Russia’s Turn to the East – Seen From the West

In an interview for as part of its Eastern Perspective project, Hans-Joachim Spanger, Head of Research Department at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, shares his vision of Russia’s “Turn to the East.”

For Russia, turning – or rather opening up – to Asia in general and to China specifically is the most natural thing to do – as this is currently the powerhouse of the world economy. Everybody is eying China in an effort to find new market outlays. In this respect, Russia still has much room to improve and expand. This also entails engineering a new development push for the adjacent territories, namely Siberia and Russia’s Far East. This concerns first of all Russia’s unique natural resources in the region, the exploitation of which naturally calls for customers in geographical proximity.

Moreover, although essentially a continental power, Russia is also an Atlantic and a Pacific power. But whereas Russia’s access to the Pacific is much broader than its Western shores (not to mention the land border with China of over 4,200 km), its center of gravity clearly resides in the western part of the country having left the part east of the Urals well behind.

But there is also an ideational element: Whereas Russia’s “Europeanism” has always been a matter of identity, Russia’s “Asianism” is just a pragmatic choice. So far China and Russia seem content with assuring mutual respect and with at least simulating equality and equity – something Moscow rightly keeps complaining to have missed in the West.

However, in one important respect Russia’s turn to the East goes well beyond purely pragmatic considerations and occasionally raises fairly high-flying expectations with explicitly “geopolitical” connotations. There is the pragmatic balancing against the US in indispensable unison with China. But there is also the less pragmatic ideology of Eurasianism which either considers the control of the Eurasian “heartland” as key to global supremacy (in the tradition of Harold Mackinder) or gives rise to civilizational exclusivity and special paths (in the tradition of the exiled Russian Eurasianists of the 1920s and up to Lev Gumilev).

The Ukraine crisis has added to the Eastern turn a measure of urgency since Russia has become short of alternatives. Hence from 2014 onwards push and pull complement each other. On the one hand, seeking refuge in Asia and notably in China is clearly defensive, meant to counter Western efforts at isolating Russia internationally and to mitigate the adverse economic impact of Western sanctions (with mixed results). But on the other, it moves beyond this concern and follows the Russian aim of doing away with US dominance and the “US-led Western-centric” world order by giving substance to a multipolar international order.

Economically China provides unprecedented opportunities and strategically it is indispensable – at least as long as reassurance against the “West” is high on the agenda in Moscow. Undoubtedly, Russia’s China pivot has accomplished a lot in a fairly short period of time. Whereas the “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Brussels never moved beyond the pale declaratory, between Moscow and Beijing it has given rise to a truly preferential relationship – in spite of the fact that on the part of China it took years for the partnership to get rhetorically elevated in such a way.

However, there are other countries in Asia with which Russia nurtures close relations – and incidentally these are the ones with which China has had fairly complicated relations: India, Vietnam, Japan. Hence Russia has been forced to operate in a true minefield of competing territorial claims and historical animosities. Such a situation might become uncomfortable if Russia were forced to take sides – in particular since in most cases China is more or less directly involved, and not necessarily in a “harmonious” way but rather in a fashion that might testify to its “rise”. This concerns relations between China and India, the latter Russia’s time-tested partner and prime weapons customer. It concerns the even more strained relations between China and Vietnam, the latter not only once the subject of a Chinese military incursion but also engaged in a bitter struggle over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. And it concerns the tenuous relations between China and Japan with which Russia is trying to overcome the remnants of the Second World War in its on-and-off talks on what Japan calls “Northern Territories”. So far Russian diplomacy has managed to navigate carefully and successfully this rocky sea.

An area which for some time appeared ripe for open conflict is Central Asia where China’s turn to the West along its “Silk Road” or BRI hits Russian special interests. China’s presence in the region has steadily expanded. Here too, a benign management of mutual concerns has so far prevailed which certainly originates from the “strategic” character of the relationship between the two countries. Moreover, both countries share an important common interest in Central Asia: support for political stability and maintenance of the secular regimes in power, irrespective of their political nature. But whether this confluence will eventually lead to a Russian-Chinese “condominium” in Central Asia, in which Russia will be the guarantor of security and China the largest economic player, is probably too rosy an image of division of labor. There are a number of Russian initiatives which are clearly aimed at checking the Chinese momentum, such as the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” or the “Eurasian Economic Partnership” both with variable membership (EEU, China, Iran, ASEAN or even Europe).

Apart from the three strongholds China, India, Vietnam, Russia’s relations with other Asian countries are more problematic and its presence in many cases just negligible. Japan and South Korea are economic partners but have in no way compromised their being in the Western camp (and Shinzo Abe’s nationalist turn in Japan encouraged diplomatic openings but will in no way allow any compromise with Russia on the territorial issue and hence a strengthening of political ties). Iran is a special case, since on the one hand Russia has been party to the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA, now shipwrecked by a reckless US administration), and on the other it finds itself in an uneasy – yet indispensable – coalition in support of the current Syrian government (Russia’s activities in this civil war cum regional conflict also define its relations with others powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey). In practically all other cases (notably the rest of ASEAN), Russia has been a quantité negligeable.

Certainly, the natural resource complex of Siberia and the Far East, consisting of oil, gas, coal, metals, timber and others as well as their proximity to Asian countries are the most obvious – and for the time being Russia’s most important – asset and competitive advantage. However, access and transport require quite some investments. This also applies to Russia becoming a bridge between the dynamic poles in the East and the West, i.e., between China and Europe. This is the rationale of the Silk Road and applies to the land connection (where Russia has many comparative advantages compared to other routings further south) and to the Northern sea route (where Russia may one day reap the windfall of climate change).

However, for all it turn to the East, Russia will never be embraced by Asia as an Asian power. Russia has invariably been perceived as a purely European power there. Bearing in mind the notoriously long memories in Asia and the suffering of Asians at the hands of Europeans, Russia does not make any difference. It has been a major benefactor of the “unequal treaties” during China’s “century of humiliation” (1858/1860), its seizure of Japan’s “Northern Territories” after World War II has been a bone of contention since (with Japan maintaining that contrary to Europe the Cold War in the Far East went on well into the 1990s if not beyond), and even the departure of the Chinese Communist Party from the Soviet-dominated world communist movement in the 1950s had much to do with deep-seated resentments against European dominance.

Hence in terms of identity politics there is no way for Russia to be welcomed as Asian. In terms of balancing politics, however, it is much welcomed – at least as long as counterweights against the US are considered expedient.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.