Putin's Pivot

Why Russia Is Looking East

A sailor of Russia's Black Sea fleet sits behind a red sheet, December 2, 2007. Gleb Garanich / Courtesy Reuters

In June of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, put forth his intentions to take a page from the United States’ book and pivot east. He announced ambitious plans to boost Russia’s economic growth by looking to the Asia-Pacific region rather than to its traditional markets in Europe. He proposed massive investments in infrastructure, including upgrading the trans-Siberian railway to better link his country to the Pacific. And he praised the state oil company Rosneft for concluding a major export deal with China. The speech came less than a year after Putin hosted the annual meeting of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Vladivostok, an event billed as Russia’s official coming out party -- or coming back out party –- after decades of strategic and economic neglect of its own Far East.

The shift in economic focus might sound very much like the U.S. pivot to Asia, and Russia has indeed begun to reassert its military presence in the Asia-Pacific like the United States and other regional powers. What is different, however, is that Moscow has taken great pains to emphasize that its primary goal is to cooperate, not compete, with Beijing. Russia denies that there is even the slightest element of trying to contain China in its regional policy. Indeed, during a meeting with international journalists and analysts in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi in September 2010, Putin accused “foreign experts” of “always trying to frighten us with China.” He retorted, “We’re not frightened. China does not worry us . . . China and Russia will cooperate on many questions.” Putin pronounced himself delighted with the state of relations, and Beijing seems to have taken a similar line. Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to make his first official visit as president to Russia in March. And in July, Beijing and Moscow solidified their cooperation with joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan.

Russia’s motivations are

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