Analysis: Russia is trying to maintain its influence in Asia
Tensions between Russia, West have once again led Moscow to redirect its diplomatic activities, investments to Asia
In three questions, Prof. Dr. Ilyas Kemaloglu evaluates the Kremlin’s shift towards Asia in the fields of politics, economy, and energy in the face of the sanctions imposed by the West against Russia due to the developments in Ukraine for Anadolu’s Analysis Department.
1. Russia, a European or Asian state?
The one-year-old Russia-Ukraine war has led to significant changes at both regional and international levels. As the cards are being redistributed in the political, economic and energy spheres, the events of the past have become part of the new agendas of the countries and parallels have been drawn with historical events. In a statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that German tanks threatened the Russian border again after 80 years. Russia has turned towards Asia, as it has done several times throughout history.
The East Slavs, the ancestors of the Russians, have lived side by side with various Turkish tribes since the beginning of their history. If on one hand, the Slavs fought with the Avars, Khazars, Idyll Bulgars, Pechenegs, and Kipchaks for the north of the Black Sea, on the other hand, they developed commercial and cultural relations with them. Between 1242 and 1480, the Russian principalities remained under the rule of the Golden Horde, a Turkish-Islamic state, and were under its influence in many areas from diplomacy to law, from military to finance. Therefore, Russia was always the “other,” the “Easterner” in the eyes of the West. The fact that Russia sees itself as the heir of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) and the leader of the Orthodox world undoubtedly played a major role in this.
The Europeanization process that began in Russia with Peter I and the kinship ties between the Russian court and Western states did not change the perception of Russia in the eyes of the West. After World War II, during the Cold War, the Kremlin continued its search for allies in the East. After the USSR collapsed, Russia’s “identity question” continued to be debated among both politicians and scholars. Especially in the first years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule, the idea of Eurasianism gained renewed interest against the idea that Russia was pursuing a policy of capitulation toward the West. Independent of this, already in the first quarter of the 21st century, Moscow has increased its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, where the Soviets once had influence.
2. Why has Russia shifted towards Asia again?
There were several reasons for Russia’s interest in and increasing influence on the former Soviet geography and once-Soviet strongholds of the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Putin has demonstrated that he is the most important power in Central Asia and the Caucasus, arguing that being a global actor means being a regional power, and has minimized the presence of the US and the EU in the region. Parallel to Russia’s gaining strength in its immediate neighborhood, its interest in the Middle East, Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions has also increased.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has turned into a war between Russia and Western countries. While the West has provided military and material support for Ukraine, it has also imposed multiple sanctions on Russia. As a result, Russia has refocused its foreign policy on Asia, where it has been investing in recent years. The struggle with Western countries has brought Russia closer to China. Relations with Beijing are of great importance for Moscow in terms of eliminating political isolation and acting together in the international arena. Relations with Türkiye are also extremely important for Russia. Today, Türkiye is Russia’s window to the world in terms of transportation, tourism, trade, energy, and all other areas.
Russia is also developing multifaceted cooperation with India. India is purchasing important military technologies from Russia, in particular the S-400 missile defense system. Russia has also increased its military contacts with Iran and North Korea. In 2022, Putin visited Central Asian states as well as Iran and China. In the same year, Russian officials attended the Caspian Summit, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Collective Security Organization Treaty (CSTO) meeting and the Eurasian Economic Council’s meeting. It should also be noted that Russia is actively participating in the work of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and is trying to increase the importance of this organization. Therefore, while relations between the West and Russia are at a minimum level, Russia is trying to develop cooperation with Asian countries both bilaterally and as part of various organizations.
3. In which fields has Russia’s rapprochement with Asian countries taken place?
Moscow has shifted its trade relations and energy projects to Asia. In nine months of 2022, exports are estimated to have increased by 25% to $431 billion, while imports decreased by 16% to $180 billion. Russia’s most important trading partners at this time were China, Türkiye, India, and Kazakhstan. However, just a year ago, Russia’s most important trading partner was the EU. In 2022, the trade volume between Russia and China exceeded $190 billion (up 30% compared to the previous year). In 10 months of 2022, the trade volume between Türkiye and Russia reached a record high ($56.5 billion).
Energy is one of the areas where Russia has turned its attention to Asia. In 2022, Russia exported 15.5 billion cubic meters of gas to China via the Power of Siberia pipeline (in 2021 it was 10.4 billion). In 2023, the parties plan to increase this figure to about 23 billion, and in 2027-2028, the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline will be launched. In addition, Russia has increased its exports of compressed gas to Asian countries. Indeed, Japan and South Korea continue to import gas from Russia. Overall, Russia plans to increase natural gas exports to Asia-Pacific by up to 70 billion cubic meters in 2025. Russian and Turkish officials are also working on the establishment of a gas hub in Türkiye.
Throughout its history, Russia has attached importance to both Central Asia and Middle East regions as well as the Asia-Pacific region. The fact that the most important centers of Turcology and oriental studies in the world are located in Russia is one of the most important indicators of this. The importance of Asia for Russia increased even more during the periods when Moscow had problems with the West. Tensions between Russia and the West have once again led Moscow to direct its diplomatic activities and investments to Asia. Given the level of tensions with the West, this cooperation is likely to continue in a multifaceted and much more comprehensive manner.