Russia's Pivot to Asia : Its Implication for Global Order

Global Centre Stage

The Kremlin's frustration with the unpredictable and fickle nature of Ukrainian politics was a major factor in Russia's willingness to break away from the post-Soviet consensus on maintaining the post-1991 borders

With the Ukraine crisis now in a semi-frozen state, it is an opportune moment to assess what significance it has had on world politics. The recent summits of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Ufa, Russia, provide a particularly useful backdrop from which to do so. The issues considered here are the background to the Ukraine crisis, including Russia's policy in the former Soviet space, the breakdown of its relations with the West and the nature of Russia's pivot to Asia, specifically its relations with China.

Moscow's Policy in the Former Soviet Space

The regional dimension to the Ukraine crisis lies in Russia's determination to maintain an overarching influence in the former Soviet space. This policy included maintenance of Russia's role as the dominant energy supplier and transit hub in the region. In military terms it entailed a consolidation of Russia's key military role through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and its military bases abroad, provisions of border security, anti-terrorism, intelligence sharing. In politics, this manifested itself in supports for friendly regimes, more often than not autocratic, in order to limit the influence of Western governments and NGOs in the region.

In Ukraine, three elements closely intertwined to produce the current crisis. They are: (1) the energy politics over Ukraine as the main transit route of the Russian gas supplies to EU; (2) the military aspects over the status of the Russian navy base in Crimea; and, (3) the involvement of the West in Russia's relations with Ukraine through the Eastern Partnership initiative and open support for anti-Yanukovich protesters. It was further exacerbated by identity politics, where the Russians perceived Ukraine as the ‘most Russian' part of the former USSR, while the Ukrainians were keen to stress their differences from Russia in order to sustain an independent state, thereby producing a clash between the two post-Soviet identity projects.

By annexing Crimea the Kremlin secured the most important and strategic territory, and can now take a long term approach (without having to depend on Ukraine's chaotic politics) to maintaining its naval presence in Sevastopol. It can also try to influence Ukraine through the Donbas pressure point, as well as the traditional levers of gas contracts and trade. The Kremlin's frustration with the unpredictable and fickle nature of Ukrainian politics was a major factor in Russia's willingness to break away from the post-Soviet consensus on maintaining the post-1991 borders.

Relations with the West

The broad framework for understanding Russia's relations with the West is Russia's failure to successfully integrate into the Western norms and institutions on an equal basis, which has been Russia's aim since Gorbachev's Perestroika in the 1980s. Instead, Russia has begun to define its role as a champion in resisting Western hegemonic universalism in international relations. This included resistance to promotion of cosmopolitan Western-inspired values such as human rights, individualism and democracy. In contrast, Russia claims to protect local distinctiveness couched in the name of traditional Westphalian concepts of sovereignty, territoriality and diplomacy. Ultimately, Russia's stance is to maintain the state and nation as master institutions in international affairs.

At the regional level, Russia seeks recognition of its interests and special status by the West. Specifically, at the top of Russia's agenda is the desire to minimise involvement of other great powers in Russia's sphere of influence. As the Ukraine crisis has shown, this includes reliance on military strength, seen as a compensation for chronic economic and technological backwardness compared with the West.

EU's approach to foreign policy is based on expanding its community of values, particularly within the immediate neighbourhood, for example, through the Eastern Partnership programme. Russia, on the other hand, protects the Westphalian system based on state sovereignty, non-intervention, diplomacy and great power balance. As a result, EU's policy has been securitised by Russia, seeing EU's normative expansion (human rights, democracy, NGOs) as a direct threat to the established system of sovereign statehood. In addition, the US unilateralism (often acted upon outside international law) and its reliance on the hard power (most notably in Iraq) led Russia to conclude that Western discourse of universal values in international relations is simply a cover for Western hegemonic dominance.

Russia's aim has been to limit Western presence in the ex-Soviet space, which Russia sees as crucial for its security and long-term development. To do that, Russia wants to separate the economic aspects of its relations with the EU from the political (relations with other ex-Soviet states) and the normative (democracy and human rights), while the EU wants to make economic relations dependent on acceptance of its norms. The end result is a deadlock in mutual relations.

It is within this framework, i.e. perceived advancement of Western geopolitical interests under the cover of promotion of universal values, that Russia sees the Ukraine crisis, thereby putting forward an internally coherent account of illegitimate change of power, under foreign auspices, during the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014. As a result, Russia's relation with the West is broken for the foreseeable future.

Relations with China

Given its problems with relations to the West, which have been exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis, the BRICS format serves as an important forum to emphasise the changing nature of the world balance of power in favour of the non-Western world. Among the BRICS countries, China has emerged as the most significant partner for Russia. There are several reasons for China's importance in Russia's new foreign policy.

First, economic reasons have become particularly important since the introduction of Western sanctions. China, because of its economic size, is seen by Moscow as a potential replacement for European market in natural resources, especially gas and oil, as well as a source of investment and technology.

Second, in ideological terms both countries share a resistance to the US hegemony and Western interventionism. The latter implies common concern with the primacy of domestic political stability, which is often seen by Moscow and Beijing as threatened by externally justified and supported regime changes of the type experienced in the ex-USSR known as the colour revolutions (most notably Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2001 and 2014) or the Arab spring.

Third, China and Russia also have common security concerns. These centre on Central Asia, its internal stability, and limiting the US influence in their respective areas of interest, in Europe for Russia, and in the seas around its coast for China. They also have a common interest in completely locking the US out of Central Eurasia and promoting a multi-polar system in international relations.

Finally, there is a more profound, strategic reason for Russia's pivot to Asia. East Asia is the most dynamic region in the world. Given Russia's geography it is both advantageous to participate in its growth and strategically important to maintain sovereignty over its Far East in the long term. All this was understood by the Russian leadership prior to the Ukraine crisis and falling out with the West, but the latter prompted a much more rapid movement in this direction.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

The SCO has emerged as a principal vehicle for the Sino-Russian cooperation in the former Soviet space. Russia's distinguished diplomatic tradition, political leadership and its experience in dealing with security issues in the former Soviet space make it an important partner for China as it seeks to develop its economic presence in the region. On the other hand, China's economic clout and rich potential for investment are attractive to Russia which experiences uncertain economic times due to low oil prices and Western sanctions.

The new pivot to China includes joint economic and security projects in Central Asia (the New Silk Road), as well as new levels of economic cooperation through gas pipelines from Russia to China. There is also potential shared resistance to Western-inspired pro-democracy protests and, related to this, control over the Internet. Russia's experience of building pseudo-democratic authoritarianism may be interesting for China as it looks to revamp its own political system. Finally, there is a common opposition and resistance to US hegemony at the global level which range from the BRICS and G20 to new development and infrastructure banks recently set up by the BRICS and China.

The New Silk Road project of creating a new transport corridor from China to EU has the potential to be integrated with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project which could create a common economic space for the whole of Eurasia. It seems a division of labour is emerging in this new partnership, with Russia given the task of dealing with the political and security elements, and China providing the economic resources of integration.

The question remains why Russia has been unusually accommodating with China, particularly in the former Soviet space which Russia traditionally sees as its own privileged sphere of influence. Furthermore, Russia's remarkable degree of acceptance of Chinese influence is in stark contrast to the very rigid and hostile approach taken by the Kremlin towards Western attempts at involvement in the same region, as displayed in the Ukraine crisis.

There are several reasons for Russia's nuanced approach to China's presence in the former Soviet space. First, it can be argued that this is a case of Russia joining a project it cannot resist. Russia has acknowledged China's economic superiority. Acceptance by Russia that China is stronger economically means it is seen as crucial to build relations with China, amicably manage its rise and derive benefits from a special relation with it.

Second, in contrast to Western projects, there is no ideological difference between Russia and China. Consequently, there is no need to fend off Western moralising demands on improving democracy and allegations of human rights abuses that have often been the stumbling block in its dealing with the West. On the contrary, China is willing to acknowledge Russia as equal, at least verbally, and would eschew a moralising tone typical of the Westerners' approach.

Not being able to exclude both China and the West from the former Soviet space, the Kremlin seems to go with China because it is more comfortable with it ideologically, offers an appearance of equality and is willing to delegate to Russia pre-eminence in political and security spheres. Together, this will allow Russia to lock the West, principally the US, out of Eurasia. In fact, this is the sort of arrangement which Russia sought from the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In return for its support for the war against terror, Russia expected the US to agree to its role as a regional superpower with a responsibility for managing the ex-Soviet space, an arrangement the US did not agree to.

Difficulties in Russia's Pivot to the East

Despite Russia's clear policy of advancing its relations with China to a new level of cooperation, there remain serious obstacles to increasing links between the two countries. These primarily relate to the inherently unequal economic and demographic potentials of the two sides, as well as their cultural differences. Although none of these is insurmountable, they do weigh on Russia's attitude towards China and will require an extra degree of tact and mutual willingness to accommodate each other's interests.

Russia continues to develop its relations with other countries, particularly India with its important partnership in arms trade accounting for almost a third of Russia's arms exports. There are also growing links in the energy sector, among others. Russia is also developing economic relations with Vietnam. This includes major arms deals, revival of Russia's interest in its old naval base there and investment in Vietnam's natural resources, partly in offshore areas contested by China.

Russia has succeeded at this year's summit in Ufa in its goal of bringing in India and Pakistan as members of the SCO despite China's resistance. This dilutes China's influence and shows Russia's intent to balance China's influence in key areas of international organisation. The new BRICS development bank, likewise, was set up on an equal share basis, something China initially opposed.

Russia is, therefore, potentially wary of China's clout. This is particularly true of Russian public opinion as shown by the recent outcry at the proposed leasing of agricultural land to the Chinese in the Eastern Siberia. Chinese investment in agriculture remains a highly controversial topic, as is the related issue of the Chinese migration to the sparsely populated Russian Far East.

The potential for geopolitical rivalry remains over Central Asia and the energy routes and supplies to East Asia. Furthermore, excessive reliance on China puts Russia in dangerous geopolitical situation. For example, Russia has been keen to avoid exclusive reliance on the Chinese energy market, continuing the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO pipeline) to the Kozmino oil port where it can be shipped across East Asian market (although a substantial part of its output still goes to Daqing, China via a separate branch of the same pipeline). A change in circumstances may move Russia towards closer relations with other BRICS (especially India), or even a limited rapprochement with the US and the EU.

There is also the issue of cultural differences. Despite its falling out with the leading Western countries, Russia is still very much a European country. Its discourse is firmly entrenched in the European philosophical and cultural tradition, even if it tries to articulate an alternative version of what some authors have called ‘the other' Europe. This stresses traditional conservative values in domestic politics, and pluralist, ultimately relativist, values in its foreign policy.

Russia wants the West to accept that there are limits to its universal values inspired interventionism (which some Russians think are just Western values). In philosophical terms it is the clash between universalism and relativism, in practical terms Russia's discourse reinforces the idea that local state sovereignty trumps universal values. The underlying debate is about the philosophical justification of spheres of influence or their rejection.

While there could be some agreement between the BRICS countries on practical implications of this approach (e.g. the primacy of national sovereignty over universal rights), the deeper debate in which Russia is engaging (itself a product of Russia's frustrated European identity) has little relevance to China or other Asian countries brought up in a different cultural and philosophical traditions. Finally, the EU will remain Russia's main trading partner for the foreseeable future and the vast majority of Russian population will remain in European Russia. Crucially, the West will continue to provide a powerful model for modernisation of economic, social and even political spheres.


Several factors have influenced Russia's increased attention towards Asia. These include Russia's internal failure to Westernise after Perestroika and its consequent resentment of the West's vanguardist approach to international relations imposing Western-based values on the rest of the world. On the other hand, the spectacular economic growth in East Asia created both an opportunity and a strategic necessity to develop Russia's links in the region where most of its territory lies. The Ukraine crisis hastened this long term trend of distancing from the West and turning towards Asia.

This has implications for global order. First, Russia's close link with China has the potential to upset the traditional balance of power in Asia (East, Central and even South). Second, there is a challenge to the Western-dominated, post-Cold War order which Russia is keen to expedite more forcibly than any other non-Western countries. The question remains about the extent to which other non-Western countries are interested in Russia's anti-hegemonic agenda, and what will be the West's response.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.