Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s
Pivot to Asia
Russia’ pivot to Asia was proclaimed for the rst time in 2010. Since
then, however, it turned out to be more words than actions. This is sup-
posed to change now, after the signing of Russia-China gas contract in
May 2014. Moreover, the constant worsening of Russia-West relations due
to the Ukrainian crisis further makes Moscow look eastwards. Russia now
ofcially declares her turn to Asia. So far, however, these attempts have
been half-hearted at best; it is likely that if there is to be any real Russian
pivot to Asia, then it would be apivot to China only.
This paper gives an insight into Russia’s pivot to Asia and examines
it from the neorealist perspective. It shows the ineffective attempts to de-
velop the Far Eastern region of the Russian Federation, Chinese inuence
and agenda and Russian “pivot” discourse. Additionally, it presents Rus-
sian (mis)understanding of Asia and the consequences of the May 2014
gas contract with China. It concludes that Russia’s pivot to Asia remains
more in the sphere of dreams than in reality. Consequently, the outcome
is Russia’s marginalization in Asia.
When researching Russian foreign policy one must use adequate theo-
retical and methodological tools, consistent with the tradition of political
thinking in Russia and her political culture. Here the task is quite easy
– one school of political thinking, realism, is unrivalled. Realism – no
matter in which form, classical or neo – in political science believes that
the nature of all politics is quite universal. Politics, like society in general,
is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature, the
main one being the concept of interest dened in terms of power. Realism
believes that the world, just as mankind, is imperfect and full of contra-
dictions – opposing interests and conicts. In this approach, the interests,
not values, constitute the core of politics and – therefore – moral prin-
ciples cannot be applied to the actions of states or other actors in their
abstract universal formulation, but must be ltered through the concrete
circumstances of time and place, which means that the moral principles
cannot be fully realized. Realism, in spite of believing in any universal val-
ues, puts trust in asystem of check and balances – “aims at the realization
of the lesser evil than the absolute good” (Morgenthau 2006, 3).
Realism is an adequate theoretical form here as Russia’s ruling po-
litical elites have been “brought up in arealistic strategic culture that
emphasizes the element of struggle in an often viciously competitive
world, where power relations dominate at the expanse of allegedly uni-
versal values” (Lo 2008, 176). In this approach, international systems
are considered to be anarchic, based on power politics and, consequent-
ly, build on an “organized hypocrisy” rule. It is a place where logic of
expected consequences prevails over the logic of appropriateness: “the
stronger state can pick and choose among those norms that best suits
their material interests or ignore norms altogether, because they can
impose their choices on weaker states” (Krasner 1999, 9). International
politics, therefore, are based on great powers and Russia is one – and
certainly perceives herself as one – of the great powers. Her political
behavior is based on traditional, 19th century realpolitik imperatives:
national security, power projection, management of the strategic balance
and emphasis on the primacy of state sovereignty. The only difference,
although signicant, is the discourse: “Moscow eschews its vocabulary,
preferring to couch (her) objectives in more modern and inclusive lan-
guage: soft power, interdependency, globalization, and ‘universal threats
and challenges’ have displaced zero-sum calculus, the balance of power,
and spheres of inuence as the lingua franca of international relations”
(Lo 2008, 176).
Russia’s pivot to Asia has been born out of realistic consideration:
abalance of power (the rising Asia as achance to balance United States
(US) hegemony) and bandwagoning to aplace where global commercial
and political center is moving to. Moscow properly understood that her
status as one of global powers depends on her position in Asia-Pacic
region. To maintain her shrinking global position, Russia had to improve
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
her stand in Asia. The truer, when a global superpower – the US – has
already pivoted to Asia. Russia could not be worse than the US – at least
rhetorically – so proclaimed her own pivot, too.
The 2012 Asia-Pacic Economic Cooperation
Summit and the Dilemma of the Far Eastern
Russia’s pivot to Asia was supposed to be coined in 2010. The stimu-
lus for this was provided by aspecial meeting held in Khabarovsk on July
2, 2010, by the then president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev. The general
idea was formulated in the “Russian Strategy in the Asia-Pacic region”
from 2010 (Rodkiewicz 2014). Russia’s pivot was internationally declared
during an Asia-Pacic Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vlad-
ivostok in September 2012. This summit was aimed to symbolize the
beginning of Russia’s pivot to Asia and amore active Russian policy there.
As Moscow Carnegie Director Dmitri Trenin wrote in his well-known ar-
ticle (and well-understood allusion to Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign
Affairs) “Russia can pivot to Pacic, too.” Trenin compared the present
situation of Russia to that in the late 16th century and elaborated that “If
Peter the Great were alive today, he would almost certainly leave behind
the old Russian capital, Moscow (…) simply pack up and move his court
and his administration to an already-built city, Vladivostok” (Trenin, Rus-
sia Can Pivot… 2012). As if to emphasize Trenin’s comparison, Russia
invested heavily in Vladivostok to stress the genuineness of her pivotal
attitude and to show Asia her better face: the city’s infrastructure (roads,
bridges, buildings) underwent intensive investment, amounting to USD
21 million: this was the largest one time investment in Russian/Soviet
history for any Russian city (Yu Bin 2012).
The main reason behind “pivot to Asia” had been the understanding
of Asia’s value to global position of Russia. It has both geostrategic and
geo-economics goals: “Moscow wants to retain its strategic independence
and not to wind up as ajunior partner to either Washington or Beijing”
(Trenin, Russia Can Pivot… 2012). Simply, Russia’s primarily goal is to
remain in the world game of powers. But to achieve it Moscow needs to
develop its Far Eastern region: “the future of Russia on the East depends
on what will Moscow do with her eastern provinces” (Civic Forum inter-
views, Moscow, September 2013).
So far, all attempts to develop the region have proved a failure. Not
to mention the chaotic Yeltsin’s years, even since 2000 Moscow has been
constantly unable to create astrategy of development of this region. Al-
though the Russian government in 2009 adopted a “Strategy of Social
and Economic Development of Eastern Siberia and Russian Far East until
2025” (Стратегия… 2012), this document remains on paper only. The
Far Eastern region remains one of the most backward regions of Russia;
its economy is dependent on Chinese goods, services and labor; depopu-
lation continues and “Moscow policy towards Russian Far East is barely
more effective (state investments in economic and social infrastructure
remains inadequate; Putin’s centralizing political reforms have not signif-
icantly reduced corruption and misgovernment by local administration)
than during the dismal Yeltsin years” (Lo 2008, 66–70). Russia’s lack of
ideas is evident in the return of Soviet-style big energy projects to help
revive the region. Such projects are not labor-incentive, so their impact
on regional unemployment is minimal. Moreover, these projects are often
more virtual than real (e.g. the Korean Peninsula railway or pipeline) and
even if they did materialize (ESPO oil pipeline), they are always dependent
on present geopolitics (the power of the Siberian gas pipeline, see below)
and usually the economic benets go to Moscow. Therefore, these kinds
of projects “make them amost unreliable basis for the region’s economic
revival” (Lo 2008, 67).
The basic dilemma for Russia – how to solve the Far Eastern Region’s
problems – remains unresolved until now. Russia, although aware of the
importance of this issue is nevertheless unable to solve it. The result is
concentration on half-way schemes, such as attracting people from West-
ern Russia or lifting of Vladivostok for APEC summit. Since the fall of
the Soviet Union, Russia has regularly proclaimed the urgency of coun-
teracting the Russian Far East’s decline and created elaborate bureaucratic
institutions to challenge this threat. This applies to the special corpora-
tion for development of the Russian Far East, “comparable in its prerog-
atives probably to Soviet Dalstroy or British East India Company only”
(Kaczmarski, Konończuk 2012) or to the Ministry for Russian Far East,
established in May 2012 (Указ… 2012). Although “the urgency of the
need to spur development of the country’s easternmost regions is cor-
rectly recognized,” this is “not the most creative solution, surely” (Trenin,
Moscow… 2012). These actions must be considered atypical bureaucratic
sweeping the problems under the carpet by creating the illusion of action.
The truth is that Russia is too poor to develop this region by herself. In the
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
conditions of worsening economic conditions, “Russia is unable to spend
million-dollars investments into this underdeveloped for decades Russian
Far East” and even if does invest there, “the until now experiences showed
that sources allocated for investment haven’t provided benets and were
used ineffectively, sometimes even defrauded” (Rosyjski… 2013).
The latest idea has been attracting foreign investments. Russians
want to “catch the Chinese wind,” as Putin himself wrote in the arti-
cle “Russia and the Changing World” in February 2012 (Путин 2012).
The aim is to turn this Russian “fortress” into “fortune,” (Rozman 2000,
177–203) which is not anew idea, but the tools are new. It is based on the
hope of attracting investors to the Far Eastern region from China, but not
only – Japan and Korea are also targeted. The leitmotiv of the Vladivostok
Summit and its nal declaration, “Integrate to Grow, Innovate to Prosper”
attested it (Владивостокская… 2012). The idea of attracting foreign in-
vestment, by the way, is quite new to Russia – so far the privileging mood
here was that of suspicion and fear over dominance of external capital.
The success of this new attitude, therefore, is uncertain at best: old habits
die hard in Russia.
Is the Sinicization of the Russian Far East
on the Horizon?
So far the only major attempt to develop the region on external capital
– The Program of Cooperation between Regions of the Far East and Eastern
Siberia and Regions of the Northeast of China for 2009–2018 – is afail-
ure. The Program itself was adopted in 2009 and signed by the presidents
of Russia and China in September 2009. It includes 205 joint projects in
such spheres as: technology, energy, infrastructure development, and envi-
sions setting up special economic zones, industrial and technological clus-
ters with preferential conditions for foreign investors. The Project includes
aChinese share in: building apower plant in Amur Oblast; the manage-
ment of coal deposits in Chukotka and Magadan Oblast; development of
the forestry industry in Sakhalin; creating atourist center in Baikal; and
building arailway bridge on the Amur River, amongst others. These pro-
jects are estimated at USD 13 billion: 1.7 billion from the central budget
and the rest from foreign investors (Программа сотрудничества… 2010).
Russia’s acceptance of this project shows how the perception of Chi-
na has changed within the Russian Federation. A few years ago Russians
were asking whether the Chinese have TV sets, now they see how pow-
erful China has become (Ларин 2009: 237). When the Russians look at
China today, they see “an economic giant; anancial power armed with
the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves; anew science power and
technology producer; and an increasingly capable military force” (Trenin,
Верные… 2012). Russia, despite being anxious, decided therefore to band-
wagon to Chinese success and attract Chinese investments into the Far
Eastern region. By doing so, Moscow “made avirtue out of necessity,”
because due to several reasons nobody else (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan)
is willing to invest there.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of October 2014 the program
cannot be considered successful. Only afew projects have been fullled,
the rest remain on paper. This is due to the fact that – as one Russian
expert euphemistically concluded – “the mechanisms of realization had
not been included in the Program” (Кулешев 2010, 67) . The general con-
clusion is that “the Program is not being implemented” (Ларин 2009: 19).
The Chinese are not willing to invest en masse in the region due to sever-
al factors. First, the development model of Northeast China (Dongbei) has
changed. Before, cooperation with the Russian Far East was believed to be
the key to success. Now, this idea is being abandoned for an intensied
cooperation with China’s southern provinces (far richer than the Russian
Far East). Second, the Chinese are unwilling to invest into the Far Eastern
Region, “they just want to take the resources and that’s all” (LEAM 2013,
interviews, Lodz, June 2013). The Program therefore, in spite of being the
motor of development for the Russian Far East, becomes another proof of
the continuing slide of this region into becoming China’s raw material ap-
pendance. This policy of Russia contributes to the “region’s economic and
nancial dependency on Asian investors, particularly extensive Chinese
companies interested in acquiring Russian resources” (Rosyjski..., 2013).
Therefore, the present situation benets rst and foremost Chinese inter-
ests. Russia, on the other hand, agrees to the inevitable – cooperation with
China only, on Chinese conditions – and considers getting something
better than getting nothing.
Consequently, Russia’s regional dependence on China only increases,
which may lead to asituation where cooperation with China becomes
avital necessity and inevitability. In these circumstances the Far Eastern
Russians would not afford anti-Chinese actions (this would undermine
the basis of their existence) and would accept the inevitability: Chinese
dominance (China Institute of International Studies interviews, Beijing,
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
June 2010). They are already facing the realities where “revival and mod-
ernization are impossible without cooperation with China, which is in-
terested in many forms of cooperation for her own development” (Ларин
2009: 317). Economic Sinicization of the Russian Far East, not its military
annexation, therefore, seems the most probable future scenario, the more
real, when the only alternative – mass central investments into the region
– seems unlikely. Dmitri Trenin summarizes: “Russian leaders realize
that the country’s most serious geopolitical challenge in the 21st century
is in the east. Russians need to nd away to develop the country’s east-
ern provinces, and to integrate them better with the rest of the country.
These provinces will then help to integrate Russia itself with the dynamic
Asia-Pacic region. Failing that, Russia may not necessarily ‘lose’ those
provinces in aformal way to China, but it will see them increasingly grav-
itate towards it. In another great reversal, the 21st century Khabarovsk,
aRussian border city on the Amur, may look like the late 19th century
Harbin, founded by Russian merchants and railway men in the middle of
Chinese Manchuria: aforeign outpost in aneighboring country, and the
centre of an expanding zone of inuence” (Trenin, Верные… 2012).
Pivot to Asia. Russian discourse
Russia is perfectly aware of the far-fetched consequences of becoming
too dependent on China. One of the main reasons of Russia’s pivot to
Asia has been to contradict this scenario. The 2012 Vladivostok APEC
summit was supposed to be asymbolic beginning of Russia’s new Asian
policy, but then for ayear almost nothing happened. Although since the
APEC summit Putin has conducted several meetings with Asian leaders,
Russian diplomacy activated itself on the Asian dimension, and Asian
matters became more popular in everyday media, these steps “are in real-
ity quite ritual, symbolic” (Лукьянов,Мы … 2013). In autumn 2013 Rus-
sia’s pivot still remained “uncertain,” there was “no rapprochement with
Asia – words only, no rapprochement,” and in general, Russia’s future in
the East remained “uncertain at best” (Civic Forum interviews, Moscow,
September 2013). Although Asia remained important for Russia, there
was always something more important – Syria, Snowden, Ukraine etc.
To achieve agenuine “pivot to Asia” Russia “requires much more than
afacelift for Vladivostok” (Yu Bin 2012). So far, it has ended only up with
this. Vladivostok, understood in a wider political and economic sense,
has quickly been forgotten. After the summit the enthusiasm evaporated
and everything remained as always – without any idea for the long-term
development of region. The state’s efforts have been concentrated on an-
other big event – Sochi. The results of Russia’s pivot to Asia therefore,
have been best summarized by aone Russian voice: “The Russia’s pivot
to Asia ended up on Russian Island” (The Russian island in Vladivostok
is the place where the Summit was held) (LEAM 2013, interviews, Lodz,
The Russian government came back to the idea at the end of 2013,
and intensied this rhetoric after the Ukrainian crisis broke out. Al-
though there is no policy paper on “Russia’s pivot to Asia,” the following
documents/speeches can be considered representative: Russian World’s
(Русский Мир) document “Asia-Pacic Strategy of Russia” (Тихоокеанская
стратегия... 2010); Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly on December
12, 2013, where he proclaimed “Russia’s reorientation toward the Pacic
Ocean” and the development of Russian Far East “a national priority”
(Послание… 2013); “Russia’s Energetic Strategy until 2020,” according
to which 22–25% of oil and 19–20% of gas should be exported to Asia
(Энергетическая… 2014); and National Council for Foreign and Defense
Policy “21st Century Strategy,” where the Asia-Pacic region is considered
to be akey one (Стратегия – XXI … 2014). Between Russian analysts/
researchers the main supporters of pivoting to Asia are Fiodor Lukyanov,
Dmitri Trenin and Alexander Larin.
The “Russian pivot” – as Lukyanov writes – is understood as agrand,
comprehensive strategy towards Asia: aproject coordinating domestic de-
velopment (the Russian Far East) with foreign policy. The latter means
positioning in the Asia-Pacic, enhancing and deepening ties with Japan,
South Korea, India, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, in such a way
that cooperation with Asia-Pacic would not be limited to only China
(Лукьянов, Логичное… 2014). Regional cooperation – away from “great
politics” – plays avital role here. The Great Tumen Initiative is a good
example (Overview. Greater Tumen Inicjative 2014). In the domestic
sphere the most important challenge is a“new colonization” of Siberia
and the Russian Far East: intensication of exploiting these regions. With-
out doing so, “Russia cannot dream about playing important role in Asia.”
This “new colonization” cannot be done by mobilization methods. Russia
needs to attract human capital into the Eastern part of the country, needs
acomprehensive action plan of not only economic activities, but also of
advertising this area: “it must cease to be associated as adepressing prov-
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
ince, but to become seen as a perspective territory” (Лукьянов, Азия…
2013). This “new colonization” should be stimulated by setting up twen-
ty-ve regional centers of development, “from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok”
(Стратегия – XXI… 2014). Some even say that Russia needs adynamic
administration center in the Asian part of the country: “an actual capital
in Siberia is very much needed” (although “implementation of this project
remains in the realm of fantasy”) (Лукьянов, Азия… 2013). This is com-
bined with the necessity of developing Siberia and the Far Eastern region
with infrastructural projects (Ларин2014, 19).
In foreign policy Russia needs to use “dynamism of Asia” for the de-
velopment of her Asian provinces. It is not only direct foreign investments
(it goes without saying) but bringing about conditions where Siberia and
the Russian Far East would become meeting places of Europe and Amer-
ica. The main goal is – of course – to maintain the major power position
by Russia: “300 years old the major power status dependent on position
in the Baltic and Black Seas, nowadays it depends on the position on
Pacic Ocean” (Лукьянов: Мы… 2013). This is because “Russia is still
aworld power because of along stretch of the Pacic coastline and what
lies between the Pacic coast and the Urals: Siberia with its resources (…)
Making full use of this potential is apassport to the future; failure to inte-
grate the east would spell the demise of Russia as amajor player” (Trenin,
The ultimate success of the Russian pivot is nevertheless uncertain
due to domestic reasons. As Lilia Shevtsova noted, “The elites are too
busy worrying about day-to-day survival to draw up aconsistent policy for
relations with Asia as aregion or with individual countries.” This makes
“The Kremlin’s Asian policy for the most part imitation,” and the “Asian
pivot will most likely prove to be the same kind of Potemkin village that
Moscow built for the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok: all façade and
no substance.” Shevtsova concludes plans for the Russian pivot in adev-
astating way: “It is no surprise that journalists joked that the summit
looked just as absurd as aman in abird suit ying with Siberian cranes (as
Putin tried to do). Putin’s Asian ing is likely to end in mutual estrange-
ment, disappointment and perhaps even hostility” (Shevtsova, 2013).
Even the pivot’s supporters note signicant challenges facing its ful-
llment. Alexandr Larin demonstrates that the favorite way of develop-
ment, preferred by current political elites (grand energy projects), “cannot
be applied as asuccessful model of Russian Far East’s development, be-
cause the economic and social conditions of this part of Russia do not
favor it.” In this outlook, astrategy based on energy resources slides the
region into being araw material appendage to China, so it perfectly serves
the basic Chinese interest of reshaping this region into araw material
base (Ларин 2014, 19–20).
The mental factor is another obstacle. As Lukyanov claims, in time
when the world’s most important events are already taking place in Pa-
cic and Indian Oceans, Russia remains aEuropean country in her men-
tal and axiological approach; therefore, “consciousness is most difcult
task.” Russians, as inhabitants of aEuropean country, have traditionally
orientated themselves to the West and see the world through aWestern
prism. Nowadays, however, anew situation emerges: the Russian system
of values and mentality remains European, whereas the most important
events are already taking place in Asia. Thus “the Russian eagle, although
two headed, out of habit looks only to the West” (Лукьянов:Мы… 2013).
Moving Beyond China?
One of the main goals of Russia’s pivot to Asia has been to diversify
Russian policy in Asia, to go beyond China in other words. The key coun-
tries to achieve this goal have been India and Japan. The Korean coun-
tries, Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar) also matter here, as well as regional
multilateral organizations. Although Russia indeed intensied her actions
towards these countries, the results are modest so far.
For along time India has been one of Russia’s closest friends in Asia,
her “most privileged strategic partner.” Russia and India have no conict-
ing interests in international politics, while having converging regional
interests (Central Asia, radical Islam). Moreover, they both perceive Chi-
na’s growing power as aproblem in the long term. Their cooperation is
developing smoothly, particularly in the military sector (Russia sells India
products from the machine-building industry as well). India accounts for
around 30% of total Russian arms exports, and is aunited country, one of
the very few ones whom Russia sells the most advanced military technol-
ogy and abroad range of weapons (ranging from small arms to warships)
(Rodkiewicz 2014). One of the most promising aspects of cooperation is
energy. So far India has been importing only small amounts of Russian oil.
This is supposed to change after the oil/gas contract between Rosneft and
ESSAR were signed in December 2014. The fulllment of this contract,
however, is uncertain, and even if this materializes, this will not change
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
the general image of Russia-India relations. For both partners Russia-India
relations are important, but not the most important.. For India, Russia is
auseful tool, though one of secondary importance. As the relations with
the US is the most important to India, the Indian government cannot
move too close to Russia. For the Russian government, as long as India
cannot balance China’s importance, Russia’s diversication in Asia will
not be complete. So, in the Indian dimension, Russia has done astep for-
ward, but this must be considered an improvement of the previous policy,
not adecisive turn.
Russia’s key to the real game in Asia-Pacic has always been Japan.
The Japanese government has asurprisingly good image in Russia – Ja-
pan “stands as the epitome of the ‘good East,’ an East at once politically
sophisticated, economically prosperous, technologically ambitious and
strategically unthreatening” (Lo 2008, 121). Nevertheless, Russian-Jap-
anese relations remained cold and have long been overshadowed by the
unresolved territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. Russia has adopted
the method of “strategic patience,” hoping that Japan will sooner or later
become ready to accept acompromise on this matter. Russia’s move al-
most succeeded in April 2013, when it came to a“small breakthrough”
regarding the disputed islands, followed by a2+2 format meeting (min-
isters of foreign affairs and defense from both countries) in November
2013. Moreover, the economic relations seemed favorable and have been
developing very dynamically, with Japan being the biggest Asian investor
in Russia (Rodzinski 2014). At the turn of 2014 there were big hopes for
anew Russia-Japanese opening, strengthened by Shinzo Abe’s Sochi vis-
it. These hopes, however, were dashed once the Ukrainian crisis broke
out and Japan joined, albeit reluctantly, the Western sanctions on Russia.
Since then Russia-Japan relations have stalled or even regressed, with no
hopes in the short term. Therefore, the opportunities of the Japanese di-
mension of Russia’s pivot to Asia remain unfullled.
The Russian approach towards the Korean Peninsula for long have il-
lustrated Moscow’s hopes for aconcert of Asia – a21st century equivalent
of 19th century’s concert of powers in Europe (Lo 2008, 123). Although
Putin repaired Yeltsin’s mistakes and equalized relations with both Ko-
rean countries (that gave Russian entry into the six-party talks) he has
been unable to do more. South Korea, though important, has not become
Russia’s entrance into East Asia and rather will not be, given the close
ties between South Korea and the US. South Korea is not particularly
willing to invest in the Russian Far East and the future of Russian pro-
posed inter-Korean projects (pipeline and railway) depends on the unpre-
dictable situation between the two Korean countries. As for North Korea,
since Kim Jung Un’s took power relations have accelerated, particularly
in the Fall 2014. Russia cancelled North Korean debt, declared interest in
modernizing North Korean railways and power plants and intensied her
activity in Rason Port. In exchange, Kim Jung Un was invited to Moscow
for the 70th anniversary of World War Two victory. All this looks good on
paper, but fulllment of these plans remain uncertain at best. It is ques-
tionable, for example, how Moscow would nance those undertakings
given her economic condition under Western sanction. And even if she
does, the results would come only after (many) years (Pietrewicz 2015).
Taking into account even the most optimistic scenario, it is doubtful that
asuccess in North Korea would prejudge the ultimate success of Russia’s
pivot to Asia (the very success itself here is uncertain). So far Russia did
improve in this dimension but this doesn’t make abig difference. A sim-
ilar scenario appears in Vietnam. Here, as in the previous years, Russia
successfully sells weapons, even the most sophisticated ones, but nothing
more. Vietnam, having had strained relations with China over disputed
islands, looks to the US more, and correctly so, given the fact that Russia
cannot support Vietnam without risking damaging relations with China.
Therefore, the options in Vietnam for Russia are limited. The same story
goes with Burma. Here, again, Russia sells arms (sometimes in a way
damaging to Chinese interests) but has little more to offer. Burma, like
Russia, is abig energy exporter (not importer), and although the Burmese
government is interested in balancing Chinese inuence, the Burmese
elites turn towards the US. As Burmese generals-turned-democrats try to
maneuver themselves aplace between China and the US, Russia is out of
the picture here.
Finally, Russian efforts to join the multilateral regional organizations
(or became apartner of them), like the APEC forum, the Associated South-
east Asian Nations (ASEAN)–ARF Regional Forum, the Defense Ministers
Meeting ASEAN+8, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the “Asia-Europe”
Forum). The idea behind these was that they would be another element
of Russia’s strategy aimed at reinforcing its position in the Asia-Pacic
region. Unfortunately for Russia, either it is considered a“Beijing’s assis-
tant” (Rodkiewicz 2014) or has been unable to create any major initiatives
to make Russia be seen as a“model citizen of the region” (Lo 2014, 21).
The latter has to something with Russia misreading Asia. Generally, Rus-
sia has difculties with understanding Asia (or the Asia-Pacic region).
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
Although Putin himself attends almost every important summit in Asia
and Russia ofcially claims that it follows the “ASEAN Way,” in the mo-
ments of truth – like the Ukrainian crisis – Russia always resorts to arms.
This breaks almost all the principles of ASEAN and alienates her from
Asia, where different methods of conduct are preferable. Russia gains re-
spect as apowerful country, but at the same time it unwittingly conrms
its bad stereotype in Asia as “a European power” that happened to be
in Asia “through historical and imperialistic accident’” (Lo 2008, 126).
Sometimes Russia even fosters this stereotype. Choosing Vladivostok as
the APEC summit center showed how Russia is out of touch with Asian
reality. Making Vladivostok acenter of Russian pivot was an unconscious
reference to 19th century Russian imperialistic policy, best symbolized by
Vladivostok’s name (“the Ruler of East” in Russian).1 Contrary to geo-
graphical benets emphasized by Trenin (“it is within 60 to 90 minutes
ying time of several key capitals: Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. And places
like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei are also within easy reach,” Trenin,
Russia… 2012), it is precisely how it was interpreted in Asia, where Rus-
sia is still associated with the 19th century European colonial attempt:
“For many Asians Russia had ‘pivoted’ to the region at least a century
and half before when Russia got its ‘Treaty of Aigun’ (1858) in the wake
of the second Opium War” (Yu Bin 2012). Russia misreading the Asian
reality is even more obvious now, during the Ukrainian crisis. The 13th
Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore (30.05-01.06.) showcased this. Russia
sent alow-level delegation for this important Asia-Pacic event, headed
by deputy minister of defense, Anatoiy Antonov. He made aspeech about
the need for Asia-Pacic to stand up to “color revolutions,” which Rus-
sian portrayed as aWestern plot to overthrow legitimate governments like
Ukraine’s previous one. Attendee Alexander Gabuev bitterly concluded:
“Antonov did not even mention most of the questions relevant for the
audience, such as maritime security in the South China Sea, the role of
U.S. military presence or the application of international law to maritime
disputes in the region (…) most people remembered only the Ukrainian
part of Antonov’s speech. Given the fact that majority of the participants
didn’t accept Russia’s actions in Crimea, for fear that they could be apos-
sible model for China to settle disputes with its neighbors unilaterally,
1 On the other hand, Khabarovsk was an equally bad choice, for its name comes from
the Russian adventurer who is considered an occupant and invader by the Chinese;
other cities in the Russian Far East are too small to be hosting such events. Probably
the nearest possible “neutral” option would have be Irkutsk, but it is too far away.
this was not agood sign. Some Asian participants concluded that Rus-
sia completely lacks understanding of what is going on in Asia in terms
of security architecture. Some were more blunt and even expressed their
condolences to me” (Gabuev 2014).
To sum it up: all these Russian plans focus on liberating Russia from
overdependence on China in Asia-Pacic region. Judging from the per-
spective at the beginning of 2015, one must conclude that despite its
attempts, Russia fails to do so. This is mainly due to the situation in
Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis has overshadowed Russia’s pivot to Asia
and forced her to accept the inevitability: Chinese dominance.
May 2014 Gas Contract with China and beyond
The May 2014 gas contract with China is supposed to be anew be-
ginning in Russia’s Asia policy. The Russian commentators emphasize
that since that summit “the pivot has just started” (Поворот… 2014) and
that the Ukrainian crisis “catalyzed the Russian pivot to Asia” (Лукьянов,
Логичное… 2014). The gas contract with China is supposed to be abegin-
ning of true, long term cooperation, nally “acquiring truly strategic depth”
(Trenin, Gas… 2012). If it would mean reorientation of Russian policy to-
wards Asia, making the Asia-Pacic the main vector of foreign policy and
connecting to anew global center, the Russian pivot would indeed be real.
The gas contract, however, is unlikely to make the pivot real for two
reasons. First, it should be understood in geopolitical terms. Under the
Ukrainian crisis circumstance it is more aclear signal to the West than
the decisive turn in foreign policy. Reintegration of the former Soviet area
remains Russia’s top priority, not the pivot to Asia. Trenin’s words are
symptomatic here: the signing of the contract is supposed to “reshape and
rebalance Eurasia, whose center of gravity will now move from Moscow to
Beijing. Such an outcome would certainly benet China, but it will give
Russia achance to withstand U.S. geopolitical pressure, compensate for the
EU’s coming energy re-orientation, develop Siberia and the Far East, and
link itself to the Asia-Pacic region” (Trenin, Russia… 2014). Simply: Chi-
na has concretes, Russia has plans. As one Polish, sarcastic commentator
summarized: “Putin is like agambler who leaves his savings in aChinese
pawnshop to play for higher stakes with the West” (Korejba 2014).
Second, the gas contract, in spite of reducing regional dependence on
grand energy projects and decreasing Chinese inuence, increases both.
Between Reality and Dreams: Russia’s Pivot to Asia
It is, again, agrand energy project that is not labor-incentive and its im-
pact on reviving regional economics is unlikely at best. Furthermore, ac-
cepting this project alienates Russia from other Asian countries. If the
words of a Japanese analyst, Akio Kawate, turn true, then Russia’s be-
havior in May 2014 “will largely determine her position in East Asia for
years” (Akio 2014). And this means the deepening of asymmetrical model
of Russian-Sino relations: this contract “being afurther step towards in-
tensication of Russian-Chinese economic co-operation, does in practice
accentuate the asymmetric nature of this co-operation, consistently turn-
ing the Russian ‘partner’ into an ‘energy vassal’ of China” (The Eastern…
2014). Russia, then, instead of liberating herself from Chinese depend-
ence, drains into it even further. Russia’s pivot to Asia turns into a“pivot
to China” (Trenin, Russia: Pivoting… 2014).
The outlined here state of affairs is causing that, despite Putin’s en-
gagement in Asia, “Russia’s orientation in Asia is becoming more, not less,
China-dependent” (Lo 2008, 129–131). The Chinese direction remains
key in Russia’s Asia policy, and “Russia has de facto surrendered to China
and ceased to be an independent factor in Asian geopolitics” (Blank 2010).
Therefore, the words of Bobo Lo, as those quoted above, look surprising-
ly accurate now: “Russia gains prole and the illusion of inuence, while
China obtains energy, natural resources, and arms. In short, the relation-
ship works precisely because it is based on expediency, pragmatism, and no
small degree of cynicism” (Lo 2008, 131). This means Russia’s marginali-
zation in Asian policy and becoming China’s junior partner. The threat of
sliding into being China’s raw material appendage and economic Siniciza-
tion of the Russian Far East in spite of decreasing increases. Moscow nev-
ertheless accepts these facts, albeit quietly, because Russian foreign policy
vectors are concentrated on reintegration of the post-Soviet area. Without
Chinese support, or at least not interfering and not disturbing, this dream
is impossible to fulll. Therefore, for dreaming this dream, Russians accept
the drawback: marginalization in the Asia-Pacic region.
Therefore, in Fall 2014 Russia’s pivot to Asia can be metaphorically
summarized by paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping’s words about Vladivostok.
While negotiating with Henry Kissinger, Deng remarked that different
names given to this city reect different political goals. The original Chinese
name, Haishenwai, meant “sea cucumber bay” (or “sea cucumber cliff”),
whereas in Russian it means “ruler of the East” (Kissinger 2014, 82). Today,
despite Russian plans and dreams about pivoting to Asia, Vladivostok in the
political sphere is more a“sea cucumber” than “ruler of the East”.
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