The underlying priorities of Russia’s Greater East policy

Leading Orientalist Sergei Luzianin analyzes Russia’s policy on the East, which covers relations with 44 other countries. Decision-making in this area is shaped by several factors, ranging from the process of consolidating Russia’s Siberian regions to President Putin’s subjective attitudes.Russia is gradually changing the meaning and content of the term “Greater East” – a concept that includes 44 Asian states, within and beyond the former USSR, which maintain official relations with Moscow. The Eastern expanse connected with Russia is contracting. Moscow is prioritizing relations with nine states: Kazakhstan, India, China, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Syria. A second tier of priorities is also discernible: Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Indonesia. In each case, there are particular reasons for Moscow’s change in tactics regarding any particular country. For example, Japan has been deliberately taken out of the first group and moved to the periphery of Russia’s Eastern policy, due to Tokyo’s increasingly-frequent radical interpretations of territorial issues. On the other hand, Moscow has shifted Syria and Azerbaijan into the top-priority group. That’s because presidents Bashar Al-Assad and Ilkham Aliyev, despite pressure from the West, have maintained their policy on energy routes and other issues, consistent with the pro-Russian course set by their fathers. For Russia, these countries are also important “windows of influence” for the Caspian Sea region and the Middle East; especially Syria – the remnants of the Soviet legacy in that region.

A natural question arises here: what are the underlying priorities of Russia’s Greater East policy, aside from the open directives and official doctrines emanating from the presidential administration to be implemented by the Foreign Ministry? Obviously, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg; most of it – the mechanism shaping the decisions – remains beneath the surface. There may be four aspects influencing these priorities.

First: the process of consolidating the Siberian regions of Russia. The success or failure of Russia’s Far East policy depends directly on whether Russia’s Siberian territories, beyond the Urals, experience prosperity, stagnation, or crisis. This simple conclusion is stated every year at the annual Baikal Economic Forum in Irkutsk. Another axiom is that only prosperous, stable Russian regions can attract Asian investment. Unfortunately, this description does not apply to Primorye (the Maritime territory), the Khabarovsk territory, the Trans-Baikal zone, or the Irkutsk region. The current enlargement of the Krasnoyarsk territory is an important development. The model being created by Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin could become not only a barrier to Asian expansion, but an option for qualitative enhancement of Russia’s Far East policy via mutually advantageous cooperation with Asia-Pacific countries.

Second: the evolution of Russian lobbying connected with the East. In the Yeltsin era, the dominant forces were energy companies which now either no longer exist in their previous form (YUKOS) or have been restructured and changed their priorities. The influence of the Russian military-industrial complex is also limited; to all appearances, it has already used up its main resources with regard to China and India. Given that Europe’s embargo on arms sales to China will soon be lifted, and competition in the Chinese arms market will intensify, the results of the Russian defense sector’s lobbying in this area are likely to be negligible.

The steady rise in oil prices, along with the state-owned or “semi-state” status of most energy companies, make the fuel and energy sector the main lobbying force in Eastern policy. At present, however, these companies are primarily interested in developing existing energy transport routes to the West. The development prospects of routes in the Far East remain uncertain. A relatively new development is the interest shown by a number of Russian companies in Southern routes and sources of oil, gas, and electricity: Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. Even here, however, much remains at the stage of plans and projects.

Third: President Vladimir Putin’s subjective impressions of the West and the East. This is only an assumption, but in terms of his attitudes, Putin seems more open to the West than to the East. He worked in Europe for some time, and he’s well aware of what can and cannot be expected from Europe. He appears to be “psychologically closer” to Western leaders – Gerhard Schroeder, George W. Bush, and others – than to Eastern leaders such as Hu Jintao, Junichiro Koizumi, or Mohammad Hatami. This does not mean that Putin is initiating the pro-West policy course that was so popular in Russia in the early 1990s. Officially, Russia – as a Eurasian power – maintains that the Western and Eastern directions have equal priority. Yet it cannot be ruled out that these psychological nuances are picked up by Putin’s close associates and sometimes cautiously transformed into specific diplomatic moves or changes of emphasis in foreign policy.

Fourth: the gradual erosion of the concepts of “far abroad” and “near abroad” for Russia. Due to the crisis in the CIS and other processes, the “near abroad” may in future be transformed to include all geographically adjacent countries, both Eastern and Western. In that case, the term would become more of a formality, losing the strict ideological connotation of “post-Soviet,” and might in theory encompass all of Russia’s neighbor-states from Belarus to Japan.

The problem of reconciling the Western and Eastern priorities in Russian foreign policy may arise unexpectedly in the course of the forthcoming CIS and Russia-European Union summits in Moscow. The overall leitmotif of the CIS summit concerns preserving the CIS structure in its present form, and finding some new resources – which have almost been exhausted, apparently. And for the Russia-EU summit, in addition to official declarations about the “four areas of cooperation” in Russian-European integration, Russia’s covert agenda might involve an attempt to make the summit “slightly” anti-Ukrainian: showing Kiev which country Europe really prefers as a partner for friendship and integration. On the other hand, Eastern directions in foreign policy will be strengthened by the June summit for the foreign affairs ministers of Russia, China, and India in Vladivostok, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization heads of state summit, scheduled for July 4-5 in Astana.