Country Report: Russia (September 2014)

While the world’s gaze centered on Russia’s relations with the West and the on-again, off-again confrontation over Ukraine, Russian publications paraded a new, more assertive outlook on Russia’s “turn to the East” (povorot na Vostok). Giving impetus to this was an early July meeting of ambassadors addressed by Vladimir Putin, the statements at which on East and Central Asia were aired by the journal Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, No. 7. The systematic guidance offered to these diplomats in the section on the Asia-Pacific region set the tone for a summer of clarification of how Russia would be able to compensate in Asia for what it was losing in Europe in what was recognized as a “new Cold War.” Rather than taking a defensive tone, the instructions at the diplomatic gathering and subsequent articles burst with confidence, recognizing the difficult circumstances facing Russia in this region, as elsewhere, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The overall theme is that the welcome given to Russia as it turns into a full-fledged Asia-Pacific power more than compensates for the disengagement with the West, forced on it by others.

The glue in this argument, as explained by Sergey Karaganov in Rossiiskaia gazeta on August 26 and T.V. Pordachev and Evgenii Kanaev in Rossiia v global’noi politike on September 3, is that the United States, dragging other states along, has provoked both the crisis in Ukraine and an irreversible split with China through its strategic encirclement. As Washington presses small and middle states in the Asia-Pacific region to take sides (and China does the same to escape its encirclement), these states are resisting and striving to play on the contradictions between these two giants. This creates the most favorable conditions for Russia to establish itself as a regional power, even as a geostrategic balancer, necessary for equilibrium in this region. The message to readers is that in 2014, the entire paradigm of this region’s development is changing rapidly, leading countries to seek out Russia, but, in response, Russia has to be decisive, conducting diplomacy on a high level on the basis of a clear strategy.

The overall argument rests on at least four, far-reaching assumptions. First, this is premised on the existence of an aggressive US strategy (reminiscent of the Cold War provocations repeatedly launched against the Soviet Union), which is ideologically driven by a drive to contain and weaken Russia and China, leaving them with no option other than to resist for their own survival and defense of basic interests. In these circumstances, there is no prospect for improved Russo-US relations for at least the next 5-10 years. The challenge is military—including the militarization of Japan—, economic—through exclusive integration projects at odds with a single, integrated global economy—, and civilizational—fundamental in its significance—, but close overlap with China does not mean that Russian culture and consciousness will depart from Europe as it emerges as a European-Pacific power. Looking back, Vladimir Petroshkin in Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, No. 7 finds that the Cold War never ended in East Asia due to territorial disputes, the US military presence and alliances, and, more fundamentally, the San Francisco system dating from 1951, which it is now determined to reinvigorate. Such old-style thinking about the United States is little supported in these publications by evidence. It is a throwback to communist-era deductive arguments rooted in the unchallenged assumptions authors repeat.

Second, Russian sources assume a benign and very close partner in China, dropping past reservations and insisting that this bilateral relationship is the central link that enhances Russia’s national security, promotes its position in the Asia-Pacific region, and serves as a pillar of a new, favorable international order, as argued by Boris Dolgov in Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’. Elsewhere in that issue, readers are informed that Xi Jinping is determined to build an Asian order excluding the United States. In 2014, he has made clear, Alexander Lukin explains, that this order requires political ties as well as economic cooperation with Russia, and both countries now see three regional blueprints—Putin’s Eurasian Union, Xi’s Silk Road Economic Belt, and the SCO that has long brought the two together—as complementary. Lukin adds a slight caveat that China needs to overcome deteriorating security conditions (Xinjiang?), and intensifying territorial disputes with some neighbors (India?) in order to realize its desired economic belt. With China and Russia together in BRICS, it is suggested that this alternative international club will now play an active role in the growing resistance to the civilizational challenge of the West. Such writings refer to both complicated Sino-US and Sino-Russian relations in a very simplistic manner.

A third assumption is that countries in the region are insisting on a greater role for Russia, and that this is consistent with its increasingly close ties to China. Karaganov goes so far as to assert that Russia’s diplomatic weight in the region is second only to that of the United States, that it has the possibility of initiating a multilateral system of security and cooperation, and that it can be confident of its active role in ASEAN, which is the center of dialogue. Yet, as various articles refer to Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam as countries closer to the United States in the ongoing struggle with China and mention of India as part of a troika with Russia and China becomes less frequent, it is unclear how Russia can utilize this “Cold War” relationship with the United States to gain diplomatic clout and shape a new regional order. The same problem as before has intensified: how to achieve multipolarity as China’s partner.

The fourth assumption in recent Russian publications is that the development of the Russian Far East and Siberia—the “twenty-first century national project”—is on track in the new circumstances, neither suffering from more troubled relations with Seoul and Tokyo as well as the West, nor losing ground to the Eurasian Union project and new demands for resources to be directed toward Crimea and the struggle over other parts of Ukraine, given the worse investment environment coupled with sanctions. Karaganov’s appeal to reorient Russia politically, economically, and historically to the new Asia is mired in contradictions, as well as in specific bureaucratic problems that he acknowledges. He describes ministries shuffling their feet while interfering rather than transferring functions to facilitate territorial coordination. He warns too that resources are now being redistributed to the west without calling into question the prospects for reorientation to the Pacific Ocean, for which he has been tasked.

Articles describe Russia’s eastern vector as the Asia-Pacific region, a vast area where Russia is, first of all, a military power and now has golden opportunity to become a force for peace as well as to capitalize on a shift in the center of the world economy and world politics, as Asia transitions from being a global factory to becoming a gigantic, world market. While the “new Cold War” limits Russia’s prospects in the West, the lesser US role in the Asia-Pacific region gives Russia an opening if it joins in the battle against the US defense of its interests, where competition over security is intensifying. Missing in such arguments are examples of countries, apart from China, inclined to work with Russia as a security partner against the United States, and of zones of competition (does Russia join China in the South China Sea against its good partner Vietnam?) ripe for exploitation by Russia, apart from North Korea.

Framing challenges in an historical and civilizational perspective, Russian articles dwell on linkages to the Cold War era, omitting mention of the Sino-Soviet split and dismissing analyses from the late 1980s to the recent years of win-win cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region that it must replace its Cold War thinking. In fixating on supposed continuity in divisive US policies toward the region rooted in the San Francisco system, Russians have found common cause with China in describing 1945 as a victorious occasion (credited in each country largely to its own wartime sacrifices and success and linked of late to their joint celebration, as in 2010 at the 60th anniversary of the war’s end in Asia). Vladimir Petrovskii inserted this theme in the July ambassadors’ chronicle, arguing that in 1951 there was no agreement in Asia (a source of discord greater than the lone case in Europe of a divided Germany), which sowed the seeds that are now sprouting as an echo of WWII. Praising Soviet diplomacy for actively striving—with no ideological limitations—to overcome this impasse, treating Japan’s rising military activity from the time of the Korean War as a negative force, and blaming US machinations for problems that cannot be resolved without a proper historical evaluation, Petrovskii calls for a multilateral security architecture (missing since 1951’s wrong direction) as the way forward. Indeed, he suggests that Abe’s 2013 proactive pursuit of Russia raised hopes for such a deal, while also warning that falsification of WWII and glorification of militarism threaten this outcome. The implication is that only by Japan breaking away from the United States, which it failed to do in the Cold War, could it avoid a joint Sino-Russian initiative in 2015 to link their shared historical judgment of 1945 and the Cold War era to a decision to put pressure on the US alliance system with Japan at the center.

Ambassador to Japan Evgenii Afanas’iev’s remarks at the gathering recognized that Japan’s stance has been more moderate than others in the G7, but he let it be known that Russia was being watchful, given the fact that planned steps in advance of the expected fall visit by Putin to Japan had been delayed, making preparations difficult. In discussing what could be achieved, he omitted any mention of territorial or even geopolitical issues in the forefront of Japanese debates, while highlighting the mutual interest in economic benefits from the relationship, stressing for Japan how important energy projects with Russia have become since the shutdown of its nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster. He further noted that Russia is still waiting on a proposal for visa-free travel to raise the low level of tourism from 60,000 visitors in each direction. After new Japanese sanctions were imposed in response to aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Russian tone hardened. On August 26 in Rossiiskaia gazeta, Aleksandr Lenin declared that Russia had run out of patience with Japan. Although Russia had refrained from an “eye for an eye,” recognizing the US pressure on Japan and that the unfriendly steps Japan had taken since March (as detailed in a note handed to the Japanese ambassador by Igor Morgulov) were softer than those of other G7 states, Russia has to retaliate and show that it is in position to deal a worthy blow. After all, Japan stopped negotiations on ending the visa regime, froze talks on a treaty for investment cooperation and for joint exploration of space, listed and then expanded the list of Russians barred entry, and prohibited trade in goods produced in Crimea. Then, on August 5, it went further, adding to the list of names and sanctioning Russian companies, as Japan talks of freezing bank accounts. The article concludes that “hikiwake” is dead, meaning there will be no territorial deal, but Russia will give Japan a chance to boost economic cooperation as it still awaits Japan’s decision on Putin’s visit, which it considers to be on track for this autumn.

Ambassador Konstantin Vnukov followed Afanas’iev with a more upbeat statement on Russian-South Korean relations, but with a similar warning that there should be no influence from outside (i.e., US) forces. He expressed optimism about relations despite the South Korean position on Crimea, while insisting that this relationship must remain “independent” if it is not to be damaged. After all, a lot of effort has been invested in it through three visits of a Russian president over the past four years and exchange summits of Park and Putin in 2013. Already, South Korea is the first no-visa state for Russia in the APR. Despite the different political spheres of the two states, Vnukov insists that they have no old problems or sharp contradictions. Park’s Eurasian initiative, he asserts, overlaps with Putin’s thinking, making possible a synergistic effect in cooperation that crosses from Europe to Asia, especially if the dream Park shared with Putin of a train leaving from Busan, crossing Russia, and ending in Western Europe is realized. The sense of immediate pressure for Park to change course is missing, as she is separate from the G7 process, but the message is familiar: either break from the US approach or face sharper pressure from Moscow. Left unsaid is what Moscow was already doing with Pyongyang to up the pressure.

The longest and most revealing analysis in the diplomatic compendium is a piece by Alexander Lukin on why Sino-Russian cooperation in Central Asia is now secure. He explains that the danger to Russia in this region comes not from China, but from the United States, which sought to use the war in Afghanistan to turn Central Asia away from Russia and into a part of South Asia, threatening a “new silk road” much more insidious than China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt.” Citing Zhao Huasheng’s hierarchy of Chinese interests in Central Asia, Lukin agrees that it takes into account Russia’s traditional interests, in contrast to the US determination to undercut the interests of both Russia and China there. China prioritizes the battle against terrorism directed against it and access to energy resources—strategic goals more than economic ones. Its geopolitical objectives stress the role of the SCO and go beyond border security to weaken the United States and NATO and to oppose “color revolutions” that could accompany democratic reform. Thus, it is neither trying to become the leader or to establish control. In place of earlier Russian warnings about China using the SCO for economic dominance of Central Asia, Lukin argues in favor of SCO multilateral economic cooperation and even for China’s “Silk Road” plan as a catalyst for an improved investment climate. Past caution about China’s role has been cast aside.

Lukin expresses confidence in Russia’s position in Central Asia as both the center for values and the geopolitical center. This is based on the cultural closeness of elites, their psychology, their previous education together with Russians, and their positive recollection of the USSR as having developed the region. He acknowledges that even as Russia accepts China’s “Silk Road” concept, it prefers Eurasian integration and is seeking to preserve its traditional influence. This means restoring cultural as well as economic ties established over a long period, made easier by the closeness of the political systems of Central Asia to Russia’s. Rather than discuss how Russia might compete with China economically in the region, Lukin concentrates on the cultural divide with Europe, which gives Russia the edge in Central Asia. It is not Slavophile thinking and its stress on the collective, he insists, but rejection of liberal secularism as indicated in the West by radical feminism, homosexual marriage, rejection of the traditional family, legalization of marijuana, and euthanasia. The post-Soviet revival of Eastern Orthodoxy at the same time as the religious revival of Islam leads people to unite in support of leaders who stand against values coming from the West. He does not note the irony of Moscow, which, after 1917, led in challenging traditional family values versus the West, becoming their champion. Twisting conventional analysis, he praises the rise of a secular elite and middle class not only as welcoming an alternative to radical Islam, but also as rejecting civil society and democracy as part of Western ideology that serves the geopolitical ambitions of the United States.

Determination to portray relations with China in the most positive light extends to other themes. There is conscious rejection of the narrative, which is acknowledged to have dominated in thinking about China until recently, that there exists a military or demographic threat to Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East from that state, despite the fact that few Chinese are actually present in those areas. It is suggested that this viewpoint came from the habit of dwelling on sources of threat rather than on real possibilities. In fact, readers are told that it is the United States and some of China’s neighbors that perceive a China threat and fear that access to the extensive resources of Eastern Russia would increase China’s power. Europeans want Russia to exclude any alternative to a Europocentric economic order, ignoring that mutual strengthening of Russia and China, politically and economically, helps both to forge a different order. Russia needs to avoid stagnation and isolation, and it can rely on China, which has no history of conquest, by agreeing on a joint modus operandi.

Another source cites Sino-Russian relations as having no hidden agenda and serving as a shining success story, which, following the “contract of the century” for a gas megaproject signed by Putin during his May visit to China, is set to last for decades to come. Although it notes that geopolitical circumstances are different in the two countries and national interests do not always overlap, it insists that critical, vital interests on international problems are very close with no contradictions and no issues capable of splitting the two or causing problems that cannot be peacefully resolved. With China at its side, Russian cannot be pressured and the United States cannot contain it, indications that Russia can ride China’s coattails in the new era.

The Russian narrative on East Asia in 2014 approaches the level of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement in the decade that preceded Gorbachev’s glasnost. No matter the latest setback, Moscow’s standing is better than ever. The “second Cold War,” due to unprecedented and unprovoked US provocations in late Brezhnev times, is now matched by the “new Cold War” in late Putin times, as an innocent Moscow was forced to abandon first detente and then the “reset” with Washington. Familiar are descriptions of North Korea facing unjustified pressure, Japan reviving militarism in line with US demands, and an “infallible” leader in Moscow whose judgment is never to be questioned. Yet, there is one fundamental difference. In place of China turning into a US ally under “Maoism without Mao” (an extraordinary distortion of what was happening in China and the implications for international relations), an image has appeared of China as the US enemy and Russia’s savior in international relations. In the early 1980s, some in Moscow struggled against simplistic views of China that did not serve the national interest or flexible diplomacy. Once again facing a stifling, top-down narrative of a world crisis turning into Moscow’s triumph through Asia, one awaits a similar struggle for a more realistic understanding of international events.

In the Brezhnev era, the Institute of the Far East was notorious for its extreme view of international relations in East Asia, insisting on its orthodoxy against the efforts of more flexible thinkers about how to respond to Soviet isolation and stagnation. After a 180-degree turnabout in this institute’s coverage of China, Mikhail Titarenko, its long-term director, is showcased for sage judgment that has led the way in the establishment of today’s official narrative. In the above-mentioned collection from the July diplomatic gathering, we find an article by Boris Dolgov recognizing the latest book of Titarenko after a quarter-century of vigorous advocacy of a Sino-Russian condominium, which can lead in setting forth the principles of a new system of international relations. Titarenko treats China as a model for combining socialist and national traditions to resolve current problems and as a new model of socialist civilization with outstanding achievements despite lingering problems. By joining China and cultivating the broader grouping of BRICS, Russia, we are told, will have population, territory, and economic dynamism on its side as it pursues a new world political and economic order. China’s place in an anti-American struggle is reversed.

30-35 years ago there were concealed doubts about China joining the “imperialist” camp, Tokyo becoming so hostile to Moscow and bent on militarism that further negotiations were fruitless, reinvigorated ties with Pyongyang serving the national interest, and the Russian Far East being on the verge of a breakthrough as a result of the “project of the century.” Today, even as the rhetoric plunges to a nadir not seen since that time, we see signs of inconsistencies. Then, as now, illusions of a regional embrace of Moscow—today under the label multipolarity—fly in the face of stories that acknowledge US success in rallying many East Asian states behind a strategic and economic plan. The fact that a single, overarching narrative promises a panacea of achievements against the shadow of unrecognized stagnation, as ties with the West deteriorate amid sanctions for military transgressions, does not suffice to allay concerns about where new investments will be found to change Russia’s course.

One sign of a more sober analysis is the September 15 article in Kommersant on why Russian expectations that China will replace the West as an investor in Russia may be too high. Doubts that this will occur stem from conditions in both Russia and China. The authors Iurii Barsukov and Aleksandr Gabuev indicate that Russia is removing limits in diverse areas to Chinese investments, following a trend that began in 2004 when Rosneft needed cash to buy Yukos and accelerating after the global financial crisis with the big oil pipeline deal with Rosneft and the agreement to accept the use of Chinese currency. Explaining that Russia remained wary, fearing a takeover by Chinese companies of parts of Russia’s domestic market, e.g. machinery as well as automobiles, and an influx of Chinese labor, they indicate that attitudes in 2013 had already been changing and that a turning point was reached with Putin’s May 2014 visit to China in the wake of a second round of sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. In these circumstances, Gazprom was pressured to agree to a $400 billion deal, in part to show the EU that Russia has an alternative market for its gas. On September 9, the newly established inter-government commission on investments convened its first meeting in Beijing. Yet, the authors seem to be skeptical of Russia’s efforts, warning of too much unpredictability and acknowledging that private investment has not been very successful. Even more concern is expressed about conditions in China.

The Kommersant article contrasts $256 billion in exports to the EU in 2013 with $36 billion to China, adding that the ratio of investments in Russia is much more skewed in favor of the EU. They point to the recent anti-corruption purge in China, including of Zhou Yonggang and others from the energy sector—among whom are some who have dealt with Rosneft in the past—, which has instilled great caution in Chinese banks, and reforms that make state-owned enterprises subject to punishment for unprofitable investments. Even if a deal is reached, banks may deny financing. This compounds the perceived problem of Chinese energy companies being extremely cautious. The article explains that private investors visiting from China have given a very cold reception to Russian proposals. It concludes that there is little prospect of Chinese capital replacing that from the West, dashing hopes for development of the Arctic and supplying technology needed for extraction of oil offshore as well as of shale gas. This focused economic analysis contrasts with the articles cited above. It is a lone voice, presented in a narrow economic context, to the whirlwind of recent writings celebrating unprecedented opportunities in the dynamic Asia-Pacific.