Russia Isn't Pivoting to Asia

Vladimir Putin at the World Diamond Conference with Narendra Modi. Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru

Its interests remain firmly concentrated in Europe.

News that Russia is strengthening its air and missile defenses in the Baltic, Crimea and Far East—and Russia’s wish to preserve its global status—suggest that its dismissal of its so-called “pivot” to Asia should be taken seriously by the United States and its NATO allies. And some widespread assumptions about that pivot having taken place after the imposition of western sanctions on Russia for invading and dismembering Ukraine in 2014 do not stand up to scrutiny.

As a unique country in terms of geopolitical location (according to the Kremlin) and as a Eurasian power, Russia cannot turn to only one side.

But the Asia-Pacific is a high Russian priority, and Moscow sees good prospects for cooperation with countries in this region. At the same time, Russia hopes to get back to business as usual with the EU.

Russia’s keenness to remain a major world influence is reflected in its attempts to strengthen its ties with many countries in the Asia-Pacific. But Russia has shrugged off talk about its strategic turn to the East—and not without reason. Russia’s deployment of missiles in the Baltic, Crimea and Russian Far East, and its current interests in West Asia, Europe, the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic, show that it is testing the ground—or trying to gain military ground—on four sides, as it were.

Militarily, Russia’s presence in the Asia-Pacific predates Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s Pacific Fleet, one of its most powerful naval forces, and its possession of the Kurils, which is contested by Japan, testify to its long-held position as a Pacific power.

But the only Russian base in the Asia-Pacific is in Vietnam.

Given its own Eurasian location Russia’s bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan hardly reflect an eastward—or even an Asian—pivot. Military bases in Belarus, Moldova (in the partially recognized state of Transnistria) and Crimea reflect a turn to Europe, and the Middle Eastern base in Syria a westward turn. Bases in Armenia and South Ossetia lie immediately to the south of Russia. None of this amounts to a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific.

Russian and Chinese Interests Do Not Always Coincide

On the economic front, President Vladimir Putin’s keenness to persuade foreign investors to develop the Russian Far East was obvious from the early days of his presidency in 2000. Russia has welcomed Chinese investment in the subregion. At another level, 2014’s famous $400 billion Sino-Russian gas deal had been under negotiation for more than a decade, which hardly suggests the quick turn on a central point implied by the term “pivot.” Moreover, China overtook Germany as Russia’s largest trading partner in 2010.

At another level, the Russia-China economic relationship has not been trouble-free. Trade between Russia and China has actually decreased from $88.8 billion in 2013 (pre-Ukraine) to $61.4 billion in 2015. This is not much more than Sino-Russian trade in 2010, and a great deal less than the $100 billion that the two countries had hoped for last year. And after a brief interlude that lasted barely two years, Saudi Arabia has reportedly displaced Russia as China’s largest oil supplier.

Additionally, different mindsets block the development of joint Sino-Russian ventures in the Russian Far East. China holds that the majority of the obstacles are created by Russian bureaucracy, outdated legislative and administrative mechanisms, and the lack of thinking in market terms.

Putin accepts that the United States is the world’s only superpower, but what unites China and Russia is their wish to challenge the United States’ global power. China, especially, challenges America’s primacy in Asia. Neither Russia nor China has many friends. So they can be useful to each other at the global level. That is one reason for their opposition to the deployment of American THAAD missiles in South Korea. Russia has not opposed China’s attempts to rebalance power in the South China Sea and has supported the Chinese stance that disputes over its international waters should be settled bilaterally. But it does not want to get involved in the South China Sea.

Moscow also has to take care that any perceived new closeness to Beijing does not alienate some ASEAN countries with whom it seeks to expand its ties—even if Russia has a long way to go to increase its influence in the ASEAN area. Russia has been trying to strengthen those ties since 2011 (pre-Ukraine), through cooperation on counterterrorism and by offering some ASEAN member states arms and energy. Russia is pushing sales of arms to countries that are threatened by China’s saber-rattling and expansionist aims in the South China Sea. Russia is already Vietnam’s main arms supplier. Arms deals with Vietnam show that Russia will not sacrifice defense relationships with countries that contest China’s claims to parts of the South China Sea. However, the planned sales of matériel to Vietnam and Laos will not change the strategic equation in Asia.

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