Written by Alex Calvo.

While the US ‘Pivot to the Pacific’ features regularly in media and academic discourses, we hear much less about Russia’s own turn towards the great ocean. Yet, isn’t Moscow also interested in paying more attention in that direction? A number of reasons may prompt us to answer the question in the affirmative, including a perceived need to diversify away from Europe, made the more urgent by the current clash over the Ukraine and ensuing US and EU sanctions. Even without this powerful reason, Russia has long desired to achieve a more balanced set of foreign relations, underpinning a long-wished-for greater domestic geographical diversification. While the main challenges to that policy goal remain formidable, there is ample evidence that Russia is indeed trying to expand her Pacific footprint. Furthermore, although relations with China remain important at many levels, not least of which the natural gas trade, by engaging a wide range of actors Moscow seems to be trying to avoid excessive reliance on Beijing.

A look at Russia’s geography reveals a continent-sized country between the Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Pacific, in a similar way to the United States. However, while the similarities do not end there, there are some key differences. One is that, while the US Pacific Coast is home to some major cities, a significant portion of her population, and key industries, the Russian Far East remains the country’s poor cousin, haunted by a weak demography and lack of infrastructure. Thus while the history of Russia, just like that of America, is the history of expansion towards the open seas, with figures like Peter the Great and Mahan as their great apostles, geography has been much kinder to the United States, in terms for example of navigable rivers and a more benign climate, which to some extent explains the very different demographic and economic outlooks between the two countries’ Pacific coasts. Furthermore, while the United States did not stop expanding once she reached the open waters of the Pacific, incorporating Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines, Russia sold Alaska, and later just gained a foothold in the Southern Kuriles.

Contemporary Russia is thus a geographically deeply imbalanced country, from different perspectives, and it thus comes as no surprise that successive governments and regimes have strived to open up the Russian Far East, developing its infrastructures and industries, in a bid not only to benefit the wider national economy but to reinforce national security, and in particular prevent Chinese encroachment. This latter aspect is not easy to research on open sources, since it amounts to a taboo on both sides of the border, even more so under the current emphasis on their bilateral relationship. However, although documents like Russia’s latest military doctrine avoid referring to China as a potential enemy, and neither Moscow nor Beijing delve into potential historical disputes such as the Russian conquest of Manchu territory, there are strong reasons to suspect that Sino-Russian relations are much more complex than the official version would make us believe.

This may explain, at least in part, the shape of Russia’s “Pivot”. On the one hand, Moscow signed two very important natural gas deals with Beijing last year, while both at the political and economic level China seemed to provide Russia with an alternative to a European continent that has reacted to the Ukrainian crisis with a newly-found resolve to confront Putin. On the other hand, however, Russia seems aware of the dangers of overreliance on China. Ideally, Moscow would rather see expanded trade and investment links with a wide range of countries in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. In the case of energy, diversifying away from Europe and towards the Pacific is a “fairly long-standing aspiration”, in the words of Dr. Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School. A problem is that whereas infrastructure connecting Russia to Europe is extensive, dating back to Soviet times, the same cannot be said about Asia. Despite such obstacles, is there evidence that Moscow is indeed pursuing a “multi-vector” policy toward the Asia-Pacific Region? Let us briefly examine some of the evidence.

First of all, in the case of Japan, while relations remain mired by the dispute over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles, and Tokyo has not much room for manoeuvre given the tensions between Russia and the West, Russia remains interested in that country as energy consumer and source of capital and technology for her Far East. Fukushima and its aftermath prompted a spike in Japanese imports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG), roughly accounting for 10 percent of Tokyo’s purchases. Japan is the largest LNG importer in the world. Furthermore, there is talk of building a pipeline between the two countries, although the Ukraine’s shadow is long, and relations with Moscow remain one of the most vexed foreign affairs dossiers for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a complex ballet, Japan needs diversification and splitting Russia and China, yet depends on US support to resist the latter in the East China Sea, thus restricting the scope to engage Moscow.

Things may perhaps seem less complex concerning Vietnam and Russia, with the latter a traditional patron of Hanoi, playing an essential role in her naval rearmament. In December last year the fifth Russian-made Kilo-class submarine bought by Vietnam was launched, with a sixth to go. Furthermore, state-owed PetroVietnam is partnering with Gazprom-Neft to develop the Dolginskoye field in the Pechora Sea, while Moscow refrains from supporting Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea.

Indo-Russian relations remain strong, despite New Delhi’s rapprochement with Washington and greater range of foreign relations underpinned by Modi’s pragmatism. Yet, just like India has, in Professor Brahma Chellaney’s words, moved “from nonaligned to multialigned”, Russia is not shy either in engaging traditional rivals like Pakistan, or countries with which she has a more positive history of cooperation, such as Indonesia. In the case of Pakistan, this is clear from Moscow’s lifting of her arms embargo, and current negotiations to supply Mi-35 helicopters. With regard to Indonesia, Russia is providing a wide range of modern technology in support of her maritime sector, a priority under new President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Despite some appearances to the contrary, Asia’s international relations architecture remains much more polyhedric and fluid than that in Europe.

Finally, we should mention that while it is traditionally said that Russia tends to stress “hard” rather than “soft power”, Moscow has been working hard to promote the latter in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, this being an essential component of her own “pivot”. Chief among the latest developments is the Russian contribution to the search for the crashed AirAsia Flight 850Collin Koh, associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore) believes that “For the Russians … it is a very good opportunity to showcase some of their capabilities”, making it possible to “build some goodwill with Indonesia”.

Thus, we can see how we can indeed talk about Russia’s own “Pivot to the Pacific”, based on both geoeconomic and geopolitical imperatives, with Moscow engaging a wide variety of actors, chief among them China yet careful not to become over-reliant on the Asian giant.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), he is writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by U.S. 7th Fleet/Wikimedia Commons.