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Russia's Turn to East More Economic Than Ideological

  • Daniel Schearf

Western leaders are boycotting a massive military victory parade in Moscow this week that commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. But many Asian leaders, including China's President Xi Jinping, will be attending – underscoring how Russia is looking East as tensions with the West increase.

Political analysts say Russia's “turn to the east” is more for economic than ideological reasons.

“The military parade in Moscow on May 9th, known in Russia as the Victory Day, is definitely one of the most significant symbols for Putin right now to boost his legitimacy at home and to show that he’s not alone,” said Alexander Gabuev, head of the Russia in the Asia Pacific Program at the Carnegie Center Moscow.

Gabuev said Western support for Ukraine's popular Maidan uprising that led to the downfall of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, was seen by the Kremlin as interference in its sphere of influence.

“There is a deep mistrust,” he said. “And, though Russia, Russian elite or Russian people still see themselves as part of the European civilization, I would say the ruling elite is trying to position Russia as the major non-western or non-U.S. power in the world in [an] ideological sense.”

He added that “it probably more or less resembles what the Soviet Union tried to do-just to present itself as an alternative to the western narrative and the western system.”

Snubbing West risky

The West's turning its back on Russia leaves Moscow with mainly undemocratic and communist regimes as allies a sign of Russia's revival as an authoritarian state, argued historian Andrei Zubov. “Right now Russia, China, North Korea and a number of countries adjoining them are creating an anti-liberal pact, anti-western pact, anti-democratic pact, and this is alarming,” he said.

Moscow was set to host North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for his first foreign trip before it was cancelled due to “internal Korea” issues.

But economic relations are growing fast since Pyongyang settled its Soviet-era debt. The two sides declared 2015 “a year of friendship” and could reach a trade goal of $1 billion by 2020, said Vitaly Survillo, head of a new Russia-North Korea business council.

“If all the projects that exist, and that are set, will take place, particularly the railways projects, as well as electricity grids, we could probably reach it, in theory. How it will be in practice, depends on how this or that project is implemented,” Survillo explained.

Right now, it is much less than that, and North Korea has even greater interest than Russia in stepping up bilateral trade because they exist in isolation, he said.

“In fact, the volume of trade with North Korea leaves much to be desired,” he added. “It is insignificant, but it has been growing fast during the last few years, 2013, 2014. And we hope that it develops in the same way this year.”

China-Russia relationship

While South Korea joined China in abstaining from sanctions against Russia, it is the Moscow-Beijing dynamic in the East that is gaining most importance, said Gabuev.

“And with the relationship with the U.S. treaty, allies like Japan and South Korea also in a very difficult, problematic situation, there is only one large partner-China. And, the longer we have this confrontation between Russia and the West,” he said, “the more significant the relationship between Russia and China will get.”

Last year, as the West enforced economic sanctions against Russia, Beijing and Moscow signed a $400 billion deal on natural gas. This week, the most anticipated East Asian leader attending the Victory Day parade is Chinese President Xi Jinping

While the Ukraine crisis has made Russia's turn to China more significant, its renewed interest in its former cohort in communism, pre-dates tensions with the West, Gabuev said.

“The real origin starts after the global credit crunch in 2008/2009 when Russia's GDP dip was the largest among G20 countries and China still continued to grow at the average pace of about 8 percent per year and Russia realized that there are untapped market opportunities and untapped sources of capital for its domestic growth and that large, uninhabited regions of Siberia and the far-east really need this Asia connection to get these economic opportunities,” he said.

Celebrating Victory Day

Turning to the East makes sense as Russia is an eastern country, said car salesman Ivan Karpov. “I'm not an expert on geopolitics, but we shouldn't forget that we are a country that stretches from Europe to the Pacific,” he noted. “There are more of us in Asia than in Europe. So I don't know why Russia is compared with Europe and the West."

Law student, Ivan Makarov said Russia's growing ties with China are not surprising. "We have good historical ties with China, our communist past and theirs. And since we're not receiving any support from the West, due to current events, why not turn our attention to the East?” he stated. “Especially since it's politically and economically profitable.”

Zubov noted, with a degree of optimism, that during Putin's first years in power he referred to Russia as a western, European state that must be together with the Western world. Zubov holds out hope that “Russia will turn to the way of ties with the West.”

Russian economy

President Putin, while trying rhetorically to present Russia as an alternative to western power and ideology, is focused on economics.

At a November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, Putin said, “Russia’s location in Eurasia determines its role as a major factor for bringing Western and Eastern civilizations closer together, and we therefore want to strengthen our relations with all Asia-Pacific region countries and play an active part in building a free trade system and in economic and investment cooperation.”

Despite political tensions, Russia's trade ties with the West are not expected to take a back seat to Asia's any time soon.

The European Union remains Russia's largest trade partner, accounting for about half of all Russian trade.

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