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Why Vladimir Putin's 'pivot to Asia' will fail

September 20, 2022

The Russian president's "pivot to Asia" looks shaky after India and China gave him a subtle cold shoulder at a recent conference. Southeast Asian countries are wary of a Western backlash if they cooperate with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Western-leaning Asian states have aggressively committed to Western sanctions, denting their trade with Russia Image: Sergei Bobylev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP/picture alliance

Speaking in early September at the Eastern Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin recommitted to decoupling his country's economy from EU states that have imposed hefty sanctions on Russia.

The same EU nations have been trying to disentangle their energy policies from Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine in February — and instead bolster ties with Asia.

"The role ... of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region has significantly increased," Putin said at the forum held in Russia's Pacific port city of Vladivostok, adding that Asia holds "colossal new opportunities for our people."

Russia's newly updated naval doctrine, published on August 31, also aims to boost its military presence in the East.

Sanctions bite

Russia's economy has been badly hit by international sanctions imposed earlier this year, even though the government reckons that it will only contract by 3% in 2022.

"It is both a geopolitical necessity and a genuine desire to position Russia as a source of energy, resources, defense equipment and, in some cases, nuclear technologies for the growing Asian economies," said Philipp Ivanov, chief executive officer of Asia Society Australia, a think tank.

Another failed pivot?

Analysts have suggested that Putin's latest pivot will be just as unsuccessful as his 2012 tilt toward Asia, dubbed Moscow's "Turn to the East" policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and China's President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand
Putin acknowledges that Xi has "questions and concerns" about the Russia-Ukraine warImage: Sergei Bobylyov/Sputnik/AFP

"I would say another failure, since, again, Russia doesn't have a lot to offer the region strategically or economically," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Moscow needed to "move onto a path of peace" after attending a regional summit with Putin in Uzbekistan last week. Putin has publicly acknowledged that Chinese President Xi Jinping had "questions and concerns" about the war.

Commentators reckon that Moscow has made itself an even more "junior partner" of Beijing's since its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's Asia pivot has boasted few achievements since 2012. Bilateral trade with Japan peaked at $33.2 billion (€33.2 billion) in 2013 — but dwindled to just $20.8 billion in 2021.

Trade with South Korea rose to $27.3 billion in 2021, yet Russia accounts for just a little over 2% of South Korea's total trade. And both Western-leaning Asian states have aggressively committed to Western sanctions, denting their trade with Russia this year.

Remaining neutral about Ukraine

Singapore imposed its own unilateral sanctions on Russia because of the Ukraine invasion, the only Southeast Asian country to do so.

Under the first pivot, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) upgraded its ties with Russia to a "strategic partnership" in 2018, four years after Russia "annexed" Crimea, part of Ukraine. Yet ASEAN-Russia trade grew to only about $20 billion in 2021 — up from $18.2 billion in 2012.

That pales in comparison with ASEAN's trade with China ($878 billion) and the United States ($441.7 billion) in 2021. ASEAN's trade with Taiwan is worth almost four times as much as with Russia.

Though most Southeast Asian countries have tried to remain neutral on the Ukraine war, even Russia's traditional friends have become standoffish. Since 1990, Russia has been the main provider of military equipment to the region, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Regional leaders meeting sit around a big table at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022
The SCO was Putin's first major international outing since Moscow sent troops to UkraineImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Plunging exports

In August, the Philippines canceled a contract to purchase 16 Russian military helicopters, purportedly under pressure from the United States.

Vietnam — which bought four-fifths of its military equipment from Russia between 1995 and 2021 — is concerned that it could fall foul of the US's Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which threatens sanctions against any country that buys weapons from Russia.

Major Asian importers of Russian military goods were already turning away before the Ukraine war. Russian arms exports to India and Vietnam fell by 47% and 71%, respectively, between the 2012-16 and 2017-21 periods, according to a recent SIPRI report.

Limited success

An exception is the military junta that now controls limited areas of Myanmar. Russia has been the main international benefactor of the junta since its coup in February 2021, providing arms, aid and cheap energy.

"Myanmar's junta has embraced Putin's regime with open arms as a partner to avoid overdependence on Beijing, but the 'alliance' rests on mutual desperation and shared authoritarian political systems," said Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra.

If either Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, or Putin were to lose his hold on power, Myanmar-Russia ties would likely suffer a major setback, Marston said, "so the relationship is not sustainable at this point."

Booming energy 

According to Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, no ASEAN member "sees their economic future with Russia" except Myanmar under the junta.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the SCO leaders' summit
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says Moscow needs to "move onto a path of peace"Image: Alexandr Demyanchuk/SPUTNIK/AFP

However, one area where Russia could win some friends is in energy cooperation, he added. Many Asian countries are debating whether to pursue nuclear-power generation, at the same time as investment in their renewable energy sectors is booming.

In July, Indonesia's government said it was mulling a Russian offer to develop a nuclear power plant.  The same month, NovaWind — a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Rosatom — signed a deal with Vietnam to develop a 128MW wind farm, its first overseas project.

Grappling for allies

Asian imports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) have increased since the Ukraine war began. Japan's imports grew by 211% in August, compared to the same month last year, for instance. The government of Indonesia, not a usual importer of Russian gas, said this week it is considering imports to offset soaring energy costs.

But analysts doubt whether this is a long-term strategy for Russia since many Asian countries have only increased their imports of Russia's gas because of its historically low price due to Western sanctions. Those rates might not remain so low for long, though. 

Because of spiraling inflation, fears of food insecurity and higher costs of living, Asian governments are anxious for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war, said Shada Islam, an independent analyst on Europe and Asia relations.

"This does not mean, however, that governments and people in the region have any illusion about the real geostrategic reason behind Putin's renewed courtship of Asia as he searches for allies in his battle with the West," she added.

"Most Asian countries have learned the hard way to steer clear of being used as pawns of so-called Great Powers in the geopolitical chessboard. Russia's latest 'pivot' to Asia is not going to be any more successful than its last lackluster attempt to up its game in the region."

Edited by: Keith Walker