In his speech at the thirteenth annual Sochi Investment Forum last September, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced Russia’s new strategy in Asia. Three objectives are at the core of this strategy: confidence building between Russia and Asian countries, increased Russian involvement in regional affairs, and a greater focus on the Asian-Pacific states as Russia’s partners in the spheres of modern technology and finance.

Petr Topychkanov
Topychkanov was a fellow in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.
More >

According to Medvedev, this strategy is in line with Moscow’s policy of rapprochement with Asian countries, which it has conducted for over ten years. But the previous accent on the “economic pivot” to Asia is now increasingly to be complemented by a new attention to political questions, particularly through confidence building exercises and participation in various regional associations. However, just as in the past, Russia is still not as active in the Asia-Pacific as other countries in the region expect it to be, which the prime minister also pointed out in his comments in Sochi.

The current political crisis in Russia’s relations with the West, which was triggered by the events in Ukraine, gives a strong impetus to Russian rapprochement with Asian countries. However, many analysts are of the opinion that no significant progress in this area has been achieved as of yet. This may be explained as resulting from difficulties associated with refocusing the Russian economy under conditions of sanctions and other unfavorable trends. Alternatively, one could take comfort in the idea that Russia’s efforts to enhance its relations with the Asia-Pacific states will produce results a few years down the line. Such rationalizations would make sense if the turn toward Asia were actually a new vector in Russia’s foreign policy and commerce.

But given Medvedev’s statement that Moscow has already been oriented toward Asia for over ten years, one must look for more profound explanations for the lack of progress, ranging from human resources to culture and psychology. President Putin reflected the self-identification of most members of the Russian elite when he stated that “Russia is an integral and organic part of the Great Europe, the broad European civilization. Our citizens conceive of themselves as Europeans.”

Among other underlying causes of the last decade of missed Asian opportunities is the lack of strategic vision in the region. It is quite telling that presidential and government speechwriters, followed by journalists and experts of various stripes, have adopted the Russian translation of the English-language term “pivot to Asia,” which originally referred to a strategy announced by the White House in 2010.

Russian policy analysis and strategy formulation in the Asia-Pacific, where the country has maintained its presence for several centuries, quite often revolves around Western concepts and approaches rather than drawing on Russia’s own wealth of experience. This should come as no surprise, though, as fewer and fewer specialists responsible for the analytical component of Russia’s Asia and Asia-Pacific policy are familiar with the history of Russian relations with Asian countries, even the relatively recent history. Not many of these specialists speak Asian languages. This is even more clearly true in the case of the expert and media communities.

  • Petr Topychkanov