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With sanctions and an adversarial political climate to its west, Russia seems to be increasingly looking in the other direction. Literally. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week completed an annual summit with his Indian counterpart, Nahendra Modi. Also last week, Russia made a sudden decision to cancel its South Stream cooperation with southern Europe and instead turn to Turkey.
Many are talking about Russia’s pivot eastward, but is it working? Eurasia Outlook posed the question to some leading experts in the field in order to gather some thoughts about the policy’s effectiveness.
For the Russians, Asia has always been a legendary “El Dorado,” but only a few actually went there. Even today the Russian Far East has a population of six million, slightly larger than Norway and a mere one twentieth of the Chinese population in neighboring (former) Manchuria.
Now that the West has closed its door, Russia looks for a route to El Dorado. But the things in this region are not rosy, not only for its own inhabitants, but also for the Russians. China, which is poised to soon become the world’s largest economy, will provide Russia with money and goods, but only in such a way which would serve its own interest. China has already acquired 10 percent of the Vankor oil field and built formidable squadrons of advanced fighter planes copied from the imported S-27.
Russia may use India as a balance with China and the United States, but India is not strong enough for such a role. What is more, Modi’s India has pivoted its foreign policy to close collaboration with the United States, Japan, and Australia. President Obama is invited to India’s Republic Day anniversary this coming January as the only foreign guest, which demonstrates the current priority in Modi’s mind.
Japan has been cordial to Russia, because it wants to conclude a peace treaty with the latter and because it values Russia as a balance vis-à-vis China. However, the United States is telling Japan to wait for further rapprochement with Russia because of Ukraine, and Japan heeds them. For Japan, the U.S. Navy and Air Force presence in the country are indispensable deterrences against China’s possible offensive on the disputed Senkaku islands.
Therefore, Asia remains a fairy tale for Russia. For real gains, Russia has to address the Ukraine question in earnest.
I believe that President Putin’s latest visits to the capitals of post-Soviet Central Asian states have nothing to do with the “pivot to Asia” announced by the Kremlin. Moreover, I don’t think there are sufficient reasons to believe that this pivot to Asia is an objective reality.
Partnerships and, in some sense, alliances between Russia and countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are vitally important, regardless of the state of global politics. Kazakhstan became Moscow’s key partner after Ukraine stopped being part of its Eurasian geopolitical project, so the Eurasian Economic Union is impossible even in theory without participation from Astana.
Moscow’s efforts to use another window of opportunity to strengthen its influence in Uzbekistan also have their own logic unrelated to the Kremlin’s eastern tilt. The United States is expected to lose interest in Central Asia as a result of its troop withdrawals from Afghanistan; besides, Washington refused to make Tashkent the main beneficiary of its military aid. Thus, Uzbekistan has to reestablish its military technological cooperation with Russia and rely on its potential assistance in deflecting possible threats coming from Islamic radicals while carefully avoiding being drawn into the sphere of Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions.
The question of serious Russian opposition to Chinese expansion into the region is not on the agenda either. Moscow has hopelessly lost this competition to China, and no turn to the east can remedy the situation.
Russia’s “pivot to Asia” is long overdue. The Asia-Pacific has a growing demand for many goods produced in Russia, especially natural resources. Over the last two decades, Moscow has been developing ties with Europe and not paying enough attention to the east. It is reasonable to diversify markets for Russian exports in order to have a presence in two of three largest global markets. It is even more so for resources deposits, which are located in Siberia or the Russian Far East, in proximity to Asian customers.
China is the best potential partner for Russia to increase trade volume and generate new sources of cash. Economies of both countries are complimentary: China with its growing middle class and shortage of resources will be a natural destination for Russian exports. At the same time, Beijing can provide capital and technology to develop Russian resources. For Russia it will be important to focus not only on China, but on the whole Asia-Pacific region. It is crucial to create infrastructure that will link Russia to the global markets, not to a single customer. And one should remember that developing ties with China shouldn’t be done at the expense of existing links to the EU.
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India last week demonstrated that no substantial changes in Russian foreign policy in this area have occurred.
Moscow is interested in the further development of Russian-Indian cooperation but cannot yet invest significantly more in these relations than it has previously. Putin’s latest visit to India is a clear illustration. Even though the Indians were ready to host their distinguished guest for several days, he spent only 23 hours in New Delhi. During his stay in India, the parties were able to sign just a few agreements in the spheres of military education, investments, atomic energy, diamonds, and hydrocarbons. The rest of the documents came in the form of memoranda of understanding.
But even in the above spheres the parties failed to meet expectations. For instance, not a single agreement on military technological cooperation was signed. As for hydrocarbons, the sale of Rosneft’s stakes in East Siberian oil and gas fields to the Indians didn’t materialize. The main reasons for these underachievements were the parties’ failure to set realistic goals for Russian-Indian cooperation and their inability to exert maximum efforts to achieve these goals.
In the absence of long-term strategy, Russia continues its policy of inertia with respect to India. Global changes still haven’t forced Moscow to pay more careful attention even to its closest partners.
The allegation of a cardinal turn in the relations between Russia and Turkey is not quite correct. Over the last 15 years, the development of their bilateral relations has been demonstrating a positive trend.
But Ankara’s strategy in the development of the bilateral relations with Russia has been from the very beginning based on pure pragmatism and focused on the issues of international trade of energy resources. Consequently, though the idea of strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey has been proclaimed and constantly repeated, one can hardly consider this idea as one that has been translated into reality.
The economic dimension of relations between Russia and Turkey is commonly acknowledged as a relatively successful one, with some clauses. Besides the failure to reach a long-planned 100 billion dollars of annual trade turnover, there are such problems like limits on the “energy resources in exchange for consumer goods” model, and the low rate of high-tech products in their bilateral trade.
The diversification of both economic partners and political allies has from the beginning looked like a sound strategy. Today it has not lost its value; is has even been vice versa. One can easily find examples of considerably successful Russian business projects in Turkey: Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, OJSC “Power Machines,” OJSC “Technopromexport,” OJSC “GAZ,” etc. There have also been more than 50 billion dollars of realized contracts that Turkish contractors have in Russia.
The idea of the expanding growth in the economic and trade relations—within the context of rising confrontations between Russia and the West, and current difficulties in the Ankara-Brussels and Ankara-Washington relations—has been designed as an opportunity for mutual strengthening of the two countries’ economies.
The enforced refusal of the “South Stream” project is a step that has to compensate for Russia’s losses from the failure of the project aimed at construction of direct links between Russia and European consumers. However, the main beneficiary of this is Turkey, which potentially will soon become a key player of the world energy market (despite the fact that it doesn’t possess a considerable amount of natural resources on its territory). Besides that, Turkey will be able to cover its own rising needs for energy resources. Another large-scale, joint project in which Turkey’s interests outbalance Russia’s profits is the construction of a nuclear power station in Akkuyu. Within this project, Moscow gave Turkey huge unilateral preferences (in terms of price, risk sharing etc.).
Thus, in large-scale, joint projects, Russia’s ratio of political and economic interests differs greatly from Turkey’s. Russia has made important political investments in its bilateral relations with Turkey, but still hasn’t received an equivalent dividend. The potential for political cooperation still remains unrealized.
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