister Narendra Modi might welcome détente with China were Beijing to relax the pressure along the countries’ shared frontier. And in other countries around the Eurasian periphery, from Indonesia to Egypt, alignments are more fluid still.
The swing states are diverse, but the commonalities are striking. None are among the rich, economically advanced democracies. All prefer to maneuver between rival coalitions, in hopes of keeping options open and eliciting the best possible deals from each. All have been ambivalent, at best, in responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine because they value their relationships with Moscow and worry that polarized geopolitics will preclude diplomatic flexibility. And all can meaningfully affect the configuration of power around the world’s central landmass.
Each of these swing states has already bolstered Putin’s war in Ukraine, by helping him to reduce the impact of sanctions. Saudi Arabia did so most spectacularly in late 2022, via oil production cuts that sent prices—and Moscow’s revenues—higher. Their choices have other critical implications, as well.
The UAE may be moving toward hosting a Chinese base on its territory—and thereby helping Beijing to insert its military power in a sensitive region. Saudi Arabia has already welcomed Chinese diplomatic power into the Persian Gulf, relying on Beijing to broker a mini-détente with Tehran. In South Asia, a Pakistan closely bound to Beijing will make it far easier for China to escape its “Malacca dilemma”—the fact that much of its westward trade must pass through a narrow strait it does not control. India’s decisions will influence the global distribution of technological influence and manufacturing capacity—the latter being particularly essential as the threat of great-power war grows—as well as how much trouble China faces on land as it pushes outward at sea. Turkey’s choices will affect the level of economic pressure Putin faces, the strength and solidarity of NATO, and the geopolitical landscape from Central Asia to the Middle East.
The competition for the swing states isn’t merely some global popularity contest. It will help determine whether the defenses Washington must erect around Fortress Eurasia are strong or full of holes.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk together down a set of stairs amid a crowd of people, many wearing masks and suits, after a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
In 1944, Japan dispatched a submarine carrying gold, tungsten, and other materials to Nazi-occupied Europe. It was a suicide mission: After traveling thousands of miles around Asia and Africa, the submarine was sunk by U.S. aircraft near the Bay of Biscay. Berlin and Tokyo were fighting to remake the world, but the cruelties of geography made cooperation impossible.
Today’s revisionists don’t have this problem. The location of the Eurasian autocracies doesn’t simply make the new red blob look scary on a map. It helps them reduce asymmetric U.S. strengths and fight back-to-back against the outside world. As during the Cold War, a geographically dispersed free world confronts a geographically coherent coalition. Now as then, there is also a third group that can cast a swing vote in global affairs.
The United States can’t easily reverse the formation of Fortress Eurasia because that process is the result of strong shared interests and sharpening global tensions produced by the war in Ukraine. In theory, perhaps, Washington could split the coalition by reconciling with one or more of its members. In practice, if such reconciliation were possible, it would require concessions—abandoning Ukraine and parts of Eastern Europe to Moscow, for instance—that would worsen Washington’s global problems. What remains, then, is a twofold response.
The United States has alliance blocs that give it tremendous leverage in East Asia and Europe. In the aggregate, the United States and its treaty allies are mightier—economically, diplomatically, militarily—than their adversaries. So the first imperative is to strengthen the alliances that anchor Eurasia’s endangered margins while strengthening the bonds between them so aggression anywhere meets an increasingly global response.
To its credit, Washington is pursuing elements of this strategy—by tightening alliances with Japan and the Philippines, bolstering NATO’s eastern front, and crafting partnerships, such as AUKUS, that bind like-minded democracies across multiple regions. The next steps would be to further integrate free-world defenses where threats are most severe, perhaps by pursuing a trilateral U.S.-Japan-Australia commitment to resist Chinese aggression or by laying out serious plans for how European powers might respond, militarily or economically, to conflict in the Western Pacific. The difficulties here are hardly trivial, and a U.S. presidential election outcome in 2024 or after that would restore a unilateralist, America First administration could complicate matters further still. But, for the moment, the task is a familiar one of alliance management and fits comfortably within Biden’s free-world frame.
More conceptually challenging is the second imperative: maximizing strategic convergence with the swing states while minimizing divergence where it would hurt the most. Because these countries have good reasons for their ambivalence, this will be an arduous, often unsatisfying task.
It will require separating the essential from the important—namely, identifying those issues, such as keeping Chinese military bases out of the Persian Gulf, where the United States should aggressively employ its leverage to avert a meaningful change in the Eurasian equilibrium. The corollary involves accepting that moral compromises—and trade-offs between the short term and the long term—will be starker in dealing with swing states than in dealing with advanced democracies. The United States can make Saudi Arabia a pariah or directly challenge India on issues of domestic governance but not without jeopardizing cooperation on issues of strategic importance. This suggests that Washington should also tailor its message to its audience: Outside the global West, appeals to democratic norms will be less effective than an emphasis on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and other norms that are threatened by the behavior, as opposed to the regime type, of the revisionist quartet.
These points, in turn, underscore the frankly transactional nature of diplomacy with swing states. The U.S.-Saudi special relationship is history, and appeals to democratic solidarity won’t get Washington very far in New Delhi. The United States will have to buy cooperation from Saudi Arabia, India, and other players by offering benefits of real value while also withholding those benefits when swing states consistently conduct foreign policies contrary to important U.S. interests. If the United States regularly punishes swing states for their diplomatic choices, it risks turning ambivalence into hostility; if it never does so, it risks losing all leverage. Yet, because this is such a tricky balancing act, it is important, finally, to shift the underlying incentives over time.
By depleting the Russian defense industry, Putin’s war has created an opportunity to help Turkey, India, Vietnam, and other states move away from Moscow’s military gear—and thereby change their calculus on discrete geopolitical issues. Encouraging Indian economic ties with the Persian Gulf can, similarly, reduce reliance on Chinese trade and money in two important regions.
For the fourth time in little more than a century, an epic clash over Eurasia is underway. 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.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @HalBrands