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October 16, 2021

Russia’s Asian pivot

Many were surprised by how Russia acted since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in its acute phase, practically since 21 February 2014. Why did Russia resort to this overt infringement of international legislation (especially with regard to the annexation of Crimea)? Why this hurry in affirming its right to protect the Russian minorities of neighbour states up to invoking a “right of interference” in this respect (even in NATO member countries)?
Russian experts themselves were surprised by this rushed action of Kremlin, Crimea being followed by the subversion of Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Many of them warned that Russia must be a strong state, capable of a long resistance, in this perilous dossier of reforming the international order in the euro-Atlantic space open by defying the systemic hegemon.

All in all, Russia’s actions both in September 2013 – with regard to Armenia – and in November 2014 were made with the argument of these states being associated to a planned – but inexistent – Eurasian Union, seen by many as a counterweight to the EU, still discussed by experts and presumed to be founded on the basis of an already existing customs union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan).
Only towards the end of May 2014, at the peak of the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow made two international moves that seem to explain the reasons for its hurried action in Armenia or Ukraine. On one hand, on May 21, Vladimir Putin signed in Beijing the contract of the century, on providing energy (gas) for 30 years to China. On the other hand, one week later, at Astana, he signed the founding document of the Eurasian Union, together with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan. This time too, in regard to the last organisation, it was mentioned that it will launched in June next year, so now it only exists on paper. But Russia thus sanctioned a grand strategy move by announcing that its priority is Asia, pivoting from Europe to the continent that will be the centre of global evolutions this century.
Is this grand strategy reorientation the explanation of Russia’s recent actions to its western facade, which sparked the most serious post-Cold War crisis that implied the grand powers of the euro-Atlantic space? Why had Russia to announce its Asian pivot by opening a “Pandora’s box” in Europe, initiating the forceful modification of frontiers in this huge space of the planet that Eurasia is?
Russia is not at its first ‘pivot’ of this kind. Its huge surface – reference to USSR, but it also suits present-day Russia – expands to the Pacific and also has a significant presence in the depth of the European continent, constantly obliged it over the last 200 years to make a “pendulum” move between Asia and Europe, Historically, Russia did not have – nor has it now – the resources necessary in order to avoid this “pendulum” and be equally present on both continents. The most significant example in history is the starting phase of World War Two, when caught in a military clash with Japan at the borders of China that threatened to turn into a large-scale conflict, Moscow – fearing a German attack in Europe and a war on two fronts – resorted to a diplomatic coup. It signed a non-aggression pact with Japan in May 1940 – abandoned by the USSR in August 1945 – thus avoiding the nightmare of a war on two fronts, while the Siberian divisions allowed it to conduct, in December 1941, the counter-offensive of Moscow, forcing the German Wehrmacht – invincible until then – to withdraw for the first time.
Why is the Asian ‘pivot’ a must for today’s Russia? In a recent article (May 31), economist Nouriel Roubini – famous for predicting the economic crisis of 2008 – wrote: “now the backlash against globalization – and the freer movement of goods, services, capital, labour, and technology that came with it – has arrived. This new nationalism takes different economic forms: trade barriers, asset protection, reaction against foreign direct investment, policies favouring domestic workers and firms, anti-immigration measures, state capitalism, and resource nationalism. In the political realm, populist, anti-globalization, anti-immigration, and in some cases outright racist and anti-Semitic parties are on the rise.”  Such developments can be noticed today in Europe and beyond, and their impact is seen by many to have influenced the results of the May 25 elections for the European Parliament, where far-right and far-left obtained unprecedented electoral scores. And the globalisation setback phenomenon cannot be without impact at the scale of the international system: some states will go bankrupt, others will resist and even advance, while the trend of multiplying the networks of international importance will probably consolidate to the detriment of the nation-state as systemic unit. Russia’s action in Ukraine cannot be unrelated to these large-scale geo-social tectonic moves, plus the fact that the accelerated growth of China – according to some opinions, at the end of this year this country will already occupy the first place in the global economic classification, outperforming the USA – ascends without opposition to the peak of the system.
Apparently these realities made Moscow hurry its Asian ‘pivot.’ Kremlin appreciated that, on one hand, in Europe an action the kind of that conducted in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea will not be met by a firm response precisely due to the appearance and consistence of the globalisation challenging phenomenon predicted by Roubini, which actually happened. It is often affirmed – and this is obviously the case – that Putin’s most loyal allies in Europe are the nationalist and extremist movements. On the other hand, as demonstrated by the signing of the fabulous gas export contract with China for a generation, after 10 years of negotiations, Russia considered that it must pivot toward Asia very fast, in order to capitalise on the European success and to construct an economic and political axis with Beijing, which might also expand to the military sector later.
The acceleration of history initiated by the major technological breakthroughs in sensitive fields like cyber and biochemistry, nanotechnology and communications etc. is without precedent in the present conditions. The instantaneous character of information is only equalled by the huge capacity acquired by the human civilisation to advance in the future, shattering and casting aside customs and habits considered if not eternal, at least long-lasting while equally replacing them with others. The new reality also demands in the field of international relations a rapidity and adaptability suitable to the unprecedented dynamic of today. Now there is no war on two fronts that needs years to materialise, as it happened more than 70 years ago, but one must move with exponential rapidity alongside the problems, in real time, in order to solve them. In the case of Russia, this means acting rapidly and decisively in two directions toward reaching the own objectives in Europe and quasi-simultaneously not allowing competitors have a comfortable presence where you wanted to be and stay (Post-Soviet Central Asia). This was the probable reasoning at Moscow these months. Because waiting for a solution to a crisis like the Ukrainian one (which would certainly last long time from now on) would have meant to accept almost irreparable losses. Especially as the reaction of the West, materialised in economic sanctions, was and is a strategy that needs time to reach its goals. What is needed to counter the strategy of answer to the retaliation in Europe is represented by rapid action at the other azimuth, in Asia. Without a rapid and savant correlation of resources (economic, military, diplomatic, propaganda etc.) with the bold and innovative action, everything can be lost. This is what Russia tries to avoid today through the Asian pivot pronounced these days.

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