The Kremlin’s attempts to strengthen economic ties with the East could put at stake Russia’s future economic prosperity. Experts argue whether Russia should risk its future on the East and turn away from the West.

China's President Xi Jinping (center, behind) gestures as he delivers a speech behind Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (right), South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye (center) and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. Photo: Reuters

The precipitous drop in global oil prices has already affected trade turnover between Russia and China, which decreased by about 30 percent in the first half of 2015. Together with the economic and financial instability in China, the weakening of trade and economic ties seems to weaken the Kremlin’s claims of a pivot to the East as well as its attempts to attract investment from Asia-Pacific countries to Russia’s Far East region.

At the two-day Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia is decisive about strengthening its relations with the Asia-Pacific countries. Russia’s Far East region has already been identified for prospective investment from these countries. This conference may be a sign that Russia has chosen to entrust its future economic growth to the East.

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This view, which places emphasis on the East’s ability to drive economic growth, echoes what was discussed at the presentation of the new book, “The Modern World and Its Origins,” by Vyacheslav Nikonov, who is the dean at the School of Public Administration at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MGU) and the president of the Russian World Foundation. 

As one of Russia’s well-known thinkers with an impact on the thinking of the country’s political elites, Nikonov argues the benefits of such a shift towards the East and away from the West. According to him, “the human race began in Africa,” while “Asia provides us with the origins of human development.” Nikonov believes that, although the “West positions itself as the global community,” it is now facing a decline of its political influence. He claims that the West is now responsible for “only 40 percent of the world economy,” whereas before it was “responsible for 80 percent.”

In contrast, Richard Sakwa, the professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, argues that it is a mistake to speak of such a decline in the West. In his opinion, for the West “any decline is relative,” and furthermore the West “will remain the single most powerful entity in the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, Petr Topychkanov, associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program and expert on the Asia-Pacific region, argues that to talk of a shift from the West to the East in terms of global influence is a very “simplistic” view.

As it currently stands, in his opinion, “nations are united by many complicated links” so that no one nation can say that it is the “center of the world.” In his opinion, one nation cannot achieve something without the help of others, and he cites the example of Russia’s ability to meet technological demands of its trade of military equipment with India partly with the help of the West.

Counterbalancing a West-centric viewpoint 

Nikonov argues that he tries to offer a counterbalance to what he calls “a West-centric viewpoint.” This idea came to him on his visit to Australia, where he chanced upon a map of the world with the South Pole at the top of the map and the North Pole at the bottom. This is a map that visually marginalizes the West, making it one that Nikonov considers to be a more faithful representation of how Russia should come to view the world. According to him, Russia is a different area entirely, a “Euro-Pacific country,” which holds it back from embracing either the West or the East.

However, the problem is that the West has become a less appealing option for partnership for Russia than the West, as indicated by recent polls. The Russian Public Opinion Center (WCIOM) released a study, questioning members of the Russian public across 46 different regions on who they view to be friends and enemies of Russia.

The results show that in 2014, 73 percent of Russians consider the U.S. to be a country with which “at the present time we have the most tense, inimical relationship.” Meanwhile, 51 percent of those asked believe that China is the country with which Russia “at the present time has the most strong, friendly relationship,” the highest value for any foreign country.

In fact, this poll echoes Nikonov’s view, who argues that the Russian public’s outlook is “what is shifting” today.

Russia and the West: Is there really a divide?

The shift in Russian public opinion might stem from the fact that Russians could feel offended by the negative image of their country in Europe. As Nikonov claims, “In Europe they see the image of Russia they have created in their heads,” one which fails to comply with reality and is based on a Russia “500 years ago.”

However, Sakwa warns about creating such a strict mental divide when it comes to the concept of Russia and the West.

“The very concept of the West is now increasingly tenuous, and instead Russia should look for new and viable patterns of Europeanism embedded in a larger continental Euro-Asian vision,” Sakwa said.  

Moreover, he believes that Russia should not brand itself as either a political or an economic outsider to the West. “There are many Wests, and Russia is one version of that,” he said.  

In contrast, Leonid Reshetnikov, the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, believes there is a fundamental problem, which would prevent the fulfillment of Sakwa’s vision. He considers there to be the mistaken “stereotype of two types of civilization – the West and the East,” that exists in the West and is perpetuated by its educational literature.

According to him, this stereotype identifies the West as a “positive” force and the East, of which he considers Russia to be a part, as a “negative” force in the global community.  He sees “The Modern World and Its Origins” as part of the current “fight for the change of public opinion,” because of the book’s divergence from the mainstream idea that Russia is part of a “negative” East and cannot assimilate the culture and values of the West.

The East may not be strong enough economically to boost Russia

Nikonov believes that it is the East, which has become the leader in economic growth, with the economy “in China growing at 7 percent and in India at 11 percent per year.” To illustrate his point, he cited the fact that China had overtaken the U.S. as the largest world economy in 2014.

However, the forecast appears to be less optimistic for the potential growth of the Eastern region than Nikonov presumes. Although the economic growth in China continues to be at the 7 percent benchmark cited by Nikonov, it is only appealing at face value. Chinese growth for the year 2014 had to be revised to 7.4 percent from the government’s target of 7.5 percent.

More recently, Christopher Hartwell, the president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw (CASE), noted in his column for Russia Direct that China was undergoing other economic troubles.  He wrote that China has experienced a “three percent devaluation of its currency on August 11” of this year, alongside a plummeting stock market.

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For him the “severity” of the devaluation is “dangerous,” not only for the economic wellbeing of China but for its neighbors, including Russia, too. In his opinion, the Russian policy of “free-riding off of China in the short-term” combined with the fact that “China’s woes [are] dragging oil lower” can lead to further devaluation of the Russian ruble.

Jack Goldstone, Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, supports the view that China is “very unlikely to help the Russian economy,” as he told Russia Direct in a June 11 interview.

Furthermore, Topychkanov points out that Russia has yet to fill the gap between official statements it has made about the Russian pivot to Asia and actual trade and relations. To talk of Russia examining ways to build a relationship with the East is to ignore the long-term experience and the deep roots that Russia has in Asia. There is only possibility of a “return” but not a “pivot” to Asia on the side of Russia.