“Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians” - perhaps these lines of the Russian poet Alexander Blok could have been included in the epigraph of the presentation of the new Valdai Club book, titled “Toward the Great Ocean: A Chronicle of Russia’s Turn to the East,” which took place on September 4 as part of the EEF-2019. Many participants in this out-of-the-ordinary presentation session asked: is this “eastern course of Russia” a myth at all? And if so, what is it: a turn, a U-turn or a pivot? The Valdai Club experts - Russian and American - answered quite unequivocally: yes, this is a "turn to the East" and it really happened. What seemed unrealistic 10 years ago has been achieved, and now we need to think about how to move forward.
The book is based on six Valdai Club reports, united under the common slogan “Towards the Great Ocean”. Sergei Karaganov, scientific adviser of the book, dean of the faculty of world economics and world politics at the Higher School of Economics and honorary chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, spoke about where the "turn of the East" comes from. Initially, 10 years ago, it was a purely economic project. It was based on the realisation that Europe was slowing down and economic interaction with it was becoming less and less profitable. The geostrategic aspect of taking Russia in an Asian direction became more political later, and was associated with new international circumstances, which had changed radically since the initiation of Russia’s new policy in Asia.
The first Valdai Club report on the movement of Russia to the Great Ocean was released in 2012, and the sixth one in 2019. Many proposals from them have already been put into practice, but there are problems that still have to be solved, as, of course, there are reserves concerning the further development of this policy.
In particular, at the Valdai Club session, which was also held as part of the WEF-2019, it was said that a “turn” had occurred, but it was economic and political, but not cultural. According to Karaganov, a “mental shift” should occur at the level of perception of the Far East as an integral part of the Russian historical and cultural space.
In addition, the move towards Asia was originally conceived as a Siberia project. The rise of all Siberia, and its integration into the international economic space of Asia, were both relevant at the very beginning of the “turn”; Siberia and Asia are rising now and will continue to rise. However, for artificial reasons, Siberia was divided, although this is a single region. “We are waiting for us to have a single turn - both a Far Eastern and a Siberian one”, Karaganov said.
One of the participants of the presentation, Artyom Lukin, Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies at Far Eastern Federal University, noted that he hadn’t seen significant changes in the Far East after the announcement of the “turn”. Last year, 30,000 people left the Far East, people vote in this way against the current government. This suggests that money should be here, and not only in Moscow, so that talented young people do not leave the Far East as they do now. “Until real capital comes, life (of ordinary people) will not change here,” Lukin said. The good news is that the Far East remains Russian. “The bad thing is that there is no breakthrough.” Echoing Lukin, Pavel Kadochnikov, moderator of the presentation and Vice Rector for Research at the Russian Foreign Trade Academy of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation, also asked if there was a real “turn” to the East for residents of the Far East? Did they notice it?
Sergey Karaganov said that he knows all the statistic data, but in this case not only must the economy be working, but the moral aspect as well. In his opinion, even if the economy is boosted here, people will still leave, as well as from any other regions, since they are going to pursue a better life in ‘the capitals’: Moscow and St. Petersburg. That is why, in order to keep them from leaving, it has been proposed to establish a third capital of Russia, which will attract additional investment in the region.
One of the inevitable problems of Russia's Far Eastern policy (and this is stated in the sixth “Great Ocean” report) was that the “turn” began from Moscow, and only at the last stages began to involve Far Easterners, who have unique life experience in Asia. “This should be a turn not of Moscow, but of Vladivostok,” Karaganov emphasised.
Timofei Bordachev, scientific editor of the Valdai Club book and programme director of the Valdai Club, added that, according to the Russian tradition, one should not rush to make a profit before investing. Moreover, Yury Trutnev, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, spoke at the Valdai Club session about the interim results of efforts to ‘raise’ the Far East and about what should be done to achieve this in the near future. You can read more about this in the analytical note published on our website.
Pavel Kadochnikov, apparently wanting to add fuel to the fire of the discussion, asked whether the turn was voluntary or forced. Sergey Karaganov ironically noted that the “turn” was completely voluntary: part of the Russian elite forced another part of the Russian elite to turn to the East. He added that the deterioration of relations with the West, which was not expected to such an extent, only accelerated the “turn”.
Speaking about the uniqueness of the “Towards the Great Ocean” project (and, inturn, the book, which was the result of seven years of work), Timofei Bordachev noted that many of the ideas that were outlined in the reports had not only been developed already, but also resulted from the work of dozens of Russian experts. This underscores that the expert community and the authorities are working together, and their new way of working has paid off. The book reflected the turn of Russia to the East in an intellectual, expert manner. “If we wanted to gather the authors of this book here, three of these rooms would hot have been enough,” Bordachev said.
Another unique feature is that this large eastern project did not have an external sponsor. Russia has good relations with all of the Asian countries; there is no country with which Russia would not work. But there is no separate country that will be leading and contributing to the "turn". The independence and unbiased position of the experts involved in writing the reports and the book itself is also important. Each of the six chapters of the book is supplemented by articles from foreign experts, who have evaluated Russia's efforts from the outside.
“Much remains to be done, but, I believe, we have determined the methodology correctly - this is democracy and transparency. We will succeed, and Russia will be considered adequate by the world around us,” Bordachev added.
Among the speakers of the Valdai Club book session was Thomas Graham, Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, who expressed his views of the entire Valdai Club project “Towards the Great Ocean” and the book. “These are interesting reports that provide in-depth analysis,” Graham said.
However, in his opinion, there are three factors, which must be taken into account in Russian politics in Asia.
The first factor is the Far East region itself and its future as a region of joint development. The integration of Russia into an economic zone of Asia is possible primarily with the help of the Far East, which is part of Asia.
The second factor is the tense relationship with Europe, although, as mentioned above, this served as the impetus for "Russia's turn to the East".
According to the American expert, from a geopolitical point of view, Asia is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, and Russia needs to weigh every action carefully. South Korea, China, Japan, India are spending more and more money on defence, and even neighbouring countries have concerns about this. Of course, war in this region is unlikely, but nevertheless we cannot exclude such a possibility. Therefore, Moscow is faced with the task of extracting economic benefits from the “turn” while avoiding risks.
“As an American, I have to talk about China,” Graham said. “Vladimir Putin said that in the entire history of Russian-Chinese relations, they have never been better. China is becoming Russia's largest economic partner. But if I represented Moscow, and not the USA, I would see that there is an asymmetry between Russia and China. Yes, China is Russia’s largest partner, but Russia is not even one of China’s top ten trading partners. Russia needs to think about how to avoid trade dependence on China.”
Often we hear that Russia’s turn to the East does not mean that Russia is turning away from the West. Of course, this is right: if Russia wants a balance, Graham believes, it needs to establish relations with Europe and, first of all, think about how its foreign policy strategy is developing in general. It is necessary to diversify economic and political ties in Asia. Yes, no Asian country is an enemy of Russia, but Russia should not ‘lock itself into one country’; it is important to develop relations with everyone.
It would be also be dangerous to have separate blocs in the Asia-Pacific region, and this applies equally to US policy in this region. The world knows what the emergence of such blocs leads to. There are historical examples: the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War.
“We can talk about the ‘Russia’s turn to the East’ as a successful project, but we should not rest on our laurels, since this ‘success’ may cease to be a success,” Graham said, concluding his verbal review of the Valdai Club book.
Russia is going to go ahead with this: in the fall of 2019, a new development strategy for the Far East should be adopted, and the authors of the Valdai Club book hope that their proposals will be taken into account, at least partially.