Russia between Europe and Asia: Looking East in search of itself?

Issue 1706

21 July 2017

The first sovereign of independent Russia, Ivan III, brought from what was once Byzantium not only his  wife, but also, again freed from the Turks, the double-headed eagle, emblem and expression of an idea. Although various Eastern European countries consider themselves in some way heirs to this imperial ideal, nowhere has the tension between East and West been as strong as in Russia, except perhaps in Turkey itself.

After Peter the Great, the double-headed eagle looked more and more to the West. Perhaps  the elite perceived itself in the same way as today’s small group of pro-Western intellectuals. But how did the people view themselves?

It must be said that Russia’s attempts to conform to Western models have all failed miserably, although it has sometimes taken decades, or even centuries, for the failure to manifest itself. The attempt undertaken by Peter the Great to create a European Russia became almost mythological, a cornerstone of Russia’s identity. But beyond the success achieved through reforms, we can conclusively say its consequences were disastrous for the country.

In Russia, there is a very lively debate currently going on about the country’s history. Exactly 100 years ago the Bolsheviks seized power, plunging the country into chaos and the tragedy of civil war. The latter ended long ago, but history remains, today as it was then, a battlefield except that now, the conflict is not between communists and their enemies, but between liberals and traditionalists. History now runs the risk of being no longer a science, but a slave to ideology.

During Russia’s Soviet period, history in its entirety was viewed as the progress of humanity against oppression. The strange thing is that, during the communist era, its rulers effectively transformed Russia into a society built like an Eastern despotism, while defending an ideal of liberty that they claimed looked ahead, but that in reality looked to the West – after all, Marxism was a Western ideology. Now, however, those who fought for freedom then have become thieves or liberals who made mistakes.

Attempts to Westernize Russia

As mentioned, Russia has tried more than once to align itself with a Western model. In the end, all these efforts have failed. However, this failure is not to be blamed on the West, but rather on the ways and means by which modernization has been attempted on a Western model. Under Peter the Great, not only were Western technologies and sciences imported to Russia, but also the elite was formed on a Western model, and even dressed in a Western

fashion. The country became a first-class military power, but at the same time an unbridgeable divide was created between the Westernized elite and the people, who lived by traditional values. And this, in the end, led to the collapse of the entire society and a violent civil war. If we analyze the history of this war, we glean the impression that it was not about fellow citizens seeking to free themselves from one another, but about people who did not understand each other at all. Rarely throughout history have we seen as much hatred and brutality as were seen in Russia at the time.

The 1990s perestroika under Gorbachev and its continuation under Yeltsin can be seen to provide further evidence of how a society might progress and then – even with the best of intentions – become divided, arriving almost at the brink of civil war. Of course, defining what happened in Russia during the 1990s as a Westward turn and a triumph for liberal democracy would be twisting the truth. Particularly for those who personally lived through this experience, it can be no surprise that few Russians today dream of repeating that attempt.

Throughout the course of Russian history, however, modernization has not always been a synonym of Westernization: the country has often tried to modernize following other models. For example, initially it adopted a Mongolian military strategy, which allowed the Muscovites to defeat the Tartars, and free themselves from the yoke of the Golden Horde. In the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire was the strongest military power in the world, the Russians organized their army on the model of the Janissaries.

Westernization and modernization of Russia under Peter the Great were limited to importing Western technology (and particularly military technology). The Czar had no intention, however, of undertaking any social modernization. His attitude toward Europe was not even particularly warm. He apparently said that the ruling class in Russia would only need Europe for 20 years, and after that would move on. But the ruling class in Russia did not distance itself from Europe after 20 years, because it wanted to take advantage of all the privileges of European civilization, including the liberties granted by Catherine the Great, who was originally from Germany. At the same time, under Catherine herself, Russian farmers became slaves and their owners could sell them as they pleased.

The failure of this first attempt at modernization, based on a Western model, is unsurprising. The revolution, with all its atrocities, probably brought to light a mutual hatred and mistrust between nobility and people that had built up over the centuries. Russians soon abandoned the idea that the country was part of Europe, and that they and their culture belonged to the Continent. Nonetheless, this idea spread widely even after the revolution, because the Bolsheviks’ ideology came from the West. To appear different from Europeans would have meant appearing inferior – and the Bolsheviks certainly did not want that.

A new modernization: on what model?

At the end of the 1990s it became clear to everyone that the perestroika experiment was failing. There was a widespread feeling that the country was on the brink of a new civil war. For the sake of averting conflict between the small group of winners, in terms of economic changes, and the rest of the population on the losing side, there was talk of the need for an authoritarian regime, which would undertake economic modernization. The major example was provided by East Asia, where some authoritarian regimes had managed to bring their countries up to the mark both economically and technologically. Of course, the experience of East Asian countries would need to be adapted to the reality of Russia. But none of this implied that Russia, under Putin, would distance itself from the West.

The director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dimitri Trenin, has tried to identify the reasons for and consequences of the fracture between Russia and the West, and of Russia’s move away from a Western model of development to turn instead to the East, and eventually to China.[1]

At the very beginning of his presidential mandate, Putin suggested to European countries the creation of an economic area extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok, aimed at building a shared security system to replace NATO. But in the eyes of the West – and especially of politicians in Washington – Russia was not an equal partner, but rather a country that had lost the Cold War, and therefore had no right to any kind of claim.

The Ukraine crisis, together with the annexation of the Crimea and the conflict along the eastern reaches of the Don River, dramatically accelerated the process of Russia’s estrangement from the West. Europe’s reaction was particularly harsh and painful for Russia. In 2013, trade with the European Union represented 50 percent of Russia’s total foreign trade. Europe obtained up to 30 percent of its energy from Russia. Ties between Russia and Germany were particularly close, with around 6,000 German companies active on Russian soil. But a quarter of a century’s collaboration between Russia and the European Union – particularly in the field of security, but also economic cooperation – has gone up in smoke.

The relationship between Russia and Germany

The preconditions had been in place for a collaboration between Russia and Germany to constitute the basis of a “Greater Europe,” a shared area between Lisbon and Vladivostok. The project proposed by Putin implied firstly economic integration, through which Russia’s natural resources and agricultural potential would come to form a single system with  Europe’s industry and technology.

But this prospect, which was considered very appealing in Germany’s business circles, was met with opposition from the political class. Essentially, Chancellor Angela Merkel let it be known that the project did not interest her. Across Europe, a coalition started to form against building special relations with Russia. This included not only Poland and the Baltic countries, which continued to fear aggression from the East, but also traditional opponents of cooperation between Russia and Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and others. And, the United States had always been suspicious about the prospect of a new Berlin-Moscow axis.

The Ukraine crisis was then added to these concerns. After the Malaysia Airlines airplane was shot down over Ukraine, Germany’s support for sanctions against Russia, initially unenthusiastic and forced, became imperative. Germany became a champion in the fight against the “danger of Russia.”

There were also other reasons behind Germany’s change of position: discontent at the authoritarian regime in Russia; a desire to have other countries on its side, particularly in Eastern Europe; and moral reservations over Russia’s Realpolitik. Consequently, Russian-German relations were almost completely interrupted, or certainly reduced to a minimum.

Since 1989, when Gorbachev launched the idea of a “common European home,” Russia had shown itself favorable to a formal association with Europe, and particularly with Germany. But all this ended in 2014. The route toward the West was closed off, regardless of whether Russia wanted to follow it or not.

Partnership with China

The only alternative was to look to the East. But what was Russia to expect?

At the start of the Ukraine crisis, Obama had hoped that China would condemn Russia, particularly for violating the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention in other countries’ affairs – both fairly relevant to China. But his calculation was misplaced: at the United Nations General Assembly vote in March 2014, China chose not to condemn Russia.

At first glance, this appeared to contradict the principles on which China bases its foreign policy. However, China very much understood the implications of Moscow’s reaction. An externally-led revolution was a nightmare for the Chinese government. Russia’s decisive reaction to the fall of government in Kiev was even viewed favorably by some political figures in China. For the Chinese government, the escalating confrontation between Russia and the United States swept away fears of their possible cooperation. Thus, China considered its northern border protected. At the same time, the new clash with the West considerably reduced Russia’s prospects of acting freely on the international scene, and prompted it to seek a partner in Beijing, albeit under certain conditions.

Against this new backdrop, China has become not just Russia’s primary trading partner, but also a gateway to broader horizons. What Russia has lost in investments and technologies, it now hopes to regain, at least in part, through this new relationship.

Russia’s turn to the East has also been favored by China’s plans to build a “new Silk Road.” In the Pacific, China is surrounded by countries allied with the United States. The route towards the West, on the other hand, is open, and offers not just new markets, but particularly access to resources.

The most important thing about the new alliance between Russia and China is that it is no longer based only on mutual convenience, but also on shared values. Size, independence and power of the state are very important to both countries. Both are firmly opposed to any attempts to spread democracy, especially by toppling governments in power. Both view the continued efforts of the U.S. and its allies to spread democracy throughout the world as a means of extending political influence, and nothing more.

The Chinese and Russian establishments reject criticism from Western governments and media, and attempt to block foreign funding for democratic movements. Beijing and Moscow believe that anti-government protests in their countries are led by Washington. In 2011-2012, Vladimir Putin linked protests in Moscow to support allegedly provided by the United States. In 2014, Beijing accused “foreign agents” of inciting protests in Hong Kong.

In terms of international balances, the two countries fall within the so-called “multipolar world.” Until 2014, as mentioned, Russia also tried to find a place within the system dominated by the West. It was a member of the G8, and maintained informal relations with the United States, NATO and the European Union. Russia wanted to be present  in  the Western sector, but also in the Eastern one, in order to take advantage of its particular position. China followed these attempts with much skepticism. In 2014, then, Beijing approved of the interruption of Russia-U.S. relations, although it did not display this publicly.

Naturally, Russia and China do not always see eye-to-eye on international affairs. Both, however, believe that U.S. foreign policy can lead only to chaos, as illustrated by the situation in the Middle East. In the Far East, they believe the U.S. is trying to destabilize the situation along China’s borders (for example, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang), in order to isolate China through military alliances, and sabotage the country’s attempts to establish good relations with its neighbors. According to Moscow and Beijing, the U.S. wants to move NATO’s borders as close as possible to Russia’s, and neutralize Moscow’s efforts to achieve the integration of Eurasian territories.

China is supportive of Russia in its conflict with the West, and particularly with the United States, mainly because it has no interest in the U.S. breaking Moscow’s will to resist. Much less does Beijing want Russia to collapse or descend into chaos. A pro-West or chaotic Russia would represent a grave danger for China. Furthermore, Beijing is sensitive to the fact that the U.S. is a cause for concern for any country or government which is not Western or favorable to the West, and particularly for an independent China. Although on one hand Russia and China believe the United States is still the strongest country in the world – at least in the short term – on the other hand they realize that Washington cannot impose its will everywhere. And they believe U.S. influence becomes less effective the wider it spreads.

Another element that explains the rapprochement between Russia and China is the friendship between Putin and Xi Jinping. They see each other as strong men and believe their friendship can be the foundation of good relations, at least for a few years.

Toward a Greater Asia?

After the events of 2014, Russia’s attention shifted, therefore, from a Greater Europe to a Greater Asia, extending from Shanghai to Saint Petersburg. Cooperation in the energy sector is just one part of this plan. For example, China is collaborating with Russia on the development of infrastructure. There is a plan to extend the high-speed railway line from Moscow to Kazan and, via Kazakhstan, to Beijing. There are China’s investments to modernize the ports of Russia’s Pacific coast, and develop a northern route connecting Asia to Europe. In the current circumstances, China’s plan to create a shared economic area, under the banner of a “new Silk Road,” will generate symbiosis – and not competition – with Russia’s plans for integration with Asia.

There is an intense transformation occurring not just in politics, but also in the Russian mindset. Russia’s focus is located to the west of the Urals. Russia today is still, in some ways, the country focus by the Romanovs, with a ruling class at least half European. Even Lenin was able to view his revolution as part of the European one. And Russians, in the end, are used to feeling European. On the other hand, there was a time in Russia’s history when, under the Mongols, it was part of a great empire that had its capital in Beijing. All of this means that turning to the East is not simple, and returning to the West is always a possibility. Or perhaps Russia might determine a new position for itself, halfway between the two realities.

What is happening in Russia today is an attempt at modernization based on integration and balance, which has already been successfully achieved in Japan (Japan however, has a democratic government), and recently also in China. It is an effort to integrate the values of the country with those coming in from elsewhere.

Russia has already attempted to deny its history and become what it was not, through artificial reforms and revolutions led from above, with catastrophic consequences. We should at least support the current effort to end its internal conflict, fought at times with bloody battles between different classes and groups, and at times in the fields of ideology and historical research.

Russia’s effort to find its place within the vastness of Eurasia is not just a geostrategic opportunity. It is not so much a question of winning a spot in the limelight, as a question of ensuring that the country finally finds its own route to modernity and, at the same time, does not self-destruct.


[1].1 Cf. D. Trenin, From Greater Europe to Greater Asia? The Sino-Russian Entente, www.carnegie.ru