This year’s Valdai Club Regional Conference dealt extensively with Russia’s potential role in the development of Asian and Eurasian institutions, from regional security frameworks to trade and investment partnerships. Fruitful, detailed discussions were had on how Russia can deepen its engagement with Asia on multiple levels. Most importantly, however, this engagement is currently driven by internal pressures, as was incisively pointed out by Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. It is therefore critical to examine these internal dynamics and their prospects for long-term sustainability. In other words: If Russia is now choosing to “pivot to the East”, how decisive is this pivot? Or, to borrow a phrase from historian G.M. Trevelyan, will this be a turning point at which Russia may “fail to turn”?
It is difficult to prise apart the internal and external drivers of a country’s foreign policy. This is especially true of Russia’s historical engagement with Asia. Geographically, Russia’s intermediate location between Europe and Asia has translated into a conception of itself as an intermediary between East and West. Is Russia a European or an Asian country, and which aspect of its identity should it privilege? By whose standards should Russia judge itself, western or Asian? What role can Russia play in Europe or Asia, given its liminal position? Such questions are especially pertinent today, given the degree of ideological polarisation present in international discourse. Western countries claim universal validity for their norms on the definition of sovereignty, the rights and obligations of the citizen, the role of the state, and the export of a certain style of freedom and democracy. A “pivot to Asia” opens up ideological space for Russia to construct its own norms of international engagement.
This is not to say that Russia’s current engagement with Asia is wholly or even largely dependent on external pressures from the West. In fact, as mentioned above, Russia’s own geographic and demographic position make this inevitable, and Russian involvement in Asia has a long pedigree. The imperative to develop East Siberia and the Russian Far East dates back as far as Yermak; early contact with the Qing empire and the avoidance of proselytising allowed the Russian mission in Beijing to enjoy a privileged position since the 17th century. But Russia’s numerous “pivots” towards Asia have historically been informed by external pressures, only to turn back to the West when these pressures subside. One of Russia’s most recent, sustained movements eastwards began 160 years ago, in the wake of the diplomatic isolation that followed the Crimean War. The defeat in 1856 prompted domestic reform on a massive scale, as well as a concerted campaign of imperial expansion that brought Central Asia and large swathes of East Asia into the Russian orbit. In an era where great power status was decided on a map of Europe, however, Russia’s attentions soon returned to its western neighbours, especially after the rise of Germany.
The question, therefore, is if the momentum of Russia’s current pivot can be sustained, or even accelerated. A second post-Crimean thaw to parallel that of the 19th century could undermine it, drawing Russia back to traditional centres of gravity in Europe and the near abroad. Now, however, the determinants of power no longer lie solely in Europe or the West; strong military, economic and normative challenges have once again arisen in Asia. A “pivot back” that made sense a century ago may no longer make sense now. This is not to say that Europe and the West can be excluded from any wider Asian partnership; instead, a truly multipolar policy may be called for, in which relations with Asia are emphasised as strongly as those with Europe.
Russia’s role as an intermediary may serve as a way forward. Internal economic development, trade, and demographic decline have all pushed Russia towards boosting its Asian frontiers and establishing common ground with its Asian neighbours. This could be bolstered by a more thoroughgoing reorientation in terms of identity, namely a return to the idea of Russia as a Eurasian civilisation, whose development must have both eastern and western trajectories. Such views were not uncommon in the 19th century; in fact, they served as an ideological foundation for late-imperial expansion into Turkestan and East Asia. Shed of their imperial naiveté, these internal, even existential questions to Russia’s position and identity may anchor a more far-reaching reorientation of Russia’s policies. Framed in this way, for example, the far eastern territories are not a distant, resource-rich quasi-colony, but an integral part of Russia’s geo-body; engagement with Asia is not just a response to a “rising China” or proposed regional infrastructure projects, but also the legacy of centuries of close and complex interdependencies among peoples, societies, and empires. In short: For Russia’s “pivot to Asia” to be strong and sustainable, it may not be a “pivot” at all, but the culmination of its status as a Eurasian power.
Yuexin Rachel Lin is Postdoctoral fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.