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June 28, 2022

Russia: The Asian pivot

Since the USA defined, at the beginning of 2012, the so-called ‘Asian pivot’ – in fact a calibration of the forces dispatched globally by this superpower between Europe and Asia, with the emphasis due to fall on this continent for several decades to come – the analyses made by experts have not ceased investigating the motivation of this grand strategy shift. From the fact that Europe lost its systemic centrality held for the last five centuries to the obvious truth that Asia became the economic driver of the planet, from the spectacular growth of China and its aspiration, in the Westphalian logic, to position itself at the top of the system of states, such analyses insist on the fact that the American ‘pivot’ must define the focal point of the 21st Century. Many analyses ask if the respective movement is meant to keep China at bay – the famous strategic concept of ‘containment’ – or to secure presence and leadership in a region that has a frantic economic development and represents an immediate vicinity of the USA (the other coast of the Pacific) where new zones of turbulence and conflict are taking shape, with certain systemic impact.
Fewer analyses focus on the ‘movements’ made by other major actors of the planet, including local, but also global ones. Missing are the question and, especially, its due answers: how will other big powers react to the new strategy of the USA? Especially as it defines, as mentioned previously the gravity centre of systemic policy in the 21st Century. Of course, the political and military evolutions of China in this perspective are thoroughly presented, along with other similar reactions of regional players, especially those who have conflicts with Beijing in the area of the East and South China Seas. But what are doing, or will do Europe and Russia is less present in analysts’ attention. On one hand, as far as Europe is concerned, it is worth mentioning that the present financial-economic crisis has such a scale that it paralyses such expected reactions, and when it comes to Russia, international media focus on the evolution of its internal political system, seen as a variant of antidemocratic authoritarianism. On the other hand, it is obvious that ongoing phenomena – such as the situation in Syria or the Egypt events, generally the ‘Arab spring’ – keep the attention and effort of analysts and observers of the international stage.
This does not mean that nothing is going on in this field, nor that one does not signal such reactions, although sporadically and without thorough impact analyses made public. In the case of Russia, especially of late, their number increased. And this is normal, because Russia proves that it devises its own ‘Asian pivot.’ International media, certainly the big chancelleries and centres of strategic analysis have analysed some of the most recent ‘moves’ made by Russia on the Asian stage and try to identify future trends of the strategy adopted by this big power on the horizon of its immense territory. The most prominent such event took place on July 12, when without announcing it in advance, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military commanders to start a large-scale military exercise in the Far East. This exercise that ended these days involved 160,000 troops, 1,000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 warships, being the largest of its kind conducted by this country since the collapse of the USSR more than two decades ago. As the international press noticed, this military exercise was a message sent both to Japan – Russian strategic bombers flew over the Japan Sea for more than seven hours, forcing Japan to launch its own fighters and intercept them when they got close to the Hokkaido Island in the north of the Nippon archipelago – and to China. Among the experts quoted by international press, of particular interest is the comment of a retired Russian general who stated that “the Sakhalin part of the manoeuvres was intended to simulate a response to a hypothetical attack by Japanese and US forces”; another Russian expert, Alexander Khramchikhin, said on the BBC that “the land part of the exercise is directed at China, while the sea and island part of it is aimed at Japan.” Of course, Russian officials claimed that the main goal of the exercise was to “check the readiness of the military units to perform assigned tasks and evaluate the level of personnel’s training and technical preparation as well as the level of equipment of units with arms and military equipment.” Regardless if the exercise was planned having in mind certain foes (identified in secret documents) or not, one thing is for sure. The scale of the wargame and the importance granted to it by President Putin, who visited Sakhalin on this occasion, hint to a big strategic movement that is going on. More precisely, it is about shifting the gravity centre of his preoccupation – even if it does not refer to the strategic apparatus, on which we do not have relevant information – from Europe (as it was the case two decades ago) towards Asia. Such a translation of strategic size, equivalent to the American pivot towards Asia – that could be conceptually identified as imperative in the evaluations of Russian experts from the Valdai analysis group – is taking shape now, as demonstrated by the recent military exercise. But this is not the only proof that Russia is developing a strategic ‘Asian pivot’ of its own. Recent statements made by Russian military decision makers announce that Russian military planners dedicated important forces and hardware to the Asian military apparatus. In a recent interview, the commander of the Russian fleet in the Pacific announced that the fleet will soon receive one of the two ships carrying the Mistral helicopters to be imported from France – one of the most modern assault ships – and starting 2014 the ‘Steregushchy’, capable to conduct patrol, escort and antisubmarine war missions. These qualities of the aforementioned frigates will make them complementary with the Mistral-class landing ships, whose technology will be assimilated by Russian shipyards. Russia already dispatched to the Pacific a ballistic missile cruiser, four Udaloy-class destroyers, a ‘Sovremeny’ destroyer and several dozens of submarines, including 5 belonging to the Delta III class equipped with ballistic missiles. According to recent information, the first nuclear submarine of the 4th class, built after the collapse of the USSR, which will leave the Russian shipyards (Borey class) at the end of this year will join the Pacific fleet. It carries state-of-the-art Bulava ballistic missiles and will be a very powerful instrument of dissuasion. Russia plans to build 8 units of this class.
Russia thus gives clear signs that it recalibrates its strategic array so that to efficiently answer future challenges in Asia. One can also say that Russian planners, considering the improved weaponry involved and the size of the recent military exercise, had in mind a real ‘Asian pivot’ of their military forces – although, for example, a unit of the Pacific fleet was dislodged to the Mediterranean in the context of the Syrian crisis. This strategic shift will certainly have important strategic and political consequences at European scale, whose design and impact are only incipient.

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