Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects Russia’s attention towards Asia in his fifth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
In 2018, former Putin aide Vladislav Surkov wrote that "Russia's epic journey toward the West … [after] numerous fruitless attempts to become part of western civilization" had concluded. If this in indeed true, then the nation’s borders dictate that increased interest in Asia, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan, is likely over the coming decades.
China’s future as a great power and its reach west through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) threaten Russia’s influence in the region as a whole. Cooperation between China and Russia in the Western and Central Asian states could be a regional stabilizing force if economic and security agendas can be harmonized. On the other hand, these agendas could lead to flashpoints along Russia’s entire southern border if integration is resisted. Either way, Moscow’s game in Asia will assuredly affect the nation’s identity and regional alignment into the future.
Russia is keenly aware of its need to have a non-hostile relationship with China. While it is possible that a more complete alliance could form, the mid-20th century psychology of great power politics remains alive and well in Moscow. It is therefore more likely that the coming decades will see a warm-yet-wary relationship emerge with Beijing. In this future, Russia will play a careful game of reinforcing its security and economic partnerships with China while engaging in bilateral relationships with India and Southeast Asian nations as a hedge. Russia will also take advantage of its natural gift as the wide belt of land that separates China and all other nations to its South from direct access to the Arctic.
As interest in the northern pole heats up and Siberia becomes more inhabitable, Russia will likely take full advantage of the desire for influence in the region. Moscow may begin to welcome an increasing number of immigrants from India and elsewhere into its Far East in order to balance out the increasing presence of Chinese workers and reap the rewards of diverse labor force. This could in time start to tip the scales of economic power in Russia’s favor. However, at least in the coming few years, Moscow will be more focused on holding its ground as an energy enabler and economic beneficiary of the Chinese powerhouse.
Without friendly relations between Russia and China, Western and Central Asia could become a hotter geo-economic, if not literal, warzone. Chinese political influence through the BRI buildout could lead a threatened Moscow to push neighbors like Kazakhstan to pick a side. This is a future in which Asia’s middle increasingly resents the exploitative mindset of its behemoth neighbors, resists integration into this different flavor of globalization, and descends into fracture and volatility. Weakened economic relationships along its southern border, along with the need to secure it, could force a reluctant Russian reunion with Europe. However, Moscow will not be keen on making the concessions to the West that would likely be necessary.
Asia has long been a key arena of Russian foreign policy but is likely to now become the primary focus as an Asian Century looms. It remains unclear what course this future will follow, whether more cooperative or competitive. Cultural differences will continue to be a wedge between still-European Moscow and its southeastern neighbors, but over time an alignment of values could add fuel to the fire of Asia’s global growth. On the other hand, mismanagement of this partnership could serve to ignite conflicts in the unstable Central and Western Asian region. Regardless, if an Asian Century is inevitable, Russia may come to belong more and more to the continent over the next few decades.