The Russian Pivot: Posing Some Questions



In the most recent Russia Direct Monthly Memo (#11 June 2014), Vassily Kashin, Senior Research Fellow at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies focuses on what he terms “Russia Reorients to the Orient.”

The Ukrainian crisis marks an important moment in Russian-Chinese relations, catalyzing the creation of a unique collaborative relationship between the two countries. Throughout the crisis, China has been careful not to express its direct support for any side. Despite the restraint of the country’s official statements,

China’s steps in forging closer practical ties with Russia, as well as Chinese media coverage of the Ukrainian situation, have left no doubt that Beijing’s sympathies lie strongly with Moscow.

Varying degrees of support for Russia’s position have been expressed by other BRICS nations, including in some cases, condemnation of the sanctions against

Moscow. But Brazil, India, and South Africa do not have highly developed external economic relations with Russia and, consequently, their ability to provide real support under economic pressure from the West is limited.

Among Russia’s major trade partners, only China has sided with the Kremlin, acquiring in the process a unique opportunity to address a backlog of bilateral economic and trade issues on its own terms.

According the author, Russia is reorienting Russian commodity exports towards China in the wake of Western actions which could well lead to lower energy dependency of the West on Russia.

But interestingly, in the article, the author includes a graphic, which shows that the twin pillars of Russian trade actually are China and Germany, with the former at 89 billion dollars for 2013 and the latter at 77 billion dollars for the same period.

Russian Trade Partners. Credit: Russia Direct
Russian Trade Partners. Credit: Russia Direct

Whether Russia “rebalances” or not really depends on what the European Union actually does. The Chinese move can be part of Putin’s global game or a strategic shift.

Certainly, Russian military cooperation is greater with China than Europe, although the Mistral deal remains in place in France.

By 2011, military-technical cooperation between Russia and China had successfully overcome the dip of the mid-2000s. As of today, the annual volume of Russian arms exports to China is worth around $2 billion, comparable to that of the 1990s. China is the second largest market for Russian arms (after India).

In contrast to finished products, which dominated Russian exports in the 1990s, today Russia mainly supplies China with engines and other high tech components for Chinese weaponry, and also carries out research and development work for the Chinese…..

It also seems that joint space exploration will get a boost. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russian space technology was widely transferred to the Chinese. This allowed China to achieve a breakthrough in the development of its space industry and become the third country in the world, after the U.S. and Russia, to have its own manned space program.

After that, cooperation declined somewhat, but now the talk is of activating the partnership, especially in the field of planetary exploration in the solar system, in which Russia possesses a rich legacy from the Soviet period.

More practical areas of cooperation are also on the table, including the proposed transfer to the Chinese of technologies to build space nuclear reactors. Such systems can be used for both research space stations and radar reconnaissance satellites.

The author warns that there are “risks” to cooperation with China and suggests that the Russians will be vigilant in their evolving relationship. In spite of this, the US pivot to the Pacific is failing but the Russian one is succeeding in the view of the author.

While the U.S. pivot to China has been largely unsuccessful, Russia’s pivot to China shows promise of building the foundation for the nation’s long-term economic development.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore the conflict of interests in China’s global aspirations with those of the Russians.

Cover for Russia Direct Monthly Memo (#11 June 2014).
Cover for Russia Direct Monthly Memo (#11 June 2014).

The PRC sees itself as an ascendant global civilization with global economic reach, growing military power and shaping a vibrant global presence over the next thirty years. Russia is viewed as a commodity supplier, which is a descending, not ascendant power, and useful tactical ally in dealing with the US and the West. The Russians are useful in dealing with American and European speed bumps on the way to global ascendancy for the Great Han civilization.

And it is clear that one global area of ascendant significance is an area for significant competition, namely the Arctic. And here Russian views on Chinese threats to Siberia and the Russian Arctic are clear and more akin to 19th Tsarist views than to a 21st century “collaborative” soft power “mutually beneficial” project.

In an earlier piece, we looked at Russian strategies in the High North by reviewing Marlene Laruelle’s recent book entitled Russia’s Arctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North. In that piece we looked at the Russian “policy culture” with regard to the Arctic clearly and highlighted that it is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of Russia. It is part of Putin’s reassertion of the role of Russia in the world, the most recent manifestation of which has been the incorporation of Crimea and the expansion of Russian energy resources.

The Russian state’s renewed interest in the Arctic is also part of a larger context – the reassertion of patriotism as a tool fostering political legitimacy….From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, the return to a great power status materializes via Russia’s reassertion of its role in the international arena, and via the revival of sectors that classically define a great power, such as the military-industry complex, in particular aviation and the navy. This Soviet style “great power” model goes hand-in-hand with the domestic legitimacy strategies put in place by Putin since the start of the 2000s. (p. 9)

The author also highlights the Russian effort to shape a brand with the Arctic context. “The creation of this Arctic brand is part of a more general reflection on the question of nation-building. In Russia the general feeling is that formerly the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation, has systematically lost the information war….The Russian official narrative (with regard to the Arctic) has evolved toward a celebration of the Arctic region as a space of international cooperation. (p. 13).

Clearly, this “branding” effort of Russia the collaborative and cooperative reflects some fundamental underlying realities, namely the need for significant cooperation for the development and security of the Arctic. And Russian efforts to do so are real and part of the fabric of the Arctic opening.

At the same time, the “policy culture” is not defined by the collaborative dynamic: it is part of the more nationalistic dynamic. A key element of this nationalistic dynamic is that rooted in the demographic pressures in Russia, the declining numbers and the significance of the Arctic region to what many Russians believe is a key element of a nationalistic revival.

In an interesting section of the book entitled “The Nationalist Reading of the Arctic: Russia’s New Lebensraum,” the author underscores a core aspect of current Russian thinking, with deep roots in the Russian past. Russian authors have also highlighted the “lost” Alaskan and Californian territories and the “idea of a former Russian Empire stretching from Finland to California fuels nationalist resentment, focused as it is on the importance of geography in the assertion of Russian great power” (page 42).

There is a strong “white” racial element of the narrative as well, as the Russians with the largest Arctic population (3/4 of the total) and this population are Russians, not indigenous people.

There is also a strong statement of concern about the “yellow peril” from China to Siberia as well.

Whereas Russia was withdrawing into itself territorially for the first time in a millennium, the Arctic seems to revive an expansive, and no longer retractive, vision of the country: a potential new space is opening up to it.

This reading of the Arctic is particularly operative in military circles, which see this region as being Russia’s most important “reserve of space. (page 49).

Clearly, such perspectives provides an important brake on Russian-Chinese collaboration, and a similar look at Chinese cultural and policy attitudes towards the Russians would also highlight significant gaps that will fuel tensions.

In short, there may well be a pivot associated with the Ukraine crisis, but how profound will depend on whether Germany shifts course with regard to Russia or not. And the cultural gaps, and different sense of global destinies between Moscow and Beijing, will fuel conflict in the period ahead, as well as collaboration when useful.

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