The Buzz

Russia's Next Big Strategic Move (And It Has Nothing to Do with Ukraine)

Vladimir Putin has told the West that it has nothing to fear, yet the conflict in Ukraine is flaring again. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is warning his citizens of a full-scale Russian invasion. Contacts between NATO and Russian forces have increased markedly. Reports of Russian strategic bombers close to the UK, and of a Russian submarine in Finnish territorial waters, have grabbed headlines. Last year, NATO scrambled fighters over 400 times to head off suspected Russian incursions into European airspace.

On this basis it would seem reasonable to conclude that Moscow sees its primary security dilemma lying to its West. Certainly, Putin has been keen to demonstrate that Western sanctions are not denting his vision of Russia as a great power. He has prodded Scandinavian nations into reconsidering joining NATO and alarmed the Baltics with exercises close to their borders.

But the Ukraine crisis—and the broader Russia-West tensions tat it has stoked—obscures the fact that Moscow has been quietly but rapidly re-orienting its strategic posture. And it is doing so to the east, not the west.

For Putin, the logic of an Asian pivot is threefold.

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The first concerns consolidating Russia's prosperity as an energy and resource giant. He knows that Indo-Pacific appetites for oil and gas will increase massively over the next twenty years. Within the same time frame, European clients will diversify their energy sources once the U.S. shale gas and oil revolution brings American exports on-line. Russia therefore has a relatively small window of opportunity to begin crowding out competitors for Asia's energy demands.

Second, whereas Moscow's strategic posture has long stressed the need to look east, it has now begun increasing its Indo-Pacific trade and security footprint, including in Southeast Asia, in order to give its intended policy substance.

Third, Russia is betting that the 21st century will be an Asian one--and it is betting on China as the main driver of change in regional and global order. Until recently, the main question hanging over Sino-Russian relations was whether Moscow could live with being a junior partner to Beijing. It seems that question has now been answered in the affirmative, at least for the moment.

Let's take a closer look at Putin's pivot.

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A Geopolitical Pivot:

Russia's pivot to Asia is resulting in a large-scale revamp of its Pacific Fleet. Over the next ten years the fleet will go from Russia's smallest to its biggest naval asset. As part of an overall military build-up costing about US$600 billion, the fleet is getting new ballistic-missile submarines, attack submarines and surface combatants. The two French Mistral helicopter carriers held up over the Ukraine crisis are earmarked for Vladivostok too. And more than just expanding numbers, Russia is keen to show it can project power: its ships are now regularly seen in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The Sino-Russian relationship has also entered a more mature phase. Often criticized as being a mile wide and an inch deep, cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is now comprehensive. It spans trade, investment, energy, institutional engagement and military-security ties. The recent Chinese-Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean, for instance, were partly symbolic. But they would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Just as unthinkable, in fact, as Chinese troops marching in Red Square, which occurred at the May 11 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. Much of the development of Russia's Far East is being bankrolled by Beijing. And in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia has acquiesced to Chinese preferences for the institution to be an energy-trading club rather than a military-security organization.