Special Forum Issue

“Looking Back on Putin's "Turn to the East" over a Decade”

Introduction

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The bi-monthly country reports in The Asan Forum provide a continuous record of how changes in the Indo-Pacific region were interpreted in Russia and three other states. Drawing on them and other sources, this collection of three articles begins the process of assessing what we have learned over the decade 2012-21. These articles locate the most recent developments in the context of changes in Russian thinking over this time frame.  The guiding narrative throughout was that Russia was turning away from Europe to Asia, but how that was to be accomplished differed from period to period over the decade. The articles posted here are part of a planned collection to take a broad look at Putin’s turn eastward—chronologically and geographically.

We begin with three themes: 1) tracking the “Turn to the East” across four stages, 2) evaluating its results in the Russian Far East facing Northeast China, and 3) examining the decade-long evolution of Russian thinking toward Mongolia, cognizant of China looming across the way. One standard often used in assessing the “Turn to the East” was its impact on strengthening Russia’s hold on its Far East, including boosting the economy there. As for Mongolia, its location makes it the example par excellence for evaluating claims about Russia’s relationship with China. What is said about these two geographical themes changes over time, reinforcing the approach taken to four distinct stages in the “Turn to the East,” the final one being a “new Cold War” in 2020-21.

The chronological record offered in the tracking article is intended to be but one of three pieces with a decade-long overview, rather than a geographical focus. A companion article will follow on how Russians debated the “Turn to the East” in the same four stages. This will lead to a third article reflecting on how they conceptualized the turn, extracting themes from the coverage. In the first of these articles here, the mainstream narrative is presented with little acknowledgment of the setbacks or the struggle to find a more satisfactory path forward. Given a high level of censorship on certain themes, for instance the wisdom of Putin’s policy decisions and the positive nature of China and its leadership, it is not surprising that the coverage is predominantly positive and optimistic. Yet, the second and third articles in this series will make clear that Russian writers find opportunities to discuss many problems encountered in the “Turn to the East.” Censorship is far less severe than in China. If debates do not often lead to open contradictions of what others wrote, they reveal serious concerns and, at least, implicit recommendations for a change in course. On this basis, we will be able, in the conceptualization article as in the geographical ones, to evaluate results.

Gilbert Rozman, “Tracking Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’ over a Decade”

Key events over this decade influenced the evolution of Russian thinking. In 2012-13, the drivers in discussions of regional policy included the Vladivostok APEC summit hosted by Russia and the impetus by an ascendent Putin to challenge the United States more vigorously. In 2014-16, the fallout from Russia’s seizure of Crimea and proxy war in Eastern Ukraine that lead to sanctions from the West was followed by Putin’s sharp tilt toward China in agreements to cooperate on economic integration plans. The years 2017-19 saw Putin respond to new initiatives by three leaders: Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior” assertiveness; Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons gambit and diplomatic forays; and Donald Trump’s “America First” policies in Asia. Finally, from 2020, China’s closures over the pandemic and its resurgent socialist autonomy accompanied the toughening of Trump’s “trade war” and the start of Joe Biden’s grand strategy, which prioritized China and thus galvanized the Quad (with Japan, Australia, and India). Through all four stages in the “Turn to the East,” Putin sought to boost ties to China, struggled to find a path to multipolarity, and held aloft the banner of Russia as a pole atop a new world order and of Eurasianism as a separate civilization rooted in an unending, intense historical struggle with Western civilization. The mainstream narrative overwhelmingly affirmed that Putin had made the correct choice with his focus on Asia in boosting Russia as a global great power and aligning with China.

2012-13

Vladivostok became a symbol of three things: (1) Russia belongs in Asia and boasts a major city to share in its dynamism; (2) the Russian Far East is a dynamic force, reaching out into the boom to the south in China, South Korea, and Japan; and (3) modernization is poised to supplant natural resources in spearheading Russia’s advance in Northeast Asia. The one-time burst of funds to host the APEC summit left an oasis of modernity in a run-down city but achieved none of these goals.  The city stayed a backwater, and the region continued to drain population. Medvedev’s talk of modernization faded as Putin set his eyes on great power glory through a military build-up and doubling down on energy pipelines. Despite warnings that the Russian Far East was viewed by other Asia-Pacific powers as a resource-abundant, depopulated territory and that diversification of investment by foreigners accompanied by reform was urgently needed, that was not the strategy.

Many from the “Cold War school” had the edge, owing to their obsession with the US as the enemy and reasoning that China is the natural partner for Russia. They also benefited from the logic that for multipolarity Moscow needs to stick closely to Beijing, even as that thinking appeared increasingly out of touch. They were further encouraged by the prevailing stifling of criticism of China and the ongoing shift in writings about North Korea toward giving it the benefit of the doubt for being besieged by the US. This school insisted that a new Cold War was beginning, in which the US faced China and Russia.

2014-16

Prior to 2014, it was easier to make the case for multipolarity through optimism about bilateral ties to countries other than China. The case for multipolarity then rested heavily on Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and India. Putin’s tilt to the Cold War school put multilateralists further on the defensive. Explanations for the conflict in Ukraine centered on the West’s role in triggering it, obliging Russia to act. The narrative shifted further to demonization of the US, including in Asia, with concomitant warmth toward China. Yet, there was also a message that Asia welcomes Russia while Europe repels it. Thus, multipolarity continued to be espoused even as its prospects were fading.

After Russia’s relations with the West hit an impasse over Crimea, the mainstream held that China was giving implicit support to Russia, refusing to support the US since its aim in Ukraine was world domination and seeing what had occurred as another, despised “color revolution.” The May 2014 Sino-Russian agreement on a long-awaited gas deal was heralded as proof of a growing economic partnership with China. Unbounded optimism proclaimed that Russia had compensated for its isolation in the West by turning to Asia. Putin had made sure that Western sanctions were not perceived as the isolation of Russia but as an opportunity to join in ongoing Asian dynamism.

Russia agreed to link the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), changing the framework for Central Asia, giving Xi a victory but pretending otherwise. Through 2014 at least, this was called a big success for the objective of integrating Russia as the main force in the EEU with China’s economy. It was also treated as proof that China and Russia were working closely and harmoniously together. Quashing worries about China, Putin treated it as a benign, close partner, whose rise enhances Russia’s security and boosts its position with others in the region. In order to build an Asian order exclusive of the US, Xi needs closer political and economic ties with Russia; for this reason, one-sided dependence will not be a problem. Thus, accelerating Russia’s departure from Europe and entry into Asia is desirable. Skeptics of China’s treatment of Russia and of the costs to multipolarity were stifled by this endorsement.

When bilateral trade dipped in 2015 due to the fall in oil prices and the devaluation of the ruble, the focus shifted to geopolitics and identity, marked by the dual commemorative parades on May 9 and September 3, when Putin and Xi stood side by side on the reviewing stand. If strategic partnership did not trump commercial logic, it served to mend the wounds of failed promises from Putin’s “triumphal” visit to Shanghai in May 2014 in defiance of the West. Agreement spread on a military-political alliance, without taking a legal form, as Russians praised strengthening of mutual support related to core interests, maintenance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and not least, security. 

If in late 2014 and 2015, there were wobbles in public confidence that the “Turn to the East” was going well, leaders heralded repeated Putin-Xi summits, closer military ties, and the reliability of China’s hostility to the West. They reconceptualized geography to transform Eurasianism into a geopolitical and community identity symbol, giving the impression that China was cooperating in Russia’s desired reconstruction of the region rather than Russia being left on the margins in the SREB and its broadening to the super-project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A grandiose case asserted: the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East offers a unique chance to countries in the region, the modernized transportation routes of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) and Trans-Siberian railways would become the main trans-continental arteries, a new window to Europe across the Arctic Sea would transform maritime ties for at least four months each year, and Japan and India, where the need for energy is high, would turn to Russian supplies.

The mood in 2016 was to be patient for the impending long-term transformation. Russia could still count on support from the world’s second economic power after economic ties with the West were fractured, modernization of infrastructure through Chinese money, and international realignment through joining the EEU and SREB as the two sides were recognizing each other’s sphere of influence.

At the end of 2016, the “Turn to the East” was in limbo. The much-anticipated December Putin-Abe summit failed to meet expectations, leaving doubts about what comes next. The Putin-Xi summit of late November was perfunctory, coming amid continued talk of a relationship that could soar to another level but qualified by sober awareness that they differ on what that next level is. Anticipation mounted that the post-Cold War era was ending and something called Greater Eurasia was emerging. More important than China’s rise, in this respect, was the US decline. Russia foresaw gaining a major say in shaping the newly emerging regional framework. China joined in calling for the construction of an overall Eurasian partnership, broadening the scale of regionalism. Russia accepted the core status of BRI while self-assuredly claiming that it was entering a promising era at last, recognized as an influential player across Asia.

2017-19

In 2017, changes were underway. Donald Trump began his disruption of the international environment, Kim Jong-un took to provocations to shake up the diplomatic lethargy, and Xi Jinping went much further toward his “China Dream” objectives. Instead of Putin scrambling to shake up the situation in East Asia, he was now reacting to others.  Disappointment about Sino-Russian relations after euphoria in 2014-15 gave way to new grandiose claims for Greater Eurasia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or even the BRICS. India’s refusal to attend the BRI summit and Russia’s marginality in spite of Putin being honored signaled unilateral Chinese leadership, at odds with Russia’s agenda. Putin had to decide if bilateralism with minimal multipolarity was acceptable, even as he insisted that the EEU, SCO, and ASEAN could draw together apart from China’s domination. Rather than admit that China was on a path to regional hegemony or that Russia’s ties were not diversifying, the Russian mainstream narrative blithely predicted triangularity with China and the US and a balanced Eurasia in which Russia need not defer to China and still leads its own geo-economic, geostrategic, and geo-cultural sphere.

If Putin was in denial, Trump, Kim, and Xi were growing bolder. Trump was targeting China, and at APEC in 2017, he embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific, pointing to new US ties to India and ASEAN as well as Australia, posing a further challenge to Greater Eurasia. Putin’s shift away from Northeast Asia was clearer at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) with Modi’s presence, but India was drifting away. Abe returned that year but without the buzz of a year earlier, as relations stalled and Abe was focusing on Trump. Despite the dearth of Asian investors and the skepticism about Greater Eurasia, hope was reignited based on new signs of US decline signaled by Trump and revival of economic confidence along with trade with China. Above all, worsening Sino-US ties prompted more triangular thinking.

Chinese were seen as warming more to Putin, and Sino-Russian ties appeared to rest increasingly on security than economics, with roughly $3 billion per year in arms trade including the most advanced Russian systems, as deepening. The Xi era has been welcomed as more authoritarian, more anti-American, and more disruptive of the regional and global orders, which Putin seeks to replace. Kim Jong-un’s belligerence in 2017 was little criticized, although Moscow felt pressured by Beijing to vote for tough Security Council sanctions. His turn along with Trump to diplomacy drew praise, although Russia was concerned about marginalization. The stalemate reached in 2019 after Kim had met with Putin in Vladivostok was blamed on the US, even as hopes rose for a multilateral security dialogue.

2020-21

The groundwork was laid by 2020 for a Sino-Russian strategic partnership approaching the level of an alliance. A new Cold War was anticipated, as China finally abandoned its illusions about the US and endorsed Russia’s vision. Indeed, an aura of bravado pervaded Russian publications at the end of 2019. Putin had succeeded in diplomacy around the world, reestablishing Moscow as a decisive voice in world affairs. The relationship with China was solid and that with the US was indefinitely on the rocks. Strategic stability had again risen to the top of the global agenda, resuscitating an environment in which Washington had to deal with Moscow as an equal—this time with Beijing a third force. Completion of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline gave new reason to boast of ties with China, just as the Sino-US trade war reassured many that this relationship would stay confrontational to Russia’s advantage. Moscow and Beijing were taking charge on North Korea, siding with Pyongyang on the need to ease sanctions and awaiting the next US move. There was no sign of dark clouds on the horizon, as the US and China appeared unidimensional in such narratives.

Indeed, claims were repeated that “Russia is changing the world,” tracing Putin’s impact from first restoring Russia as a sovereign great power, then strengthening its international position, and finally going on the initiative to advance the country’s global authority. In the course of less than a decade, Russia stopped the expansion of Western alliances, forged a de facto alliance with China, and became the center of a Greater Eurasian space with a Russian Eurasian identity. Thus, it was destroying the foundation of five centuries of Western domination. Along with the Soviet Union earlier, it had stopped being part of the West and led the charge against the West, changing the fate of human history.

The pandemic’s impact on Sino-US relations was welcomed in Moscow, which reasoned that China is the subject of an information war, as the US politicizes responsibility for the pandemic. There is reason to expect further strengthening of the Russo-Chinese “consensus” on an anti-American axis. They saw the Sino-US relationship turning into a full confrontation—economic, technological, geopolitical, military, and even ideological. The pandemic had accelerated it into a new bipolarity. What had been a trade war in 2020 turned into a “virus war,” as Trump blamed China for many US troubles and raised the stakes with an ideological clash, drawing an outpouring of “wolf warrior” responses. Russia, in turn, supported China in the struggle against “politicization of the pandemic.”

Discussion about signing a new treaty in place of the one from 2001, whose 20-year duration would be automatically renewed for a five-year period, raised the prospect of an alliance. The new term, "Russian-Chinese tandem" means that China has also abandoned hope in constructive relations with the West. It no longer has illusions of the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the West. By 2021, China had seized the initiative in defining the relationship in bilateral documents. Xi had broadened his penchant for defining China’s future to looking beyond China to leadership defining regional, global, and, in the case of Russia, bilateral relations. Now Putin was endorsing Xi’s terminology, such as a “community of common destiny” and a “new era of Russian-Chinese relations” to echo Xi Jinping’s “new era of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Gaye Christofferson, “The Russian Far East and China’s Northeast: A Decade in the Shadow of the Belt and Road Initiative”

In 2013, the same year the SREB—soon to be rolled into the BRI—was unveiled, Vladimir Putin proclaimed that promoting economic development in the Russian Far East is the “national priority of the entire 21st century.” His “Turn to the East,” announced in 2012, was seen as benefiting, first of all, the Far East region. For over two decades already, the development of this area had been closely linked to Northeast China—just across the border—pointing to the need to look closely at the interrelationship of thinking on both the Russian and Chinese sides. In parallel, Xi Jinping and Putin announced their plans, and through 2021, they jockeyed to adjust to each other’s initiatives toward cross-border interaction. Starting with the evolution of China’s thinking is critical, as it caused Russia to react much more than the other way around.

The Chinese and Russian sides have differed on how to design cooperation. China focused on infrastructural projects useful for importing Russian natural resources, while Russia focused on developing industries in resource processing. The two sides failed to reach a consensus. Later, China insisted, as a near-Arctic state, on equal partnership in developing the Northern Sea Route, while Russia demanded respect for its sovereignty and rejected China’s Arctic claims. They are still in disagreement despite joint, new efforts to open the Northern Sea Route.

A large number of directives in the past decade are indicative of a continuous Chinese process of building border infrastructure and elevation of local border trade to the level of a national strategy, especially Heilongjiang’s plan. After BRI was announced, Beijing financially incentivized provinces to create provincial plans that would support the national-level BRI. Xi Jinping has promoted planning and policymaking coordination between countries in the BRI, but for Russia it is not clear that it will closely coordinate despite Sino-Russian parallel planning. Some Chinese analysts claim there is not yet mutually beneficial Northeast-Far East planning cooperation.

As the BRI progressed, foreign analysts viewed it as Beijing’s geopolitical strategy for a Sinocentric order. Despite the extent of central planning, Beijing instructed all Chinese who wrote on the BRI to describe its drivers as provincial initiatives, forbidding calling the BRI a “strategy.” It required that all topics were delegated in a top-down manner to research with no independent studies of the BRI, no domestic criticism allowed, and no debate on how countries can pay back their loans.

In October 2020, Putin’s “Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035” laid out policies for Artic development, replacing the 2013 strategy, which had emphasized civil society organizations as partners on environmental issues, with one dominated by energy companies and the military. Did the creation of an institution combining the Russian Far East and the Arctic into one ministry shift the priority away from Russian Far East development, or did linking enhance the Far East’s possibilities for greater foreign investment? Would the Far East indirectly benefit from its proximity to the Northern Sea Route? How would this impact Chinese views of the Far East? Would this change Primorye’s potential identity from Pacific Russia to Arctic Russia? The “Turn to the East” implied greater federal government investment in the Far East, but in fact, that was not happening. Benefits of GDP growth accrue to large state enterprises from Moscow; genuine development would depend on giving the Far East freedom rather than subsidies. Moscow is reluctant to allow Chinese investment to take a controlling interest in Far East projects, i.e., it is “not willing to sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for greater Chinese investment in the Far East.”

Russia had limited its participation in the BRI although Putin always publicly stated his support for it. At the May 2017 Belt and Road Forum, he changed his position, stating his hope that China would connect the Northern Sea Route with the BRI and indicating greater involvement in the BRI. Wang Yi indicated Chinese interest in Putin’s proposal to work together with other countries in the Polar Silk Road—the first official discussion of Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. On January 26, 2018, "China’s Arctic Policy" mentioned the Polar Silk Road, calling China a Near-Arctic country that would participate in Arctic governance. Chinese situated the Polar Silk Road along the Northern Sea Route and spoke of Sino-Russian joint construction of this addition to the BRI, but Russians did not accept China’s Near-Arctic status, believing there were only two kinds of states, either Arctic or non-Arctic. Chinese called it an extension of China and Russia’s “Belt and Road Alliance,” and expected the Polar Silk Road would have a significant positive effect on the comprehensive revitalization of Heilongjiang.

The year 2019 appeared to be a time of critically assessing failures in the 2009-2018 program for cooperation. In 2019, China and Russia were exploring a more effective and sustainable pattern of Northeast-Far East border cooperation. A stage involved connecting the BRI and the Greater Eurasian Partnership with an agreement signed in May 2015, which Chinese argued was not implemented, to expand investment and trade, implement large-scale investment projects in infrastructure, jointly establish industrial parks and trans-border economic cooperation zones, and strengthen transportation infrastructure. Among the impediments were business communities that lacked mutual understanding and trust; Chinese companies felt they were prohibited from entering the downstream sectors in the Russian energy industry. One Chinese argued, Russia should further open the Russian Far East and change its view of the region, giving up “the phantom concept of the so-called ‘strategic backyard’ in its competition against the West or the ‘strategic frontier’ in the competition with China.” He complained that the low level of openness of the Russian Far East market is the main deterrent for Chinese entrepreneurs, but the same problem exists for Russian companies in China, said a Russian.

When Putin issued the September 2020 "National Plan for Social and Economic Development in the Far East by 2024 and Prospects for 2035," Chinese scrutinized it to determine how it would further Northeast-Far East integration and implementation of the “Program for development of Russian-Chinese cooperation in trade, economic and investment spheres in the Far East of the Russian Federation (2018-2024).” Russia has resisted involvement in China’s territorial maritime disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, although China’s push for a Sino-Russian maritime partnership was meant to get Moscow aligned with Beijing in them. Russian-Chinese joint construction of the Polar Silk Road in the Arctic became a discussion about this. China’s push for it, evident in the 2012-2013 Senkaku crisis, was more emphatically stated in 2021.

Sergey Radchenko and Mendee Jargalsaikhan, “Mongolia: Russia’s Best Friend in Asia?”

On September 3, 2019, Russia and Mongolia concluded a new treaty that put their bilateral relationship on a new footing. Russia has pledged (in perpetuity!) to “provide military-technical assistance” to Mongolia. The 2019 treaty could mark the beginning of the end of Mongolia’s famed third neighbor policy, which entailed a pro-active effort to develop close relations with Western Europe, the US, Japan, South Korea, India, and Turkey—the collective “third neighbor”—as an ostensible counterweight to overreliance on Russia and China. This represents an extraordinary comeback for Russia in Mongolia, a result of twenty years of the Kremlin’s unrelenting attention to the landlocked country.

In November 2000, Putin became the first Russian leader since Brezhnev to visit Mongolia. In 2003, Putin agreed to write off nearly 98% of Mongolia’s Soviet-era debt. In 2014, on the initiative of then-Mongolian President Elbegdorj, the leaders of Mongolia, China, and Russia met for the first time on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe. This “trilateral” format empowered Ulaanbaatar and represented a new, more activist phase in the Mongolian government’s effort to upgrade relations. The same year Russia finally introduced a visa-free regime with Mongolia, which led to an impressive revival of tourism and border trade and, in general, improved Moscow’s standing in Mongolian public opinion. Elbegdorj pragmatically embraced China and Russia, recognizing the promise of economic integration in the context of the BRI. He left a mixed legacy: while some of his moves clearly frustrated his neighbors, on the whole Mongolia’s standing in Beijing and Moscow continued to improve. His successor Battulga’s bromance with Putin became genuine and lasting, as the Mongolian leader consciously cultivated a tough-man image of “Mongolia’s Putin.”

Russia keeps pushing Ulaanbaatar to join the SCO, as it is also keen to have Mongolia onboard Putin’s economic integration project, the EEU and the Russia-led military alliance—the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But Ulaanbaatar has so far resisted such an intimate embrace. There is no denial, however, that Mongolia has been brought into much closer alignment with the northern neighbor.

This article explores current issues in Russian-Mongolian relations by focusing on the railroad, the question of natural resources, and the prospect of the construction of a gas pipeline across Mongolia. These three areas show the challenges Russia faces but also speak to Putin’s substantial track record in relation to Mongolia. The relationship has become much closer than anyone would have expected twenty years ago—certainly good news for Russia.

These cases demonstrate certain subterranean tensions in Sino-Russian relations—in particular, the friction over competing visions of Eurasian integration—and Moscow’s unrelenting effort to keep Mongolia strategically tied to its railroads and, by extension, its sphere of influence. Moscow’s effective control over the railroad helps assure its position in the country as an indispensable facilitator of regional integration, even if the economic engine driving this integration is actually China.  Russia has shown interest in exploiting Mongolia’s natural resources, though just as often the Kremlin’s strategy has been to deny these resources to others rather than exploit them on its own (the case with uranium is particularly interesting in this regard). As for the gas deal, Battulga and Putin, during their meeting on the sidelines of the September 2019 EEF in Vladivostok, reached an agreement in principle to construct a trans-Mongolian gas pipeline. The pipeline, called Power of Siberia – 2 (the trans-Mongolian section will be called Soyuz-Vostok), could take up to 50 billion cubic meters of gas to China, or 1.3 times the capacity of Power of Siberia, which has connected China and Russia since 2019. This would bring Mongolia a bonanza in transit fees, gas for domestic consumption, and thousands of construction and maintenance jobs, and, possibly, additional infrastructure development. The Greater Eurasian Partnership peddled by Putin since 2016 envisions the merger of the BRI and Eurasian Economic Union, and its extension to other regional actors, including India, Iran, and Pakistan. It has so far been confined primarily to hopeful proclamations; the Mongolian pipeline could be a game changer.

There are worries among some observers in Ulaanbaatar that Moscow may put Mongolia under political pressure in ways that it has done with Ukraine (which lies astride Russia’s gas transit routes). Worse still, the pipeline could allow China to add to its already overwhelming economic leverage to settle any disputes (such as over transit fees) to Beijing’s advantage.

In recent years Moscow has made a comeback, understanding, perhaps, Mongolia’s geopolitical importance. It is clear that the Kremlin regards Mongolia as an important piece in its Asian game. Its success there stands out in comparison to problems encountered elsewhere in the “Turn to the East.”

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