Revisiting Russia’s “Turn to the East” amid the Ukraine War
A decade after Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would “Turn to the East,” he invaded Ukraine in the largest land war in the West since World War II. What is the impact of his 2022 decision on Russia’s agenda for Asia? How has Russia’s approach to Central Asia, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula changed in light of the war in the West? This set of three essays puts the early signs of spillover from the war and the sanctions it evoked into the context of earlier Russian thinking in the aftermath of Putin’s 2012 refocus on the East.
Central Asia claims pride of place. After all, the five former republics of the Soviet Union bear striking resemblance to Ukraine as reminders to Putin of the “greatest tragedy of the twentieth century”—the loss of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan resembles Ukraine in having a large Russian population concentrated close to the border of the Russian Federation, even as signs of de-Russification are growing. In Central Asia, the external factor is China, not the EU or the United States. While the year 2022 began with what was called a “color revolution” there, reminiscent of the “color revolution” Putin attributed to the West in Ukraine, China was also wary. Sino-Russian ties pose problems for coordination in Central Asia, less so than Russo-US ties in Europe but still significant.
Russia is driven by much the same mindset seen in its invasion of Ukraine: jealous of its “unique” rights and hostile to perceived infringements, in this case by China; disrespectful of sovereign decisions there; prone to use the pretext of peacekeeping operations to interfere in a manner entirely different from actual peacekeeping forces; and ready to strain great power relations, even with its closest partner, China. Clearly, the image here of Sino-Russian relations in general and on Central Asia in particular is not alliance-like.
The crux of the matter is Putin’s growing hubris that Moscow is capable of reestablishing its dominance if not total control over states formerly in the Soviet Union. In January, he was emboldened by a quick “peacekeeping” foray into Kazakhstan, which drew praise in Russia for altering the balance between Russia and China in that critical country. A month later Putin went further uninvited in Ukraine. While China did not object in Central Asia and repeated Russia’s justifications for anti-West action in the Ukraine war, these were not coordinated actions. The upshot was that China was left in a greatly weakened position and could not be pleased at this situation.
Japan and South Korea raise similar challenges for Moscow as allies of the United States, leading to the same hostile label in 2022 as “unfriendly.” Over the previous decade, Moscow cozied up to one and then the other, taking advantage of their respective thirsts for support: in Tokyo aimed at a deal to recover two or more islands of the “Northern Territories”; and in Seoul to line up support to engage Pyongyang in a process that could lead to reunification. Territorial aspirations worked in Russia’s favor, but Putin saw close alliances with the United States as reason to up the pressure on both countries over the decade.
The Putin-Abe personal relationship shaped bilateral relations to 2020, but already in the final stage there was growing skepticism on both sides. Russians did not trust Suga Yoshihide or Kishida Fumio, the next two prime ministers, to sustain the relationship. In February 2022, when Kishida joined in G7 sanctions, Putin’s reaction was harsh. We detail how ties were breaking down, leading to a confrontational outcome.
Whereas the US and China loomed large in Russian ties to both Japan and South Korea, the latter case injected a third factor into the equation—North Korea. Moscow was not opposed to playing the “Pyongyang card” to remind Seoul of the price of its close alliance with Washington. With the war in Ukraine exposing a sharp rift between Russia and the Republic of Korea and strong support for Russia from the DPRK, the gap widened abruptly, as it did for Japan as well.
Comparisons of Russian Thinking toward Asia
In its snubbing of Abe’s unparalleled wooing, his tilt to North Korea despite the dogged pursuit of South Korean leaders on the right and the left, and his move to send a message to Central Asia and China alike by dispatching “peacekeepers” to Kazakhstan, Putin has shown a compulsion to flaunt Russian power at the price of strategic thinking about Russia’s long-term interests in Asia. The Soviet legacy of going it alone, failing to capture on the dynamism of Asia, endures.
Russia’s quasi-alliance with China appears to belie such a negative verdict. After all, Moscow has joined with the rising power of Asia, unlike its past hostility to Japan, when it was the rising power and its dogged demonization of China in the 1970s to mid-80s when it could have provided some balance of power. Has Putin not learned the lesson of isolation in Asia in line with trumpeting his “Turn to the East” breakthrough?
In fact, Putin and Xi Jinping, while showcasing close personal ties, play a “cat and mouse” game with little trust. Central Asia is the prime battlefield of jockeying for power against the other. Behind a partnership with “no limits,” there is a rivalry with scant trust. Putin is resistant to the BRI, Xi pays lip service to the Greater Eurasian Partnership, and they vie in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia for a sphere of influence.
Putin benefits from the fact that Xi prioritizes other arenas for expanding China’s influence and welcomes Putin’s alienation of the US, Japan, and South Korea. If the Ukraine war tests Chinese patience with Putin’s rash decisions and counterproductive aggression, it is not sufficient cause to contribute to a humiliation of China’s best bulwark against the US-led global order.
To a degree, China benefits from Russia’s alienation of all sides in Asia except China. Central Asian states need China more for balance, sensing vulnerability as Russia attacks Ukraine for reasons that could apply to them. Japan and South Korea are discouraged from efforts to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, Moscow is more dependent. Yet, by isolating Russia Putin is casting a shadow on China too, rallying states behind the US. This is a net loss for China and Russia.
Gaye Christofferson, “Russian Thinking about CSTO Peacekeeping: Central Asia, China, and the Ukraine War”
Christofferson describes a contentious Sino-Russian relationship in Central Asia. Russia pressed for the EAEU, while China advanced the BRI. The two were officially linked during the May 2015 visit by Xi Jinping to Moscow, but there has not been a successful docking. The EAEU was meant to block Chinese economic penetration of Central Asia but was unsuccessful as Beijing treated it as a corridor for the BRI. Then Russia proposed the Greater Eurasian Partnership, a larger strategy to counterbalance China, meant to show Russia as taking the initiative in the post-Soviet space of Central Asia, treated as the center of a larger Eurasian regional architecture linked to the SCO and ASEAN.
Christofferson focuses on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which was meant to function as a post-Soviet security mechanism for peacekeeping, and cooperation with China. She takes the Ukraine crisis as a case study of its viability as a peacekeeping organization. Putin expected the CSTO to help Moscow create a Russian sphere of influence among post-Soviet states. Additionally, Putin hoped to make the CSTO a basis for resistance to NATO and NATO’s eastward expansion, a collective security arrangement to form a Eurasian regional order, an alternative to the Western liberal order. The rationale for peacekeeping in the post-Soviet space is that Russia has a duty to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking populations living there. It had this responsibility since the international community was not interested in participating in peacekeeping in this space.
Chinese analysts have noted Moscow’s stress on exerting influence over the post-Soviet space as a means to regain its status as a great power, and Chinese recognize that the mechanisms used to consolidate its leadership in Central Asia are the CSTO and the EAEU. Yet, they perceive tension between ambitions to integrate and lead the post-Soviet states, and those states’ determination to consolidate their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In May 2018, Xi Jinping tried to incorporate the SCO into the BRI at the SCO’s Tianjin meeting, which would have given BRI a political framework. Xi’s initiative was vetoed by India. Cooperating with the CSTO might institutionalize further a political framework for Central Asia. It would have initiated China’s security role in the region in a way that would not threaten Moscow or Central Asian countries. Moscow had frowned on China’s new military facility in Tajikistan and also Chinese bilateral military exercises with Central Asian states.
The prospect of joint peacekeeping leads to questions about Russian concepts of peacekeeping compared to Chinese concepts. The 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan had led to discussion of China-CSTO relations in the context of setting up a buffer zone around Afghanistan, patrolled by the CSTO, to protect Central Asia and Xinjiang. Some Chinese analysts suggested China could coordinate with, if not participate in, the CSTO patrols of the buffer zone, while others thought it was not in China’s interest to officially take part. Putin added an amendment to the CSTO peacekeeping agreement that CSTO would be under the leadership of a “coordinating state.” In January 2022, Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed support for cooperation between the CSTO and the SCO in relation to the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, preferring to work through the SCO rather than China-CSTO relations.
When the CSTO carried out a peacekeeping mission for the first time in January 2022 in Kazakhstan., China was sidelined. The Russian intervention in domestic riots was understood by both Russians and Chinese to have shifted the balance within Kazakhstan toward Moscow. Russian analysts were quick to point out this transformation and to emphasize that Chinese investments in Central Asia required Russian protection. Trenin even situated the Kazakh crisis in a larger transformation by Moscow, no longer tolerating post-Soviet states’ multi-vector diplomacy. He warned that Moscow is rebuilding itself as the leading great power in the post-Soviet space, and that “the geopolitical retreat that Russia began three decades ago has ended, and a new policy of selective expansion based on Russia’s national interests has commenced.”
Participating in 30 UN missions. China has developed principles for peacekeeping that include UN Security Council control of PKO, host state consent to PKO, the non-use of force except in self-defense, the need to retain impartiality, and adhere to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. In contrast, Putin has dispatched Russian armed forces for overseas missions in Georgia, Syria, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, which he called peacekeeping missions, but lack the legitimacy of UN PKO and are not recognized as peacekeeping missions. A report found Russian peacekeeping driven by geostrategic interests and global political ambitions with behavioral patterns reflecting Russian strategic culture, all at odds with UN principles. Moscow preferred “weak, corrupt, conflict-ridden, and economically dependent states over which Moscow can exert leverage.” The CSTO and EAEU were created for this purpose.
The Kazakh PKO was meant to demonstrate to China that Russia had strategic and cultural influence in Central Asia. China had expected Central Asia to go through a process of de-Russification that would reduce Russian cultural influence and allow for larger Chinese economic influence. The UN does not recognize Russia’s right to a sphere of influence in post-Soviet states, nor a right to dispatch Russian peacekeepers to post-Soviet states.
Russian style peacekeeping did not gain international legitimacy as the world rejected Russia’s claim to peacekeeping in its Ukraine invasion. To bolster the Ukrainian military invasion as a peacekeeping mission under CSTO auspices, Putin sought diplomatic support and troop contributions from Central Asian states before and after hostilities had begun, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and also Belarus, all members of the CSTO. On March 2, 2022, in a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. CSTO members Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained, indicating their lack of support.
China weighed its options on how to respond. Xi Jinping did not condemn the Ukraine war, repeated Russian disinformation, and tried to take a neutral position. But Chinese were deeply divided, debating whether the invasion was good or bad for China. In December 2021, Jia Qingguo had argued that China should focus on comprehensive security, which includes economic security, health security, and food security, rather than a narrow focus on military security. He brought up the Soviet Union as an example of overemphasizing military security. In Jia’s criticism of Chinese hawks, he mentioned that the Soviet Union had collapsed because it had put military expansion over long-term comprehensive security.
Chinese continued to issue conflicting statements. The ineptness of the Russian invasion in Ukraine called into question whether Moscow could successfully maintain security in the post-Soviet space, and whether China should be associated with it in such organizations as the CSTO. Chinese were most concerned with how to avoid being negatively impacted by the economic sanctions placed on Russia by the UN, the EU and the U.S.
The future of the CSTO is uncertain. Central Asian CSTO members have not accepted Russia as its “coordinating state.” All the post-Soviet CSTO states have taken lessons from the Ukraine invasion, distrustful of ambitions to place them in a Russian sphere of influence. Kazakhstan in particular, has infuriated Putin by remaining neutral in the Ukraine war. It stated that it respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine, did not recognize Crimea as Russian territory nor the independence of the Russia-backed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and would comply only with decisions made by the Security Council. Kazakhstan worries that Putin may target it next as Putin follows a similar pattern to the Ukraine invasion, claiming that Kazakhstan was not a real state, that Kazakhstan must remain within the Russian world, and that the Russian minority in Kazakhstan is being mistreated.
Although Kazakhstan has been careful not to antagonize Putin, its neutrality has resulted in it coming under Russian pressure. The Kazakh Defense Ministry announced it would not hold the traditional May 9 Victory Day parade in 2022. In response, a prominent Russian TV personality claimed Kazakhstan was “ungrateful” and “sly,” failing to show its support for Russia. He further stated ““Kazakhs, what kind of ingratitude do you call this?… Look carefully at what is happening in Ukraine… If you think that you can get away with trying to be so cunning, and imagine that nothing will happen to you, you are mistaken.” The Kazakh Foreign Ministry viewed his threat as having Kremlin backing and said he was banned from Kazakhstan.
During the Ukraine invasion, Beijing appeared to have recalibrated as Chinese domestic debates continued. The crisis has hurt Chinese interests by undermining Ukraine’s participation in the BRI as a supplier of grain and a link for China to Europe. Russian disregard for economic consequences has driven a wedge between it and China.
Putin’s multiple and contradictory goals for the CSTO—to act as a peacekeeping organization working with the UN, to help Moscow establish a sphere of influence in post-Soviet states, and to act as a counterweight to NATO—were not compatible. Faced with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Central Asian CSTO states refused to participate. The CSTO appeared less and less likely to be the security mechanism for Putin’s vision of a Greater Eurasian Partnership led by Moscow.
James D. J. Brown, “Russia “Turns to the East” yet away from Japan (2012-2022)”
It was inevitable that China would be Russia’s most important partner in the “Turn to the East,” which began to receive more attention from the time of the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012. However, to avoid simply a “turn to China” it was essential for Russia to develop relations with other East Asian countries. Japan, as East Asia’s second-largest economic power, was the obvious choice. When Putin spoke of settling the longstanding territorial dispute by means of a “hikiwake,” meaning a draw in Japanese, this was taken by many as a sign that Putin was willing to return two of the four Southern Kuril islands. A new energy to Russia-Japan relations owed much to Abe Shinzo, who enthusiastically embraced the agenda of building closer relations with Russia. However, looking back over the decade that has now passed since Putin’s call for a new start, it is clear that bilateral relations have not become markedly better. Indeed, economic ties continue to underwhelm, political frictions are recurrent, and security tensions are increasing. The territorial dispute also seems much further from resolution than it did in 2012.
To explain the shift in Russian thinking, which accounts for these failures, Brown stresses four main points: (1) the negative impact that the deterioration of Russia-US relations had on ties between Moscow and Tokyo; (2) Russian disappointment at the scale of economic cooperation offered by Japan; (3) Russia’s increased closeness to China, including alignment on issues of historical memory in East Asia; and (4) Moscow’s perception of Japanese unreliability due to changes in Tokyo’s attitude towards Russia following Abe’s departure from office. Yet, the Ukraine War brought home that the deepest cause was Putin’s mindset centered on a “New Cold War,” in which Japan stood on the opposite side.
The decade from 2012 began with the Russian leadership expressing hope of Japan playing a central role in Russia’s “Turn to the East,” yet ended with Russia increasingly turning away from Japan. This article has demonstrated that the change in Moscow’s attitude was driven by the deterioration of Russia-US relations and the knock-on effect this had on ties between Russia and Japan. Additional factors were Moscow’s disappointment at the modest scale of Japan’s economic cooperation, as well as Russia’s increased closeness to China, which encouraged Moscow to echo Beijing’s criticism of Japan over historical issues related to the Second World War. This negative trend was already discernible in 2019. It then became more apparent under Abe’s successors, who were less eager to cultivate friendly relations with Putin.
Given this recent history, what predictions can be made about the future of Russian thinking about Japan? From the above, it is clear that the role of the United States is key. It was the hope of encouraging Tokyo to show more independence from Washington that informed the Putin administration’s initial desire for engagement in 2012. It was then annoyance at Japan’s alignment with the United States in imposing sanctions (albeit half-hearted ones) in 2014 that began to sour Moscow’s attitude. The Kremlin’s frustration later grew as the Japanese government eagerly deepened security cooperation with Washington and enthusiastically promoted security architecture, such as the Quad, that is designed to reinforce US power in the Indo-Pacific.
The other factors are important too, yet these are subordinate to the impact of US-Russia tensions. Specifically, Japanese economic engagement with Russia is held back in part by the perceived risk of being caught up in ever-tightening US sanctions. Likewise, Russia’s increased closeness to China is a direct product of its post-2014 isolation from the West. Lastly, one of the reasons why most Japanese leaders are reluctant to prioritize relations with Putin is the fear of criticism from the White House. Abe was an outlier in this regard. As an unusually strong Japanese prime minister, he was freer to pursue his own foreign policy agenda. In addition, when Abe pushed the “new approach” to relations with Russia in 2016, he was faced by Obama, who was in his final months in office and could be safely ignored. Since Donald Trump was an advocate of engagement with Putin, Abe was also safe from criticism on this point for the duration of his presidency.
A fundamental positive shift in Russian thinking about Japan only seems possible in two scenarios. The first would be a major improvement in relations between Russia and the United States since this would render Japan’s close alignment with the US less problematic from Moscow’s perspective. The second would be a significant distancing of Japan from its US ally. Neither of these appear remotely likely at present. As such, during the next ten years, irrespective of the broader development of Russia’s “Turn to the East,” it is unlikely to feature a significant turn towards Japan. This is a problem for both sides. Japan is left no closer to resolving the territorial dispute. It must also contend with unsettled relations on its northern frontier at a time when it needs to concentrate its attention and security resources on China and North Korea. Meanwhile, for Russia, “a Turn to the East” without Japan cannot be regarded as a success, not least because it leaves Russia overly dependent on China and without a potentially key investment partner for the development of the Russian Far East.
Gilbert Rozman, “Russian Thinking about the Korean Peninsula and the US Role There over a Decade”
The Korean Peninsula is, arguably, the bellwether for Russia’s post-Cold War thinking on East Asia and the US role there. Moscow watched aghast in the 1990s after it had been marginalized in North Korea, where it had established and supported a regime for more than four decades. It struggled in the 2000s with a secondary role in the Six-Party Talks aimed at resolving the issues critical to the North’s future. Only after the breakdown of those talks did the debate begin in earnest on how the peninsula fits into Russia’s regional strategy. Second only to China, Putin’s “Turn to the East” rests on raising his country’s voice there in security, economics, and identity. North Korea was a critical part of the Soviet sphere of influence, and it remains central to designs for Russia’s Asia revival.
The context for Russian thinking about the Korean Peninsula changed abruptly in February 2022 when Putin invaded Ukraine, but it had shifted already in stages over a decade. Three factors were decisive. First, Putin’s ideological drift toward Soviet-era thinking about history, empire, and authoritarianism meant that affinity with North Korea grew stronger. Second, Putin’s antipathy toward the United States and the West put South Korea, as a US ally, in a more negative light. Third, Putin’s growing affinity with China led to disregard for multilat4ralism in Asia in favor of joint or parallel efforts to transform the region, including, first and foremost, the Korean Peninsula. The Ukraine war reinforced these orientations as an outgrowth of them too.
As much as Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Initiative and Moon Jae-in’s New Northern Policy tried to keep Putin focused on the benefits of cooperating with Seoul, imagery of long-term corridors across the Korean Peninsula had no assured payoff, while Putin strove for regional transformation. The message from Moscow to Seoul was mixed. Park Geun-hye’s trustpolitik is better than Lee Myung-bak’s fruitless North Korean policy, but much more is needed, especially through joint economic projects involving Russia. Not only must economic policy change, so too must geopolitical priorities and pro-Western illusions that had only served to isolate the North. The barely concealed warning to Seoul was if it did not change, Moscow would tilt to Pyongyang. Indeed, Seoul did seek to keep Moscow’s interest in a north-south corridor alive and did not directly apply sanctions in 2014, unlike Tokyo as part of the G7, but that did not satisfy Putin. He kept leaning closer to Pyongyang.
Over a decade, Putin’s deeper embrace of China and intensified hostility to the United States reverberated in warming ties to Pyongyang and increasing wariness of Seoul. The timeline was affected by upbeat moods under new South Korean presidents and by setbacks in ties with North Korea when its new president held back from diplomacy and when, having outsourced to China Russia’s approach to Security Council sanctions, it angered Kim Jong-un in 2017. Yet by the early 2020s Moscow had found the approach most in accord with the trend of its earlier thinking: a firm meeting of the minds with Beijing, maximum opposition to the US position on the Korean Peninsula, support for Pyongyang while waiting for an opening to bypass sanctions, and increasingly overt pressure on Seoul, from 2022 no longer even attempting to drive a wedge between it and Washington.
The situation in 2022 aggravated the divide between Moscow and Seoul and held promise for Pyongyang. No matter how provocative North Korea’s missile tests were seen in Seoul and Washington, Moscow along with Beijing refused to take action at the Security Council for violations of past resolutions. The North’s votes in the General Assembly and elsewhere were among the few supportive of Russia, unlike China’s abstentions. South Korea’s sanctions were deemed “unfriendly.” If to 2022 a semblance of optimism prevailed, Russian-ROK ties were in freefall.