Russia’s Turn to the East

I. A. Makarov, Povorot Na Vostok: Razvitie Sibiri I Dal’nego Vostoka VUsloviakh Usileniia Aziatskogo Vektora Vneshnei Politiki Rossii [The Turn to the East: The Development of Siberia and the Russian Far East during the Strengthening of the Asian Direction of Russian Foreign Policy] (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniya, 2016).


Russian foreign policy through much of 2015 was marked by increased optimism toward Asia. Growing economic and political interest in the East—mainly China, as well as Central Asia, Iran, India, South Korea, Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, Japan—prompted specialists in various fields to examine the topic of Russia’s turn to Asia. The debate itself was not new in Russian media: academics started talking about it over a decade ago; however, it gained considerable momentum due to the increasing tensions between Russia and the West. Terms such as “pivot to Asia” and “turn to the East” moved from a strictly academic environment to popular newspapers and have been actively used by a large number of specialists as well as journalists ever since. The title The Turn to the East is, therefore, not surprising, especially after the start of the Ukraine crisis and the rapid decline in relations between Russia and the Western world shifted attention further to the East. The book’s primary goal is to explore possible directions for the development of Russia’s foreign policy, economy, and energy policy in the context of these most recent events. The authors see significant potential in Siberia and the Russian Far East—two central parts of the volume are devoted to this topic. They also see the Arctic region as an alternative outlet for economic revival that conveniently diverts political attention from the confrontation with the West. However, the work’s main focus is still Russia’s cooperation with its Asia-Pacific partners: China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Southeast Asia, and India.


The volume is written and edited by experts from the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the National Research University Higher School of Economics with a foreword by S. A. Karaganov. His introduction celebrates the imminent and long-pending turn to Asia. Karaganov, who claims to have foreseen the turn in the mid-1990s, writes that today it has practically been realized. The controversy he poses at the beginning of the chapter is not only of political, but also of cultural origin. He questions the likelihood of the pivot’s success in the long run while at the same time contemplating whether or not it will mean Russia’s complete departure from its traditional Eurocentric values. He notes that all previous modernization experiences in Russian history were deeply intertwined with the West. From Ancient Rus to the glorious nineteenth century and even until now, Europe has been viewed as a source of political and cultural inspiration for Russia. The dominant values of Russian society originated in the West. Even at times of crises, when Russian society was divided into two opposing camps of Slavophiles and Westernizers, both sets of ideas of progress were essentially pro-European. Asian values have traditionally been frowned upon, which caused the Russian elite to “sleep through” the major turn of events at the end of the twentieth century. While Europe sank into a “hopeless,” multilayered crisis realizing Oswald Spengler’s prognosis of the decline of the Western civilization, Asia’s economic, technical, and cultural power has risen. This is the message in the book and in many other recent Russian sources.


From the 1990s, Russia started to split slowly from its Soviet past, shaping a new identity that brought it to the current state of using patriotism to protect its uniqueness. This, according to Karaganov, is helpful in the current transition period but is dangerous in the long term. The chapter analyzes a few simultaneous tendencies in Russia, Europe, and Asia. First, the European Union (EU) has proven to be an unreliable economic and political partner to have due to the crisis and not only for Russia. Second, at the same time, the Russian elite has come to the realization that Asian markets are the best possible alternative at this critical time; but (obvious as it is) the government’s early 2000s strategy of creating the supply for them before analyzing their demand has proven to be ineffective. Finally, Asian markets, in turn, have moved on to a transition from the “Asia for the world” model to an “Asia for Asia” strategy.


All these trends have posed certain challenges for Russia. At the moment the country and especially its Far Eastern region require logistical, infrastructural, and technological advancement to keep up with Asian partners. However, according to Karaganov and the rest of the contributors, this should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a challenge—an opportunity to mobilize all resources and pursue an active and constructive policy targeting crisis resolution both in Asia and in the world. Regardless of whether confrontation, competition, or cooperation becomes the dominant trend on the international scene, as a major power, Russia should play an active role in determining the strategic, economic, political, and military agenda in the Asia-Pacific region. Analyzing the contribution of the current volume to existing research, Karaganov ends his introductory chapter by claiming that the authors’ work within a new theoretical framework of international relations in the twenty-first century. He introduces the idea of “the new economic and political space open to cooperation with everybody”—the “Big Eurasian Community” with its center in the growing and strengthening Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) (a similar concept of “Greater Eurasia” was previously used by other researchers). Russia’s role in this community is to unite Europe and Asia in peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation. Such a community will spare Russia a dangerous choice between Europe and Asia: it will be able to benefit from cooperation with both the “maternal” European civilization and the rising Asian one. He hopes that all three parties will eventually come to an understanding that this type of cooperation is most beneficial for all.


Although Karaganov and his colleagues provide a profound overview of the subject in the book, their effort, however significant, is not unique given current circumstances. Alexander Lukin’s book The Pivot to Asia,1 published in 2014 was, arguably, one of the first to trigger the mass usage of the term outside academia, but the debate on the importance of developing Russia’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region started among academics and policy makers decades ago. The idea was already discussed among Leonid Brezhnev-era academics, and both Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and Yevgeny Primakov in the late 1990s brought it up on multiple occasions. Vladimir Putin, in turn, continued to strengthen Russia’s political and economic cooperation with Asia long before the Ukrainian crisis. Hence, the turn itself is not a new phenomenon that can only be explained by the urgent need to secure economic and political cooperation outside of the Western world. Rather, it is a trend that has been present in Russia’s foreign policy for a long time, but was widely popularized only recently, as Makarov confirms in his second foreword. His view of the turn is, however, less global. Makarov almost identifies the pivot to Asia with the growing cooperation with China. “Taming the Asian volcano” and “catching China’s wind with the sail of Russia’s economy” are used synonymously. Makarov also claims that the topic has been actively discussed only in the past five years; hence the turn objectively started before the current crisis accelerated it.


Tensions with the West indeed sparked the media’s obsession with the turn, making it one of the most discussable topics of late 2015 and early 2016. The titles range from the anxious “The Turn to Nowhere” (Gabuev on and “The Turn to the East Can Be Dangerous for Russia” (Overchenko in Vedomosti)3 to neutral “The New Turn: Russian-Chinese Relations Are Entering the New Phase” (Lukyanov in Russia in Global Affairs)4 and “The Turn to the East Is Still Not Understood by the Citizens” (Aptekar in Vedomosti)5. Optimists view the situation as a rare and precious chance: “Asian Policy of Russia: The New Opportunities for a Breakthrough” (Denisov in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’)6. In this context, the current work and Karaganov’s introduction in particular, which has also been published separately on his personal website7 and in Russia in Global Affairs,8 is a valuable addition to the topic. Not only does it solidify the concept itself and reflect upon the most recent foreign policy trends and Russia’s role in them, it also comes up with alternative ways for Russia and the SCO to develop within the framework of the “Big Eurasia.”


The volume has 5 parts and 21 chapters. Its first part analyzes the developments in the Asia-Pacific region that have no immediate connection with Russia, the first chapter of which provides an overview of important transformations in the goals and type of economic growth, as well as its basis in Asia-Pacific countries, and analyzes their investment (mostly Chinese) and export-import strategies. However, it seems that the main purpose of the chapter is to repeat the mantra about the weight of Asian markets in the world economy (furthermore, this keynote persists in the introductions to nearly all the chapters and subchapters of the book). Every graph in the chapter shows the extraordinary growth of Asian economies in the past decade, with China at the top, and their even more extraordinary expected growth. The only semi-new addition to the picture is the subchapter on the evolution of Asian labor markets and their demands (again, mostly the Chinese side of the process). The subsequent chapters in Part One written by Kanaev and Pyatachkova discuss the emerging blocs of political and economic cooperation within the region as well as the crystallization of the “Asia for Asia” paradigm with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at its core. The role of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is assessed mostly from a historical perspective and viewed against the background of security threats, such as the North Korean nuclear problem and territorial disputes in the region.


Russia’s role in the Asia-Pacific region is addressed in the second part of the volume. The same authors, for the second time, address security threats facing Asia, this time to claim that the region needs Russia, not vice versa, to stabilize the “geostrategic equilibrium” in the ongoing formation of a multipolar world. Not only can Russia provide resources for rapidly growing Asian markets (however dated, this reason is still stated as number one), it can also serve as a buffer zone between its Asian partners in regional conflicts and territorial disputes. This neglect of the urgent need to develop Russia’s own economy and infrastructure rather than become a mere supplier of raw materials is at odds with Karaganov’s introduction, as well as the following parts on the Russian Far East and the following chapters within this part. The ode to Sino-Russian economic cooperation looks monumental compared to the following chapter on Russo-Japanese cooperation. According to the authors, it is the fault of Japan’s “recent” pro-American foreign policy that narrowed the opportunities for cooperation with Russia and forced Tokyo to join the sanctions against Moscow. Russian-Korean cooperation, the chapter says, is no different from Russia’s cooperation with any other Asian country: Russia exports natural resources and imports vehicles, electronics, etc. Seoul, in turn, invests, but less eagerly than Beijing or Tokyo. The authors are rather passive in proposing economic cooperation with both Koreas and more optimistic about Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam. They point out that current trade with India also leaves room for improvement, arguing, however, that political and military-strategic cooperation compensates for the lack of trade to make India one of Russia’s major partners and, possibly, a key actor in the “Big Eurasian Community.”


All these tendencies are favorable for Moscow and much less so for Washington, readers are told. Cooperation within the Russia-US-Asia triangle does not seem feasible at this stage, but Russia should make it clear to the United States that Russia is ready to collaborate when the Asia-Pacific direction of its foreign policy is the subject. While this part contains plenty of factual data regarding Russia’s cooperation with its Asian partners, the chapters often discuss similar matters that are supposedly viewed from different angles by authors using similar arguments. Bordachev’s section on Russia’s “Eurasian strategy,” however, stands out. He is convinced that a proactive approach to the revitalization of the SCO is crucial for creating a powerful economic, political, logistical, and legal basis for the newly emerging “Big Eurasian Community.” This idea resonates with Karaganov’s enthusiasm and greatly adds to the development of the “Big Eurasian Community” concept, which makes Bordachev’s chapter the centerpiece of the book. While the previous sections could benefit from further analysis of the data they use, Bordachev concentrates on investigating regional cooperation prospects, rather than merely describing the status quo and decorating it with figures. This part ends abruptly, and multiple diagrams do not make up for a lack of conclusions. It is, thus, hard to make immediate connections among the part’s sections, which makes it appear as a collection of independent articles rather than a united effort.


The following two parts are devoted to Siberia and the Russian Far East. The first one starts with detailed historical insights and an overview of the potential (mainly natural resources) of the Far East. Makarov poetically calls the region “the locomotive of Russia’s economic-political growth,” which possesses amazing amounts of “natural wealth.” He then says that the locomotive has already started to move but requires external stimuli in order to accelerate and reach its full potential. The conclusion addressing investments in Siberia links to the next part on international cooperation in the development of the Russian Far East. Repeating the ideas of previous chapters, Makarov says that Russia will benefit from becoming a resource base for Asian markets. As they expand, the demand for raw materials and the number of energy providers all over the world increases. Although this poses certain challenges for Russia, it seems unlikely that competition, however heavy, will make it lose its position as a major resource provider. Asian countries constantly search for energy supply diversification; hence, Russia will always have a share in their import of raw materials. Moscow, in turn, should consider diversifying its customer base. While Russia’s resource-based cooperation with China is flourishing, there is an urgent need to continue working with other Asian partners, such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, the author argues without adding much detail. The fourth part again concentrates on Russia’s turn to rising China, conforming to the pattern established by the previous authors. “Asia Pacific” oftentimes becomes synonymous with China. Most chapters begin with an optimistic review of Sino-Russian relations followed by a less rosy depiction of Russia’s cooperation with all other Asian countries.


Likhacheva and Makarov, who discuss water resources of the Russian Far East in a separate section, also prioritize China as Russia’s main partner. Nonetheless, their chapter, as well as the Makarov and Scherbakov’s following section on food safety in the Asia Pacific, gives the topic an original twist. They prove that Russia’s “turn to the East” is no longer exclusively about oil and gas exports. Makarova also notes that there is considerable potential for cooperation in natural disaster prevention and mitigation in East Asia. Russia should play an active role in it, even though natural disasters in its central and eastern parts remain a relatively rare phenomenon. Finally, the chapter on joint logistical projects in the Asia-Pacific region emphasizes the necessity of including Siberia in Asia’s logistical map. Despite the enormous geo-economic potential of the Russian Far East, it often seems to be excluded from Asia’s major transport projects, such as the North-South Transport Corridor and South Korea’s Eurasia Initiative. Asia will benefit from acknowledging Russia’s potential and engaging Siberia in active logistical cooperation, readers are informed. Moreover, new possibilities for cooperation are opening up in the Arctic region. As an Arctic rim country, Russia can become a strategically valuable partner for those Asian countries willing to participate in Arctic-related projects (most notably China, South Korea, and Japan).


The volume reflects upon several important political processes taking place in Russia. The tensions with the West sparked numerous debates on the “turn to the East” both in academic and non-academic circles, making it a popular topic. The opinions of researchers and journalists are often polarized, but the authors of the current volume maintain a balanced position instead of joining the pro- or anti-Western side of the debate. Furthermore, they approach the subject from their own original perspectives, which develop in unexpected directions. Some of the advantages of the book are, however, closely connected to its disadvantages. The extensive involvement of young authors, for instance, often leads to overly descriptive chapters. Further analysis could be provided instead of figures or facts that are general knowledge. The book also contains policy briefs and reports written earlier either for government or private organizations, valuable in themselves, but oftentimes lacking connections to other chapters, thereby making the book seem fragmented. The overall logic of narration suffers from the original choice of topics. The authors choose unique subtopics, such as water, food security, and cooperation in the field of natural disaster prevention and mitigation; however, they rarely justify their selection. This would be necessary in order to understand why such crucial topics as demographic problems in the Russian Far East, ecological security, or issues related to Russia’s indigenous communities were excluded from the volume. Excessive weight is put on Sino-Russian relations, whereas all other countries (Japan, South Korea, India, and Iran) are on the other side of the scale. This makes the “turn to Asia” almost sound synonymous to the turn to China alone. Readers must also be aware of the fact that the publication of the book coincided with the mass enthusiasm about the turn. The subsequent disillusionment with its slow pace—a trend that appeared in the media in late 2015—is not reflected in the volume. This disillusionment, however, does not necessarily undermine the credibility of the volume. High expectations the elites set for the turn were almost bound to remain unfulfilled to a certain extent. Although a number of observers are now disappointed with the slower trade growth between Russia and its Asian partners, it is a global trend and hardly makes it possible to claim that the turn has proven to be unsuccessful or stopped. The book will, therefore, still be valuable for those interested in Russia’s approach to the pivot to Asia and the development of the Russian Far East.

1. Review Article, The Asan Forum 3, no. 3 (2015).

2. Alexander Gabuev, “Поворот в никуда: итоги азиатской политики России в 2015 году,”, December 29, 2015, Read more at:

3. Michael Overchenko, “Поворот на Восток может быть опасен для России,” Vedomosti, August 10, 2015,

4. Fyodor Lukyanov, “Вот новый поворот,” Russia in Global Affairs, May 13, 2015,

5. Pavel Aptekar, “Поворот на Восток остается непонятным для граждан,” Vedomosti, December 14, 2015,

6. V. Denisov, “Азиатская политика России: новые возможности для прорыва,” Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, no. 3 (2015),

7. S. A. Karaganov, “A Turn to Asia: The History of the Political Idea, ” preface to Povorot Na Vostok: Razvitie Sibiri I Dal’nego Vostoka V Usloviakh Usileniia Aziatskogo Vektora Vneshnei Politiki Rossii [The Turn to the East: The Development of Siberia and the Russian Far East during the Strengthening of the Asian Direction of Russian Foreign Policy], December 29, 2015, idea

8. S. A. Karaganov, “Поворот к Азии: история политической идеи,” Russia in Global Affairs, January 12, 2016,