Russia’s Turn to the East: Expectations and the Reality

In recent years, the turn to the East, or pivot to Asia, has been one of the most popular topics in the Russian political and media discourse. Assessments of this process vary: some consider it a long-overdue necessity and a chance for Russia to increase its competitiveness in the 21st century. Others think this project is a product of Moscow policymakers and does not take into account the real needs of Russians residing in the Asian parts of the country. examines the turn’s nature, opportunities, and limitations in the framework of its “Eastern Perspective” project.

Since the age of Peter I, Russia has claimed to be a European power, even though most of the territory of the country is located east of the Ural Mountains, in Asia. In general, the debates of the 19th century between the Westerners and the Slavophiles were about Russia’s place in European civilisation. In the meantime, Europe itself considered Russia a kind of “significant other” with evident Asian features. The October Revolution was a triumph of European ideas. However, in the end, it distanced Russia from Europe and the West more than ever. In the 1920s, the concept of Eurasianism legitimised the “Asian” part of the “Russian soul” and proclaimed an “exodus to the East”. It is noteworthy that the intellectual centres of this movement, which tried to find the roots of Russian identity in the Great Steppe, were to be found in European capitals like Paris, Vienna and Prague. In many ways, it was a reaction of the émigré intelligentsia to the revolution and an attempt to understand the causes of Old Russia’s collapse.

First of all, Eurasianism is an emotional movement rather than an intellectual one, and its emotionality is a reaction of creative national and religious instincts to the catastrophe. 

Nikolai Berdyaev, Eurasianism


However, throughout the 20th century, Eurasian ideas occupied a marginal position in the Russian public consciousness. Is it any wonder that the increasing interest in them coincided with another disaster, the collapse of the Soviet Union? The revival of Eurasianism in the 1990s was accompanied by disappointment in the West, since it turned out that it did not intend to communicate with the new Russia on equal terms.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the usual Russian discussions took place about choosing a path and whether to share it with Europe or Asia or go it alone; these acquired a new dimension. “To become a strong and modern state, Russia needs to align its national development strategy more closely to the macro trends of global development than anytime before”, the Valdai Club’s experts wrote in an analytical report titled “Towards the Great Ocean, or the New Globalisation of Russia”. “The key trend of global development is the shift, unprecedented in scale and speed, of the global economic and political centre to the ‘new Asia’, or more precisely to East and Southeast Asia and India.”

The understanding that Asia is no longer a “third world” that needs the “leadership” of more developed countries, and not a silent “world workshop”, but an increasingly independent economic and political actor on the world stage, did not come at once. It is true that China and India, the Asian giants, did not hurry to achieve global ambitions. In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced a term, “Economic Belt of the Silk Road”, which became an important signal from Beijing. Initially, this project was aimed at developing China’s western regions by transferring production from coastal areas and developing trade and transport links between them and Central Asian countries. In the following years, it grew into a truly global “Belt and Road Initiative”. In its framework, China signed agreements of cooperation with more than a hundred countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

First of all, I am convinced that China’s economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for business cooperation – a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy. We should seek to more actively form new cooperative ties, combining the technological and productive capabilities of our two countries and tapping China’s potential – judiciously, of course – in order to develop the economy of Siberia and the Russian Far East. 

Vladimir Putin, Russia and the Changing World

Asia’s changing role and its importance in terms of Russia's development are recognised and reflected at the highest level. In 2012, in his election article, “’Russia and the Changing World’ Vladimir Putin wrote about catching the “Chinese wind” in the “sails” of the Russian economy. The eternal question of Russian identity, “who are we?” was overshadowed by a new imperative: “to be closer to Asia to be competitive in the 21st century”. As we will see below, this has not put an end to the discussion of identity.

“Whereas Russia’s ‘Europeanism’ has always been a matter of identity, Russia’s ‘Asianism’ is just a pragmatic choice,” Hans-Joachim Spanger, Valdai Club’s expert from Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, says. “So far China and Russia seem content with assuring mutual respect and with at least simulating equality and equity – something Moscow rightly keeps complaining to have missed in the West. Russia’s China pivot has accomplished a lot in a fairly short period of time. Whereas the “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Brussels never moved beyond the pale declaratory, between Moscow and Beijing it has given rise to a truly preferential relationship – in spite of the fact that on the part of China it took years for the partnership to get rhetorically elevated in such a way”.

In the course of any discussions about the close partnership between Russia and China, there is an inevitable fear of unequal relations. It would be wrong to dismiss this fear as illegitimate, especially if we compare the demographic and economic potential of the two countries. However, we could suggest that such concerns are universal, since according to these indicators, China will “beat” virtually any of its partners and competitors. What do the Valdai Club experts think about all this? “China is Russia’s main partner in Asia,” Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club, says. “But there is nothing bad in this as long as Russia does not fall into debt dependency. And, second, energy exports to China will not make Russia the junior partner in the relationship”.

Leonid Bliakher, head of the Department of Philosophy, Pacific National University, agrees. “The main thing is that Russia should not decide which project is better for it – Chinese, American, Japanese or European – but should implement its own project instead”, he says. “Then the most virulent strains of Sinophobia that infected part of the country’s population and the elite would vanish. If a neighbour is going to dig a canal across your land, who is preventing you from fishing in that canal and planting a garden along it? In that case you both benefit”.

In 2014, deteriorating relations with the US and its allies created an additional political impetus for the “turn”, Timofei Bordachev asserts. According to him, by that time, Russia felt fairly confident in Asia and in some cases expanding cooperation with Asian countries helped it mitigate the consequences of the conflict with the West.

“Seeking refuge in Asia and notably in China is clearly defensive, meant to counter Western efforts at isolating Russia internationally and to mitigate the adverse economic impact of Western sanctions”, Hans-Joachim Spanger says. “It moves beyond this concern and follows the Russian aim of doing away with US dominance and the “US-led Western-centric” world order by giving substance to a multipolar international order”.

If a neighbour is going to dig a canal across your land, who is preventing you from fishing in that canal and planting a garden along it? In that case you both benefit. 

Leonid Bliakher, Pacific National University

“Seeking refuge” is indeed a good metaphor that describes the perception of Russia’s turn to the East both in Russia and in the West. The cautious support Beijing provided to Moscow at the peak of the crisis in relations with the West inspired hopes of creating a strong Russian-Chinese alliance that will help Russia overcome the difficulties associated with the sanctions wars. However, is China ready to give “refuge”? Is Asia ready to become a “saviour”?

The answer is “no”. Relations with Asia are always pragmatic, so in order to make a turn to the East productive, one needs clearly understand what they can offer Asia.

What Can Russia Give Asia?
Timofei Bordachev
Russia is in demand in Asia. But its response should not be a mere mirror reflection of what the Asian countries want. It is generally a rather odd thing in international politics to proceed from partners’ desires or capabilities.

“Certainly, the natural resource complex of Siberia and the Far East, consisting of oil, gas, coal, metals, timber and others as well as their proximity to Asian countries are the most obvious – and for the time being Russia’s most important – asset and competitive advantage”, Hans-Joachim Spanger suggests. “However, access and transport require quite some investments”.

All the interviewed experts of the Valdai Club agree that natural resources are of the greatest interest to Asian countries in their relations with Russia. Also of interest is Russia’s transit potential, including ports, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Northern Sea Route as well as military technology. These countries also hope to partner with Russia to address threats to national and regional security.

When considering the degree of interest individual Asian countries have expressed towards Russia, we must return to the “China and all the rest” formula. “Beijing’s active policy regarding Russia is largely the product of two circumstances: the length of the common border, which China, for purely pragmatic reasons, would like to see peaceful and secure, and the countries’ largely overlapping vision of ways to reorganize the global governance system”, Viktor Larin, professor at the Far Eastern Federal University, Asia-Pacific Department, says. “Other countries of the region have no such fundamental interests. Their interest in Russia is at best based on geographic proximity, which focuses their attention on Russia’s Pacific zone, which represents the entire country for them. Attempts at such diversification were undertaken in the 2000s and came down to expanding energy exports to Japan and South Korea. By and large, Russia today lacks the political clout, economic tools, cultural platform, historical foundation, or deep and genuine interest in regional affairs to make this diversification real”.

Many East Asian countries declare a willingness and plans to develop economic ties with Russia and recognize that many of them share interests and potential for doing so. Most of them focus primarily on Russia’s Asian regions. However, none of them is in a hurry to make cardinal decisions, let alone to take concrete steps. 

Viktor Larin, Far Eastern Federal University

Timofei Bordachev’s view is more optimistic. “For the time being, Asia’s key countries and regions perceive Russia with both interest and caution. During the post-Soviet pause, Asian countries became estranged from it. But now there is demand for Russia both in the economy and international politics. Under these circumstances, Russia should be particularly prudent not to become entangled in regional political and territorial conflicts. Russia still lags behind Asia’s traditional partners in most areas of trade and economic cooperation. This is not surprising considering that Russia’s ‘turn to the East’ is just several years old, whereas Asia’s traditional suppliers have been active for a long time”.

According to Larin, each of the countries in the region has its own “points” and interests with regard to Russia. Japan’s position is built on two “pillars:” 1) the territorial problem (Japan claims southern Kuril Islands, administered by the Sakhalin Region); 2) competing with China in terms of economic presence (developing Siberian and Far Eastern resources and transport routes, including across the Arctic) and political influence on Russia. South Korea considers interaction with Pacific Russia from two angles. The first is involving North Korea in implementing shared economic projects, including connecting the Trans-Korean and the Trans-Siberian railways, building oil and gas pipelines and power lines, and organising agricultural production. Second, Seoul is interested in Russia in the context of implementing the idea of ​​building a new Eurasia as a “united, creative and peaceful continent.” The Southeast Asian countries’ interest in Russia is primarily abstract and theoretical and manifests itself in actions and concrete projects only in isolated instances. “Territorially, Pacific Russia is as far from Southeast Asia as European Russia, and the advantages provided by direct sea routes are cancelled out by the commodity-based structure of Russia’s Far Eastern economy which holds no sway for Southeast Asian countries”, Larin asserts.

Apart from the three strongholds China, India, Vietnam, Russia’s relations with other Asian countries are more problematic and its presence in many cases just negligible. 

Hans-Joachim Spanger, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

We should not forget that to some extent, almost all the East Asian countries are afraid of the hegemony of China. Could too-close ties between Moscow and Beijing hinder the development of Russia’s relations with other regional actors? In the first place, it touches upon India, Vietnam and Japan. According to Hans-Joachim Spanger, these are incidentally the ones with which China has had fairly complicated relations: “Hence Russia has been forced to operate in a true minefield of competing territorial claims and historical animosities”, the expert says.

Such a situation might become uncomfortable if Russia were forced to take sides”, Spanger warns. “in particular since in most cases China is more or less directly involved, and not necessarily in a ‘harmonious’ way but rather in a fashion that might testify to its “rise”. This concerns relations between China and India, the latter Russia’s time-tested partner and prime weapons customer. It concerns the even more strained relations between China and Vietnam, the latter not only once the subject of a Chinese military incursion but also engaged in a bitter struggle over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. And it concerns the tenuous relations between China and Japan with which Russia is trying to overcome the remnants of the Second World War in its on-and-off talks on what Japan calls ‘Northern Territories.’ So far Russian diplomacy has managed to navigate carefully and successfully this rocky sea”.

However, in comparison with diplomatic successes, the quality of economic cooperation could be much better. “Russia’s economic presence in Asia is still not visible,” Leonid Bliakher uncompromisingly says. Neither Russian business circles nor the majority of the political establishment have access to the private zones where the real deal-making occurs. “Russia is a newcomer to Asian markets and they are already highly competitive”, Timofei Bordachev agrees. “Companies from Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Canada have long been operating there, whereas Russian exporters will still have to find a way in. Second, Russians are not used to working in Asia. They feel more comfortable in Europe, which is also closer”.

However, according to Bordachev, the accommodation is going on, even if we agree not to make haste: “it takes Asians much more time to size up new partners than Europeans. They need more proof of intentions and a solid reputation built over years”.

Russia’s turn to the East is built up from two components: the establishment of increasingly deeper and more active relations with the countries of East Asia and the development of the eastern regions of the country during this process. In order to answer the question of what has been achieved, we turn to the opinion of Valdai Club’s experts from the Far East. It is quite critical, though.

“As part of implementing the concept of Russia’s integration in Asia-Pacific, the task of turning Russia’s Far East into an ‘integration platform’ has been addressed from several angles and with varying degree of success”, Viktor Larin says. “Ideologically, it was achieved in full. Politically – through developing relations with China – it was achieved in part. Financially, economically and technologically, it failed”.

“The role of the Asia-Pacific in the economic development of Pacific Russia itself is almost invisible”, the expert claims. “Russia’s share in intraregional trade stands at a paltry 5.5%. Notably, Russia’s share in Chinese oil imports is 15% and coal 10%; in Japanese gas and coal imports, it is 9% each; in South Korean coal imports 18%. There is no noticeable inflow of investment or technology from Asia-Pacific to Russia”.

“The current structure of Pacific Russia’s economy in general and of its exports in particular in no way makes it possible to consider it an active or even potential ‘platform for Russia’s integration in Asia-Pacific.’ Rather, it is a ‘drilling platform’ which is used to pump resources from the region and to siphon off sales revenue abroad”, Larin says. “Whether in 20th century or today, in its move eastwards, Russia has always faced a fundamental problem, which is a contradiction between goals set in the capital, be it Moscow or St. Petersburg, and local interests of the regions. Historically, Russia regards its presence in the Pacific in military-political terms and its possessions in eastern Eurasia not so much as territories for living and development, but as an Eastern policy tool and a foothold for implementing it”.

The scope, complexity and inconsistency of the goals that the state has always set for itself in the East, without having sufficient material or human resources, time, or the absolute support of the political, business and academic elites of the country and the entire population of the region itself, objectively made it impossible to achieve the goals even with the utmost concentration of the efforts. 

Viktor Larin, Far Eastern Federal University

According to the scholar, the earliest phase of the turn to the East was carried out exclusively in line with the traditions of the Soviet era: “it was based on marshalling considerable financial resources and administrative efforts, which can only last for a short spell”. The lack of time and money gave rise to Moscow’s commitment to ambitious, image-building and more showy than effective projects, such as holding the APEC Summit in Vladivostok (2012) or building the Vostochny Space Centre. “Their main purpose is to produce a high-profile demonstration effect and to prove the effectiveness of Russia’s policies and economic presence in Asia”, Larin argues.

The reason why the “Far Easterners” are sceptic about the results of the “turn to the East” is that conceptually this process is developed by Moscow bureaucrats, and not in the region itself. Their comments reveal a grievance that in business communication with the countries of the Asia-Pacific Region; the centre does not take into account the experience of the locals themselves. “What kind of a region should it be to make the turn to the East possible?” Leonid Bliakher asks. “The answer is more or less clear: logistics networks and transport systems should be qualitatively improved, as should trading platforms, while preserving ties with the East Asian countries and business circles established in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the sectors that provide the region with their own export-quality goods should receive state support. Such support should be given to mineral production in the northern areas of the region, to raw materials processing, agriculture and commerce in the south, and to sea transport and fishing in the coastal areas”.

According to Viktor Larin, Moscow has recognised that developing the territory using Soviet means, such as massive budgetary injections into the “integrated development of the region”, is utterly impossible and even counterproductive in a market economy. “Priority development territories and free ports will certainly promote the development of the region and the creation of economic growth centres in Russia. However, without original and exclusive products which could withstand fierce competition on international markets, they can neither contribute to a significant strengthening of Russia’s economic position in Pacific Asia, nor radically change the image of this Russian region”, he says.

So far, Russia’s east has had very few competitive advantages in comparison with its Asian neighbours. “Its current status as Moscow’s colony and a raw material periphery for eastern Eurasia can become a verdict”, Larin warns. “Objectively, the region has the potential of being appealing and effective in four areas: energy, transport and logistics, services (tourism), as well as acquisition of new knowledge and creation of high-tech businesses. By sheer inertia, the choice was made in favour of the first. The second area became bogged down in interagency and corporate approvals. The third one simply lacks political support and financial resources. As for the fourth one, politicians simply do not believe in it. Meanwhile, the industrial sphere may only become competitive if based on innovative knowledge, materials and technology”.

Russian society need not renounce its predominantly European culture. But it should stop fearing or even being ashamed of its Asian origins <…> And we should not wring our hands over it or despise our own people, like certain members of the intelligentsia do, but rather accept it and use it as a competitive advantage. Towards the Great Ocean-6: People, History, Ideology, Education. Rediscovering the Identity. Valdai Club’s Report /

 In the beginning of this essay, we said that Russia’s turn to the East has been guided by purely practical considerations. Nevertheless, this process has, unavoidably, affected the mentality of the Russians. In opening up to Asia and discovering our own Asian territories, Siberia and the Far East, are we ourselves becoming more and more “Asian”? That is the question raised in Towards the Great Ocean-6: People, History, Ideology, Education. Rediscovering the Identity’, a Valdai Club Report which was presented in Vladivostok in September 2018. “In several years we will understand that we are no longer the eastern periphery of Europe that is slowly sinking into the glorious past, despite being closely related to the European culture”, its authors say. “We will realize that seeking out new sources of wealth, strength and progress in Asia is, in a sense, returning back home. By borrowing from Europe its high culture, we have enriched it with our own. We have borrowed its system of military organization and become a great power. And now we are filling our proper civilizational niche as a great Eurasian power, an original and self-sustained fusion of many civilizations. And we are becoming ourselves again as we make our way back home”.

However, Russians’ mentality remains predominantly Eurocentric. “The turn to the East has not yet become a full-scale political project for a substantial part of the Russian elites and has not led to a big mental shift in Russian society as a whole”, Timofei Bordachev suggests. “For most Russians, Europe is closer and more familiar, whereas the Russian Far East and Asia more broadly remain largely unknown.”

The problem, as Leonid Bliakher said at EEF-2018, is that there are no popular texts written about this history with Siberia and the Far East presented as something separate in Russia’s internal discussions. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, the most important intellectual challenge is to place these spaces “in that part of our consciousness that is central”.

How much time will this work take? It will involve at least 15-20 years of serious efforts, including media campaigns, Timofei Bordachev says, for the public to make a full mental shift and realise that Russia is equally a European and Asian country, of course, given that we remain committed to this work.

However, it will be more difficult to convince Asia that we are Asians too. “Russia is not regarded in the region in any way”, Leonid Bliakher warns. “At best it is seen as a possible transit area and a source of some raw materials. As such, our East Asian neighbours hold extremely unfavourable views of Russia’s lack of a consistent image and an established eastern policy”.

According to Hans-Joachim Spanger, Russia’s neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region will not accept it as an Asian power. “Russia has invariably been perceived as a purely European power in Asia. Bearing in mind the notoriously long memories in Asia and the suffering of Asians at the hands of Europeans, Russia does not make any difference. In terms of balancing politics, however, it is much welcomed – at least as long as counterweights against the US are considered expedient”.

Russia’s East Asian neighbours are not concerned at all with the question of whether Russia is European or Asian, which has been tormenting Russian intellectuals for centuries. When visiting Vladivostok, guests from China, Korea and Japan find themselves in Europe, suddenly made surprisingly close and accessible, in many regards thanks to free electronic visas. The Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theater offers “real Russian ballet just two hours away from Tokyo”. Selling the appeal of coming into contact with an authentic European culture has been a success, since the prices are incomparably lower than those in Japan.

The Marquis de Custine once wrote: “No matter how hard you try, Muscovy will always remain Asian rather than European land. The spirit of the East soars over Russia, and when it follows the West, it renounces itself.” Who knows what would have struck him more, if he got into our time: “Giselle” playing on the edge of Eurasia or modern-day Parisian street scenes? Nevertheless, 19th century ideas about where Europe ends and Asia begins are evidently anachronistic, however dear they are to de Custine’s ideological followers. Russia simply has no choice but to realise itself as an integral part of Greater Eurasia, to be open to both East and West, and to make use of the innumerable opportunities that this belonging to two continents and the two centres of attraction affords.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.