Country Report: Russia (May 2016)

On April 12, Sergei Lavrov in Rossiiskaya Gazeta made clear Russian thinking about Mongolia, Japan, and China. His words for Mongolia spoke only of closeness: in history, today, and in three-sided cooperation with China, joining together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and the Steppe Road of Mongolia. For Japan, the message was much more guarded: about a peace treaty without any territorial pretensions, about the results of WWII, and about US efforts to pressure Japan in regard to this Russo-Japanese relations. Finally, he spoke of China—the last stop in his travel—on preparations for new EEU-SREB cooperation, including an free trade agreement (FTA) between the two; on the new Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with India, Pakistan, and, ahead, Iran adding its clout; and on joint opposition to US plans to use the situation on the Korean Peninsula to strengthen its military presence completely disproportionate to the real threat and destructive of strategic stability in the region. Lavrov indicates that he will be discussing measures to counter the growing threat with the Chinese.

Sergei Karaganov on April 19 in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike asked if an ideological battle has begun anew. In place of the widespread idea after the end of the Cold War that the world, after the end of ideology and ideological struggle, is heading toward a single value system drawn from the West and focused on liberal democracy and capitalism, which was reinforced by the enormous US military edge and the Western edge in wealth, the world has learned that wealth is not the result of democracy. In the 2000s, there were new realities, the West tried to impose its values and lost on all fronts. Authoritarian capitalism proved to be a new and successful model. With the 2008-2009 crisis, the Chinese model won, and the “Washington consensus” lost. At the same time, Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, departed from the values they had earlier offered to the world, including Christianity, advocating instead multiculturalism, super-tolerance, and unaccustomed approaches to sexual and family relations. Communism also had rejected customary values, and it was rightly criticized for that, added Karaganov. Countries deny the European rejection of sovereignty. Western elites have become divorced from their societies, where traditional values are still strong. Their ideology is being exposed as that of a weak minority, and the Russian alternative is proving newly attractive: support for state sovereignty, cultural autonomy, pluralism as opposed to universalism and a single ideology, and support for religion, including defense of Christians. Moreover, Russia is ready to defend its national interests, even using force if that is considered morally justified, adding to its formidable “soft power,” Karaganov argued. Russia serves as a symbol of non-Western policies, appealing to the majority of nations and even to people in the West. It is filling a “vacuum of ideas,” even if it does not seek to export its ideology. Karaganov insists that Russia is still part of Europe, while here he does not explore its links with Asia apart from using the term “Eurasia.” No mention is made of China’s leading role in ideological struggle with the West, as if Russia could be a model independent of China as a staunch challenger to the West.

Evaluating the “Turn to Asia”

In the April Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, Alexander Lukin asked if Russia’s turn to Asia is myth or reality, pointing to discussions in Russia and abroad, especially about ties to China. He noted a December 17 Internet commentary by a Xinhua observer on the difficulties of Russia’s internal and external policy, which, on the whole, was very positive on Russia overcoming its crisis, but elicited strong responses in Russia by those Lukin sees as “pro-Western,” who began a campaign against Russian policy toward China and Asia as a whole. Nezavisimaya Gazeta first put the contents of the Chinese commentary under the caption, “Russia has entered a strategic dead-end.” On the Internet, questions soon followed about why Beijing had started to sharply criticize Russia and why was it giving priority to cooperation with the West, as some concluded that the “turn to Asia” had failed and others that China was only critical of Russia’s “monetarist, pro-Western government.” A more serious discussion raised such arguments as: 1) expectations that Asian partners could almost fully replace Western ones were not met; 2) Asian partners, notably China, are tough negotiators and use Russia’s situation to extract more favorable terms; 3) Chinese partners are only interested in Russian natural resources, the sell of Chinese goods to Russia, and the use of Chinese labor, not helping Russia resolve problems of developing its own production and import substitution; 4) afraid of US sanctions, Chinese banks do not provide enough credit; 5) trade with China and other Asian states fell sharply in 2015; and 6) disappointment in cooperation with states in the Asia-Pacific region is why Putin skipped the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 2015 and meetings with Asian businessmen at the Eastern Summit in Vladivostok. In light of these findings, some argue that Russia must compromise with the West or turn to the “civilized world”; others call for more decisively shifting to Asia, accommodating its requirements, as Lukin does.

Lukin attributes these viewpoints to the diverse political and economic interests of groups inside Russia. Those with business interests and property in the West warn of the “unpredictable” East, while “nationalists” want to remove the government, which is seen as the heir to the pro-Western course of Gaidar and Chubais. Lukin sees both groups as mistaken in dating the “turn to Asia” from the Ukraine crisis, in treating the turn as if it is purely economic, in disproportionately stressing China, and in treating the turn as a zero-sum alternative to relations with the West. In fact, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and Primakov sought a more active Asian policy, and Putin has long espoused the idea, aware that Asia is now becoming the center of the world economy and politics and is strategically critical to resolving strategic problems in the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Lukin argues that only under Putin has Russia begun to succeed in developing these areas, seen in the renewal of infrastructure for the 2012 Vladivostok APEC summit and in the 2014 law for the socio-economic development of peripheral territories. He adds that relations with China have been on the upswing since the 1980s, objectively corresponding to the interests of Russia and resting more on geopolitics than on economic cooperation, as Moscow, losing the competition with the West, sought to use the “China card” against the United States. Economic needs in the 1990s gained salience, to save the military-industrial complex. Opposition to Russia being swallowed into a unified civilization with only a subordinate role intensified, as it sought a counterweight against excessive dependence on the West and as a path to multipolarity, which preserves the role of the United Nations and international law as it took shape after WWII and does not allow a “dictatorship of the West” to resolve everything. The Chinese commentary, he notes, made clear that economic cooperation is secondary to the political forces in the forefront in strengthening the Sino-Russian relationship.

The Ukrainian crisis and its aftermath brought long-building contradictions with the West to the fore and intensified Russia’s turn to Asia, changing the psychology of the Russian business elite and dashing their dreams of integration with the West while preserving Russia’s independence and sovereignty. Given the determination of the leadership, they had no choice but to reorient to the East; knowing that they could now be personally subject to sanctions has made the risk of cooperation with the West too high. In most of Asia, the main risk for Russia is ignorance of the business culture, accounting for the slow turn to Asia. China will not save Russia at the cost of its own interests or invest in half-baked projects. It values its cooperation with Russia more for geopolitical than economic reasons, while proving that it will make compromises even in its new economic situation. Chinese must be shown that the projects will be mutually beneficial, since they well remember some sad examples of cooperation in the 1990s. Russians must remember, Lukin adds, that Chinese do not want confrontation with Western countries, given their value for development. Even while considering the United States China’s geopolitical opponent and accusing it of trying to contain China’s political and economic influence, China’s leadership still assumes that ties could proceed without serious conflict as it gradually rebuilds the system of global management without revolutionary destruction, unlike poorly informed Russian politicians and experts, ready to go to war with American imperialism on all fronts—a losing course. Lukin cites Fu Ying’s recent Foreign Affairs article to remind Russians of how Chinese diplomats view the situation.

Refuting charges that declining trade with Asia means there has been no “turn to Asia,” Lukin notes that Russia’s trade has fallen everywhere as energy prices have fallen, and trade figures for many other countries have been falling too. Positive for Russia is the fact that natural resources have fallen from 78 to 71 percent of exports to China and the Russian elite is now ready for two-way cooperation in new arenas. In the Chinese commentary he cites, mention is made that in three years in office Xi Jinping’s visits to Russia have borne the most fruit. Chinese investment in the Yamal export project now equals 20 percent of the total, Sinopec has acquired 10 percent of the stocks of SIBIR group in petrochemicals, and Chinese investors have bought 13.3 percent of Noril’sk nickel—all seen as late 2015 proof that investments are flowing into sectors previously closed to China. Talks on joint manufacturing ties in Irkutsk were launched when Putin visited China in September, drawing praise too.

Lukin assesses the May decision to link the EEU with the Silk Road Economic Belt, finding that projects are advancing for joint investment in transportation corridors and elimination of trade barriers in higher technology. He observes that since the deterioration of relations with the West, Russia is selling its most modern weapons to China—the S-400, the SU-35—and talks in 2010-2013 had cleared the way despite lingering resistance in Russia. There is no hint of real Sino-Russian difficulties.

When Modi visited Russia in December, agreements on oil supplies, joint military production, and easier visas for businessmen were reached, as Modi called for an increase in trade to USD 30 billion by 2025. Lukin insists that Russia and India coincide in their geopolitical goals, points to a Russian proposal for consultations between the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) and the SCO with ASEAN for an economic partnership, and especially notes closer ties with Iran in contrast to earlier support for sanctions and restrictions on arms sales to Iran. Ranging as far as Syria in his discussion of Asia, Lukin finds the “turn to Asia” irreversible. Omitting mention of Japan, the Korean Peninsula, or even Vietnam, he sees the “current period of extreme confrontation” as, in essence, a return to “peaceful coexistence” with the West, i.e., the Cold War slogan is reborn.

Clashing Views on China’s Rise

In the May Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, Vasilii Kashin wrote about China’s military rise, noting its first landing of troops abroad—in Aden for an evacuation—and its first foreign base—in Djibouti as talks proceed on another base in Namibia. Citing the widening role of the Chinese fleet in the Indian Ocean as well as organizational changes boosting the navy, Kashin asserts that China is still in a cautious period of operating in the shadows, but he anticipates, by 2020, a radical increase in its real military capabilities and a transition to a more active foreign policy. He finds in the Chinese White Paper of 2015 new attention to maintaining the security of China’s interests abroad, finding one reason for China’s new activism, as in the case of Russia, its unwillingness to accept the US practice of aggressively exporting its values and supporting “color revolutions.” Mention is made of Russian weapons and Chinese variants of them that are being deployed in the East China and South China seas, contributing to a formidable build-up of military might. When China will be a full-fledged great power on the world arena is left unstated, but Kashin is insistent that it will happen before long without any hint that this is a problem for Russia.

Alexander Gabuev in Kommersant on March 18 wrote about China and the rules by which it plays. He noted the optimism about China’s new 5-year plan, giving it a rate of economic growth that will overtake the United States, about the ease ahead of it combining structural reform and growth, about the promise of closing ineffective enterprises and preventing unemployment, and about the orderly path for it to keep fiscal order and management of debt. Yet, he observed what China has lost most of all in the past year is trust in its authorities, and Gabuev concluded that the March People’s Congress wore a mask, covering the real picture of conditions inside the country. Unlike the mainstream in Russia, Gabuev questions high hopes for China.

Globalization and Multilateralism in Transition

In the same issue, Fedor Lukyanov writes that the US elections foretell the end of the customary model of globalization, as he includes coverage of China. He sees Trump and Sanders as indications that the US approach will shift to fragmentation with the creation of one American group opposed to the others. This will force other states to choose either incorporation into Western institutions under stricter US control or a new means of growth. Lukyanov finds that, unlike Russia, China is responding cautiously, unwilling to take irreversible steps, but it is unwilling to accept just any role that Washington assigns it. Instead, as in the “One Belt, One Road” concept, it is looking for a way to bypass the US model and oppose it if extreme conditions result. If China is reluctant to depart from using the possibilities of liberal globalization—American style—, done effectively since the 1980s, it will have no choice, nor does Russia, as Washington shifts away from integration and does not any longer invite them or offer them conditions to do so—a shift disturbing even to its closest allies.

In that issue too, Lukyanov wrote that it is not correct to lean only on China in the “turn to Asia”; maximal diversification is needed, of which Japan is a necessary element. Commenting on Abe coming to Sochi again after barely two years, he finds that Tokyo, concerned with rise of China and North Korea, regards Russia’s role as very salient. Fearing the emergence of a Sino-Russian alliance, Tokyo refuses to take full part in a blockade of Russia sought by Washington but finds itself in a difficult situation due to the US guarantee of its security, above all versus China. Abe’s sanctions are mostly symbolic, Lukyanov adds, while he defies Obama’s call for him not to go to Russia. The author attributes Abe’s rejection of Merkel’s invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as due to fear of Russia’s reaction, but suggests that China’s reaction to expansion of this group into its region would be severe too. Yet, Abe’s new visit to Sochi is seen as a principled move based on his insistence on Japan’s national interests, undertaken due to awareness of the exceptional significance of Japan-Russian relations over the long term. Lukyanov reminds readers that Tokyo has special significance for Moscow, which needs maximal diversification and can see Japan, as well as South Korea, as important in a new model of inter-state relations as the system of alliances is changing. While the United States remains its priority, Tokyo is looking for productive relations with other important partners. At the same time, Russia should not take its priority for China as a commitment to exclusivity. However, the issue of the islands, which stands between Moscow and Tokyo, and priorities that do not coincide make it hard even if both sides sincerely desire a leap forward in ties, concludes Lukyanov in a mixed message supportive of diplomacy.

Georgii Toloraya and Liubov’ Iakovleva wrote about security and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region (APR) in Strategiia Rossiia, April. They described an overload of duplicating structures and pessimism as a result of serious contradictions between regional and external actors and the desire of ASEAN to stay in the driver’s seat. In the near future, they predict that order will be brought to the three-layered regional system—US bilateral relations are one layer, multilateral mechanisms through ASEAN a second layer, and bilateral relations within the region the final layer, which allows for faster development of cooperation. To the Asian financial crisis under US military-political domination and Japanese economic leadership in the region, the post Cold War years saw little change in regional architecture. China’s more active position in regional affairs after 1997 disrupted the balance, intensifying economic competition and political struggle. The authors find positive consequences from the crisis, stimulating economic cooperation within the region, even as contradictions intensified between the old system of military-political alliances and the rising interest of new players in improving their military security. They also find a clash of blocs with rising tension between Russia and China on one side and the United States and its allies on the other, i.e., this is not a new phenomenon of the last few years. They note the impact of territorial disputes, border conflicts, and historical pretensions without explaining how they became tenser, while singling out the introduction of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea for heightening tensions further since China sees it as disrupting strategic parity in East Asia, and Russians find it another link in the US missile defense net and a threat to regional stability of no value in resolving the Korean question. Citing a Track-2 meeting in Ulan-Bator in October 2015, the authors emphasize that initiatives already proposed need to be viewed for their impact on Sino-US relations, but warn that not everyone agrees that the basis of the new order and institutional structure lies in an agreement between these two.

The article concludes with Russian approaches to problems of security in the region, warning of a high potential for conflict and stressing the urgency of forming a new structure that takes into account the military-political interests of all of its countries. It accepts a continued key role for ASEAN, calls for the EAS adding a secretariat, and sees the 2013 Russo-Chinese initiative for the formation of an all-around architecture in the Asia-Pacific region, not the US-alliance system, as able to meet these needs. Moreover, the authors expect positive results from cooperation of ASEAN with the SCO and EEU in economics, security, and the prevention of non-traditional threats. Referring to Putin’s speech in December 2015 calling for consultations to forge an economic partnership among these three entities, it is optimistic about the role of the Russia-ASEAN summit in May 2016.

Neo-Eurasian Identity

In his final article published posthumously with Vladimir Petrovskii, Mikhail Titarenko wrote about the neo-Eurasian identity of Russia, arguing that in its turn to the East, Russia needs an understanding of the identity implications. Putin has made clear that “Eurasianism” is the tradition of Russian political thought, deeply rooted and demanding an historical and philosophical foundation unlike the discussion in the 1920s-1930s among Russian émigrés, some of which was introduced in the 1990s as neo-Eurasianism began to be discussed, including by Titarenko and especially Kazakh president Nazarbaev. In conditions of the fierce cultural-civilizational expansion of the West and the search in Russia for national identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, spiritual depression was overcome in the process of drawing on this theme.

Looking to geography, the authors stress the unique experience of Russians and other nationalities in Russia that led them to forge their own civilization. They find only the best traits in humanity—good neighborliness, cooperation, mutual help, and even a non-confrontational approach to competition, as well as positive values such as openness and generosity of spirit. Similarly idealistic is their conception of the “Russian idea,” e.g., adaptation to civilizational and religious diversity at the crossroads of multiple mega-civilizations. There is no hint here of xenophobia, pogroms, yellow peril or the Stalinist outlook on the outside world. The Russian idea and Eurasianism appear compatible, if left so abstract in meaning that the effort to differentiate them seems particularly forced, especially the claim that the latter is based on horizontal and equal treatment among all the cultures, harmoniously, with no preference for Russian culture. There is no sign of Eurocentrism, which seeks assimilation and elimination of little cultures and, in the case of Russian Eurocentrics, to weaken the political unity of the country and the spiritual principles of its various peoples. A major journal of international relations is brought low by publishing such drivel of unsubstantiated claims so at odds with the historical record, e.g., “the genetic code of Russian Eurasia corresponds to a particular type of worldview.”

The Titarenko-Petrovskii article accepts Marxist-Leninist logic that there are laws of social development behind Eurasianism, while adding the new touch that Chinese culture also reflects them, effusively praising Confucianism as a fountain of virtue and seeing “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as a kind of natural follow-up showcasing humanist values and openness, reform, and modernization together with socialist spiritual culture. While the article proceeds to discuss some problems in Russia and call for some changes, its main thrust is to call for overcoming the Eurocentric paradigm while making Eurasianism into some sort of synergistic bridge for joining as civilizations the EEU and the SREB—each so positively endowed.

The Korean Peninsula

In Rossiiskaya Gazeta on March 8, the new, unilateral sanctions of South Korea on North Korea were discussed. They are described as aimed at cutting the flow of money and also stopping all inter-Korean economic contacts, including indirect ones. Ships that had stopped at North Korean ports during the previous 180 days were excluded from South Korea, which eliminated the possibility of the South participating in the Khasan-Rajin logistical project. While Moscow had earlier assumed that the project was excluded in resolution 2270, it was informed on March 7 by Seoul that South Korea did not agree. North Korean ships under the flag of third governments would not be allowed entry into South Korea either, and a group was formed to enforce this. (Last year 66 ships did so a total of 104 times, entering South Korean ports after visiting the North.) Previously, some North Korea products had made their way to South Korea through third countries; now such relabeling would not lead to inspectors looking the other way. Also, South Korean citizens are forbidden to go to restaurants (130 are identified in 12 countries and attract South Koreans interested in the North’s cuisine) or places of entertainment of North Korea abroad, toughening a 2010 recommendation into a prohibition. The article notes that, whereas the US list of organizations and persons (29 and 38) from North Korea excluded is larger than the Japanese, Australian, and EU lists, South Korea’s list of 34 and 43 respectively is the largest. It concludes that South Korea is promising to do all in its power along with the United States and Japan “to force North Korea to change.”

An article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on March 9 warned that the situation around the Korean Peninsula has reached a boiling point. Oleg Kur’yanov wrote that military tensions have risen sharply, as both North Korea and the United States and South Korea threaten to attack each other, even by using nuclear weapons. Russia and China are appealing for restraint from both sides, but so far the “aggressive” opponents ignore these initiatives. A spark could turn into real war, which some forces are trying to provoke. Calls have grown louder for coordination between Moscow and Beijing. While the article notes the initial North Korea nuclear test and sanctions that followed, it also points to the largest, joint military exercises of Washington and Seoul aimed at frightening the North, but leading it to answer with a rocket launch. The article adds that, recently, no day goes by without the DPRK, the ROK, or the United States making some statement that arouses worry about what will happen next as if war may be close in Korea. The situation in the region is the most dangerous it has been in recent decades. All of this is said without citing US or ROK statements and with the implication these two countries are heavily at fault. Indeed, North Korea’s threats are treated as mainly words, while the two allies are accused of doing something apparently worse with their huge exercises and not concealing their intentions in regard to a preventive strike on the North. Dismissing the logic of Seoul and Washington about their conduct and the notion that North Korea with a military budget a fraction of that of South Korea could pose a real threat, and giving credit to the North’s claim that it is responding to threats and that US conduct in Libya justifies its nuclear program, the article faults Seoul’s military for the desire to show who in the region is ahead and Park and her circle for being very conservative. They are faulted for the idea that they can one-sidedly pressure Pyongyang, which explains their actions, including pulling out of the Khasan-Rason project, closing Kaesong, and their extreme anti-North Korean direction, the article quotes a Chinese professor as saying. The article adds that Seoul is seeking regime change. Stress is put on shared reasoning in Russia and China, as both appeal to Pyongyang but also view talk of a “DPRK threat” as a pretext for missile defense aimed at China and for conflict. In case of a big conflict, those playing with war should understand that China would use its military to guarantee its own interests on the Korean Peninsula and that Russian interests almost fully coincide with those of China. This is the message just after the UN sanctions resolution, which leaves no doubt that the world’s hopes for the states that voted for the resolution to work together are too rosy.

A Kommersant article on April 14 quoted Georgy Toloraya as saying that the failure of the ruling party in the National Assembly elections can be connected to public opposition to the harsh foreign policy stance it has taken toward North Korea and China, as well as its posture on THAAD. Toloraya added that Russo-ROK relations under the Saenuri Party have fallen to a low level. Such pessimism about Seoul’s direction is commonplace in Moscow, already widely expressed in the latter part of 2015 and intensified after the unilateral sanctions by Seoul went beyond Security Council resolution 2270 to end the prospect of Russia shipping its coal via Rason in North Korea to South Korea’s market. Strong preference for the progressives in South Korea cannot be doubted.


The overarching message in these articles is: the turn to Asia is necessary and successful; polarization is the ongoing direction of Asian multilateralism; the closer the relationship with China, the better (with one exception); the Korean Peninsula is again an arena of the “Cold War” and its renewal; and all of the decisions in recent Russian foreign policy are correct. While one author holds out a ray of hope that Russia can improve ties to Japan, there is no hope for relations with the United States—even in this region. Elements of overoptimism, such as with India, and lack of attention to serious problems now facing Russia make sober analysis of policy options difficult in today’s atmosphere.