Russian compass swings east

Drawing by Sergei Yolkin

Drawing by Sergei Yolkin

Everyone is trying to guess how Russia’s foreign policy might change after Vladimir Putin takes over as president.

Most expect Putin’s Russia to resume its anti-western policy. In this respect, it is symbolic that Putin’s first visit in his new capacity as president-in-waiting was to China, and that, in his first keynote article, he offered to create a Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet nations.

The question of how the “western" and “eastern” combine in Putin’s vision is much more subtle and complex in nature.

In the eyes of many observers, “Putin-2” (of the second term, from 2004-2008) completely overshadowed “Putin-1” (of the first term, 2000-2004) with his strongly pro-western agenda: from close co-operation and prospects for European integration to concessions to the United States (the closure of military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, position on Central Asia, and so on) and advances to Tokyo on settling the Kuril Islands dispute.

The result, however, was disappointing. Who should be held responsible for those failures is a question open to debate. In retrospect, one can hardly blame Vladimir Putin for not trying to bring Russia into the western orbit during his first term. The lack of the desired result helped rebrand Putin-2 as the author of the anti-American speech in Munich.

The foreign policy message of Putin’s second term was: “So you don’t want to treat us like equals? Then I’ll make you …” And he did.

What was the role of the east – especially China – in Russia’s foreign policy of the 2000s? The early Putin, despite his multi-faceted approach, was largely pro-western – in the sense that Moscow’s foreign policy was focused on ties with the US and Europe. At the same time, Russia was also building ties with Asia, especially China and India, creating regional structures of varying cohesion, from the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation to the Bric alliance.

Moscow was making it clear to the United States (in terms of military and political activities) and Europe (in terms of energy) that it had alternatives. On certain subjects the west listened carefully and expressed concern; on others it would simply brush Moscow’s claims aside.

There is still a tendency to see Russia’s Asian policy as a means for putting pressure on Europe. Yet this has become irrelevant for one simple reason: whatever Moscow’s relations with the US and Europe, China is now Russia’s major neighbor, wielding a strong influence and likely to wield an even stronger one.

Vladimir Putin is not one of those who is fascinated by China, and he is fully aware of the risks inherent in the rapid and very impressive growth of the Asian neighbor. But he also understands that Russia will have to seek ways for peaceful and friendly coexistence with Beijing; there is not another growth and development engine in Asia that could rival China. And, of course, if Russia wants to upgrade its Far East 
region, it can hardly do so without China.

Lofty phrases about modernization and technological alliance with China – a new topic apparently inspired by Putin’s visit – mean in practical terms institutionalization of the existing model: Russian raw materials in exchange for Chinese products. The issue is the conditions, not the essence.

Instead of dreaming about Silicon Valleys, Russia should go ahead with real modernization, focusing on efficient use of raw materials and market diversification, in terms of both geography and product range.

In other words, it is not the US and Japan that should be chosen as models, but 
rather Australia and Canada – as highly developed nations whose growth is based on plentiful natural resources. In this sense, China is vital, with its steadily growing consumption and significant surplus of cash.

Vladimir Putin has made no secret about his view of hydrocarbons as Russia’s main resource and guarantor of political weight throughout the 21st century. However, in contrast with Europe, where Russia has been pursuing a pipeline diplomacy and policy since the Sixties, it is only just beginning to feel its way in Asia.

One such overture is Moscow’s recent proposal that Pyongyang becomes Russia’s main partner in constructing a trans-Korean gas pipeline, in exchange for a rethink on the nuclear program and a peaceful settlement. Yet Russia’s ability to promote its goals in this way is rather limited: whereas in Europe Moscow has a solid footing, it is only just beginning to gain political weight in Asia. But there is no other way.

Putin’s visit to China, in his new capacity as future president, turns a new page. His next term’s agenda will be dominated by efforts to develop a model of peaceful coexistence with Beijing – one that should work for decades to come.

Soon, commentators will have to change tack and stop seeing visits to Beijing in the light of Russia’s ties with Europe and the US. Rather, they will consider whether Russia can use its contacts in the west to strengthen its position in China.

Fyodor Lukyanov is chief editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

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