With Russia losing traditional and reliable partners in Europe, it is trying to find new ones in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Yet can these “new allies” satisfy Moscow’s trade requirements and replace the partners Russia has lost over its schism with the West?


Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chat before their meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper before at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok in 2012. Photo: AFP

With 2014 coming to an end, the results of Russia’s controversial foreign policy this year are becoming even more conspicuous. Not only did Moscow spoil its relations with the U.S. in 2014, but also with its traditional allies in Europe, particularly with France and Germany, as indicated by the Mistral case with France and the failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin to see eye to eye.

Crimea’s accession to Russia, the Kremlin’s alleged support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – all this contributed to dividing European countries in their assessment of Russia’s policy in Ukraine and the sanctions war between the Kremlin and the West.   

Likewise, Eastern European countries, and particularly, the Visegrad group, or V4 (an alliance of four Central European states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) were split. With Poland insisting on a tougher response to Russia’s policy in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary were hesitant to support sanctions and reluctant to blame Moscow because of their economic and political links, as well as energy reliance on Russia.

Russia’s foreign policy resulted in a split even among close and long-standing partners like Serbia and Bulgaria, which seem to be vacillating over how to respond to Russia’s policy in Ukraine. Under the pressure from the European Union, Serbia is faced with a challenge: It should join the Western-led sanctions campaign against Russia if Belgrade wants to join the EU.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria, previously described by experts as Moscow’s Trojan Horse, suspended the South Stream energy project in June 2014 as one of the key transit points for the gas line. The lack of certainty over the South Stream pipeline finally led to the closure of the project in early December, initiated by the Kremlin.     

Germany and France are also showing signs of indignation toward Russia’s foreign policy, as well as solidarity with the U.S. in its response to the Kremlin’s role in the Ukrainian crisis. The recent suspension of the Mistral warship delivery to Russia indicates that Paris is not going to support the Kremlin despite the fact that French President François Hollande is the first senior Western leader to have paid an official visit to Moscow since the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. 

Likewise, there is a noticeable chill in Russian-German relations, with Merkel failing to find common ground with Putin and remaining intransigent in rebuking Russia over its gamble in eastern Ukraine. Even though German society is divided in its assessments of the prospects of Russian-German relations, there are increasing debates over the possibility of a cold war between Germany and Russia.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe, agrees that “one of the unintended but major consequences of Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine has been the setback in Russian relations with Europe (as well as the United States).”

As a result of its Ukraine policy, Russia is seen as a security threat: Berlin – which until now has been pursuing its Ostpolitik, the eastern approach that underpinned the German-Russian relationship before the Crimea precedent and the downing of MH17 – appears to be reassessing its fundamental policy to the Kremlin, Pifer added. 

“While Chancellor Merkel keeps lines of communication open to President Putin, she has emerged as a leader within Europe for a tough response toward Russia until it alters its course on Ukraine,” he told Russia Direct.

So, while losing its partners in Europe, Russia makes no bones about its turn to Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in attempt to persuade the West that it is not isolated and has numerous partners. Putin’s visits to India, Turkey in December, China in May and Latin America in July look like a clear gesture from Russia, demonstrating that it can make do without the West.

Likewise, Russia is attempting to establish closer ties with Iran amidst its schism with the West, as indicated by the conference held in Moscow on Nov. 25 on “Development of Strategic Partnership between Russia and Iran" organized jointly by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the Center for Energy and Security Studies, the Iranian Embassy in Moscow and the Institute of Iran Eurasian Studies (IRAS), Tehran.

The conference brought together leading Russian and Iranian pundits and diplomats in a quest both to broaden and deepen bilateral relations in light of their shared interests and the common challenges (sanctions) they face. In particular, both are interested in energy security and so-called multipolarity, the term that became a sort of a buzzword for Russia’s Foreign Ministry in its PR campaign to account for its recent foreign policy initiatives to undermine the United States’ global influence and political heft.      

Who will replace Moscow’s lost partners in the EU?

With Moscow trying to find allies in Asia and the Middle East, several questions remain unanswered.

Will the Kremlin’s allies be able to minimize the consequences of the Russian rupture with the West? To what extent will the relations with them be sustainable in 2015? Will these countries remain interested in collaboration with a weaker Russia and prefer it over the partnership with West?  

Jack Goldstone, a political expert and professor at George Mason University, points out that Russia has always sought strong relationships with Central Asia, and was engaged in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS group well before this summer’s difficulties with Europe.

“But Russia is now trying to deepen and strengthen ties in Asia and the Middle East more than ever to offset the losses of business with Europe,” he said, pointing out that Russia might succeed “only to some degree” in this turn.

According to Goldstone, Russia is able to replace certain raw materials markets and strategic alliances by invigorating its ties with Turkey, India, and China. However, he highlights, Russia also needs capital and technical and academic expertise, and “these can NOT so easily be obtained outside of Europe and North America.”

“Turkey and India themselves are in dire need of capital, and have weaker educational systems than Russia,” Goldstone explains. “China has plenty of capital and plenty of expertise, but needs its capital internally and is also keen to invest in Africa and Iran and elsewhere, and lacks some of the specific expertise (e.g. Arctic oil exploration, tight oil extraction, innovation-based entrepreneurship) that Russia needs most.”


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens during voting in the Federation Council during a session in the Russian parliament's upper chamber in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo:AP

Likewise, Pifer raises eyebrows at the possibility of deep and extensive ties between Russia and China, India and Turkey. They “might work” with Russia on trade, but “they are unlikely to ally with Moscow, and they won’t “displace Europe in trade terms.”

“In 2013, EU-Russia trade was more than four times Russia-China trade, and more than 15 times Russia-Turkey trade,” Pifer said, echoing Andrei Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who also points to this fact.

Even though Asia and the Middle East do matter for Russia’s foreign policy, Moscow should abandon its deep-seated illusion that there is an opportunity to switch from its Western partners to eastern ones, Kortunov warns. According to him, Russia’s partnership with its “new allies” should be based on positive aspects: teaming up not against somebody, but for the sake of the understanding of mutual interest and benefits.

“Russia’s new allies in the Middle East and Asia should not replace, but rather should be an addition to our traditional partners, including those in the zone of the European Union,” he said.

Mikhail Troitskiy, an international affairs analyst and an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), echoes his view. He sees no clear evidence of the willingness of “Russia's supposed ‘new partners’ to engage in preferential relationship with Moscow because of the crisis in Russia's relations with the West.”

“In most cases, Russia's ‘new partners’ pursue their own – mainly economic – agendas, while considerations of ‘standing up to U.S. dictates’ take the backstage as a motivation for engaging with Russia,” he said.

In fact, Troitskiy is doubtful that Russia aims at replacing its EU partners with other ones elsewhere. If there are promising bonds and benefits to Moscow from cooperation with Asia or the Middle East, they had to be expanded irrespective of Russia's relations with the U.S. or the EU.

“I do not think that the ‘partner replacement’ logic works in contemporary international relations,” he said. “Such logic can only be applied – albeit with limited effect – to military alliances. If we are talking about trade, other forms of economic engagement, and even diplomatic coordination, ‘replacing’ one set of failing relationships with another simply makes no sense. There was never any reason why Russia should not have been developing ties with potential partners in the Middle East or [the] Asia Pacific [region] before its conflict with the West over Ukraine started.”

Are the Middle East and Asia really eager to team up with Moscow?

Even though Moscow made several attempts to woo the Asian and Middle East countries, there is still a lack of certainty over whether these “new allies” are eager to team up with Moscow and sacrifice their relations with the U.S. (Washington is unequivocal about its insistence and pressure on other countries to join their campaign against Russia’s policy in Ukraine).

According to Pifer, although these countries are interested in doing business with Russia, they are hardly likely to put at stake “their far larger business relations with the West.” He gives the example of China.  

“The European Union and United States are China’s first and second largest trading partners, accounting for some 30 percent of China’s overall trade. Russia does not even figure in the top ten of Chinese trading partners,” Pifer said, pointing out that “Moscow holds a weak hand” in its relations with Beijing.   

However, Kortunov believes that countries such as India and China are hardly likely to yield to U.S. pressure. He sees them as “independent players of world politics” that have no reason to join the U.S. campaign against the Kremlin. Yet those countries that have economic and political links with Washington will yield, as in the case of Japan, which has imposed sanctions against Russia.

“Japan was forced to support sanctions due to its geostrategic and geopolitical positions,” Kortunov said. "Tokyo wants to develop its relations with Russia, yet it has to be in solidarity with the U.S.”