Will Russia pivot East or West?

Russia-watchers have long been interested in her place on the international arena. Now, with China at the centre of the growing power game, the question is how Russia will seek to position herself in the Pacific Century.  

Russia-watchers have long been interested in her place on the international arena. Now, with China at the centre of the growing power game, the question is how Russia will seek to position herself in the Pacific Century.

When Peter the Great built St Petersburg, Russia looked firmly towards the West. Conversely, Russia’s eastern provinces – often considered peripheral – stay connected with China and Asia. Geography is one thing, but strategic choice is quite another. During the Cold War,  strategic trenches were dug between the US and Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union. In this scenario, China was the minor third partner pivoting between the USSR and the US.

Strategic alliances

Now the question has moved on to instead how Russia in the years to come will orient itself, towards East or West, in the growing power game focussed on China. Russia will choose from any number of different and opposing visions for Russia. In his book Strategic Vision, American geo-strategist Brzezinski argues that Russia should form part of a more ‘vigorous West’, suggesting that long-term strategic planners in the US and the EU should seek to enlarge the West by including Russia. He is of the opinion that Russian thinkers and leaders need to understand that their country is much closer to the EU and the US than to China.

Yet it is Russian ‘nostalgia for a leading global role’ that makes it incapable of seeing long-term on this and leads it to conclude that the relative decline of the US would be to its advantage.  In such a strategic reading, the partnership with China will probably be temporary because, in the long run, China will overshadow Russia. Thus, Russia should not be satisfied with siding with China in their ‘coalition of the unwilling’.  

In the same vein, a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) report argued that Russia was ‘post-BRIC’, meaning that it was not attaining the booming economic standards of the other emerging powers, particularly China. Others have taken the argument further: right-wing US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher suggests forging an alliance with Russia, Japan and India for the purpose of containing the Chinese threat. 

Brzezinski’s thinking is far-sighted. Yet official US policy doesn’t necessarily reflect it and the earlier ‘reset’ with Russia and the later ‘pivot’ towards Asia were thought up in their own self-contained strategic bubbles.  In the EU, this type of thinking is quite absent from policy: Russia is narrowly viewed through a bilateral lens and there is no calibrating of policy towards the position of either Russia or the EU in the Pacific Century.

On the other side of the coin (and the world), Yan Xuetong, one of China’s geo-strategic hawks, proposes in the ECFR book, China 3.0, that China and Russia should form a strategic alliance. There is already a large overlap in their world view, as can be detected in China and Russia’s ‘veto entente’ with its joint track record of vetoes in the Security Council (Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Syria). Like Brzezinski in the US, Yan Xuetong doesn’t represent the official government line, which is more cautious. This move would be a big change for the Chinese because official policy on relations with Russia is informed by the principle of non-alignment. What could bring official policy closer to Yan’s viewpoint would be a move towards a containment strategy and China would need increase its number of allies. Actually, Yan Xuetong thinks the current Chinese policy has already failed to yield results and argues for the necessity of forming this alliance to ‘shift the world from unipolarity to bipolarity’, in short as a means to bring down the US faster.

Russia and China

The subtlety in Yan’s wording deserves our attention. He writes that the Russia-China alliance will bring about bipolarity, not multipolarity. Does he mean that an alliance with Russia would help elevate China to equal position with the US, rather than make Russia and other powers into equal poles in a more multipolar system?  If Yan’s use of bipolarity is to be interpreted that way, it would mean an instrumental alliance that helps China take the last step into the G-2 or bipolar order, leaving Russia behind in the second tier.

This possible outcome of a strong Russia-China relationship worries some people in Russia. Sergey Karaganov reflects in an op-ed that Russia could become ‘an appendage of China – a warehouse of resources’. To avoid that fate, the country needs a larger-scale Asia strategy, which Karaganov coins as ‘project Siberia.’ This would ensure that investments filter into Russia’s remote Asian regions, not just from China but more broad-based, so that economic development simultaneously guarantees Russian sovereignty. 

These two extremes show the pull factor from West and East on Russia. Actual policy tends to end up in the middle ground, described by some as lack of strategic choice and others as necessary strategic flexibility 

Russia’s major strategic focus is still towards its Western partners, which still make up half its trade, but there is a growing realisation of the need to turn towards the Asian economic power house. Russia has joined the main multilateral institutions from the East Asia Summit, Six Party Talks on North Korea to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), but the Russian impact in strategic Asian affairs is still limited. For example, SCO, set up by China and Russia jointly with Central Asia, reflects the gradual power erosion in China’s favour, as analyst Pavel Salin notes.  This was evident in 2008 when Russia called for the organisation to anoint its incursion into Georgia and for the establishment of two new autonomous republics (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). China, seeing repercussions for its own Taiwan-situation, blocked this by clever back-door diplomacy with Central Asian states.

Still, official policy is much more anti-Western than China-sceptic, as political scientist Igor Zevelev points out. For Russia, joining up with China to put a spoke in the wheels of the US seems more important.  China’s military growth and more muscular policy with its neighbours have not had a profound effect on Russia. In opinion polls on potential adversaries, the US outpaces China by 20%, so China can’t spook the public in Russia as it can in the US. ‘Russia continues to view China as an Asian neighbour and key economic partner, but not as a new global power’ says Zevelev. 

Russian thinking isn’t without its concerns about an uncertain future with China. Editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs Journal Fyodor Lukyanov, for example, highlighted the risks for Russia ‘in the growth of China’s economic potential and international status’. In a similar spirit of hedging bets, the Russian Navy participated for the first time in the US-hosted Pacific Rim Exercise 2012 (RIMPAC). 

In the end, Russia might not pivot anywhere, thus making neither American nor Chinese geostrategic dreams come true. Russia could remain in a strategic ostrich position between East and West in the years ahead. If this strategic flexibility is well orchestrated, it could turn out to give Russia short-term leverage both in the East and the West. Yet there is also a danger that when, and if, it looks up and East, it will see that its Asian neighbour China is a global power in a league of its own, a realisation which will have serious implications for Russia.

This article first appeared on openDemocracy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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