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A Public Forum on “Russia’s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia”

A Public Forum on “Russia’s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia”

Friday, 22nd May 2015 at 09:00 – 11:30 a.m.

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building, 
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Opening Remarks

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana
Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



Dr. Victor Sumsky
Director of the ASEAN Centre, MGIMO-University, Moscow, Russia

Assist. Prof. Dr. Natthanan Kunnamas
Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ekaterina Koldunova
Department of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations,
MGIMO-University, Moscow, Russia


Mr. Bunn Nagara
Senior Fellow, Foriegn Policy and Security Studies (FPSS)
Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia


Dr. Peter J. Shearman
Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Director of ISIS Thailand,

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Power Point Presentation

Russia's Eastward Turn: Implications for Russia and Thailand?:


Videos - Russia s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia

Russia s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia 1/3:

Russia s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia 2/3:

Russia s Eastward Turn: Implications for Southeast Asia 3/3:


If you wish more detailed information concerning this seminar please click


Opening Remarks: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

It is more common to talk about the United States' pivot or rebalance to Asia, but the United States is not the only major power that has turned its attention to the East. Recently, Russia has also turned eastward. This is perhaps because Russia - like other major powers - does not want to miss the East which is arguably where the center of the action in the 21st Century will be. Also, it might be due to Russia being a country with a vast land mass; turning East could mean securing its growth and stability and being a part of Asia’s bright future. Or it could also be the result of Russia’s tension and problem with Europe. With regards to Thailand, Russia has been a major power in Thailand’s past, present, and future. Thailand wants to be close to the major powers and for them to be close to us.


Introductory remarks:  H.E. Mr. Kirill Barsky

It is a timely initiative and the right decision to bring Russia into the academic discourse in Thailand. Although the topic is about Russia’s turn to the Asia Pacific region, Russia has actually always been here and has always been a player in this region. Today, the rules of the game and the balance between different players are changing. The Asia-Pacific is gaining a new dynamic. Thus, this completely new situation is a good opportunity for the academic community to discuss important questions. What roles should major powers play today? What kind of relationship should Thailand and ASEAN play with the major powers including Russia today?


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Very recently the Prime Minister of Russia visited Thailand. Russia-Thailand relations go back a very long way. When we think of Russia, we also think of other major powers whose interests are in the region. However, unlike the other major powers, we do not know enough about Russia’s interests. Furthermore, as relations between Russia and China are again beginning to warm, we would like to understand more about the political situation in Russia.


Dr. Victor Sumsky

Like other important players in the world, Russia has pivoted to Asia. However, Russia did not start its pivot at the same time as the United States, nor was its pivot a reaction. Russia’s eastward turn is, in fact, a much longer story.


It is more accurate to say that Russia is ‘tiptoeing’ into the region rather than quickly moving into it. Moscow’s eastward turn has been precipitated by two major factors; first, a global ‘evolutionary-revolutionary moment’ where geopolitical power shifts from unipolarity to multipolarity. Second, the end of Russia’s post-Cold War dream of joining the ranks of the countries of the Western Hemisphere.


Russia will not take the same approach in its Asian turn as it did with the West. For 300 years, Russia had dreamed of becoming a part of Europe; however, its current pivot is not about becoming Asian. Rather, Russia is now more interested in carving and embracing its own Eurasian identity.


With regard to the United States, a great deal of psychological pressure has been heaped on Russia. While cooperation and diplomatic relations with Washington and Europe will proceed as business as usual, in terms of identity and trust they will never be the same.  


The phenomenal rise of China’s influence and economy does give Russia some impetus in its turn to Asia, but China is by no means the only participant or promoter in the emerging multipolar world. Thus, Russia’s eastward turn is not only about China, but also advancing Russia’s realization of its true Eurasian identity and its potential through closer links with China and the Asian region as a whole.


As Russia and China become closer, their cooperation is becoming more realistic, and together they can bring to the table much more than their national potential alone would be able to. For instance, Russia has tremendous energy potential while China has a rapidly growing, energy dependent economy. There will also be a need to connect Russia’s railway with China’s Silk Road, both old and new.


The Eurasian and Asia-Pacific connection efforts will be difficult to resist for Russia and China’s neighbors to the East and the West. The following examines possible candidates for participants in Russo-China cooperation. First, India has shown positive signs that it will be a willing participant in the Russia-China cooperation. Second, although Japan has reemphasized its alliance with the United States, it is interested in the opportunities for development of Siberia and the Far Eastern Territories. Third, middle powers such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have also been receptive to the potential of Russia-China cooperation. In particular, food production is Russia’s priority in terms of development, and New Zealand was one of the first countries to start free trade negotiations with Russia and has been able to establish food production in Russia itself. Finally, another possible participant in Russia-China cooperation is ASEAN. ASEAN is interested in becoming a meaningful player, but there are some problems: the world is moving towards multipolarity, and ASEAN will have to choose side in this transitional moment. However, it is likely that ASEAN will ‘try’ not to take side just like it did during the Cold War (although the reality is otherwise).


The hard truth is in order to maintain ASEAN’s centrality, ASEAN will have to take a position in the multipolar world. Military cooperation between Russia and China will be advantageous for the rest of Asia and for the rest of the world.


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ekaterina Koldunova

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became very Europe-oriented as it hoped to join the West. However, recent developments have proved that this hope will never be met, so Russia has been forced to take a more balanced foreign policy approach between Europe and Asia. In 2012, Russia hosted the APEC Summit where it invited its foreign partners to experience Russia and tried to build the region into a hub for international activity.


The rhetoric of turning to Asia was a popular idea among Russia’s political elite, but not for the businesspeople who still conduct business as usual with the West. But this changed after the 2014 crisis in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by Europe. To Russia, Europe is no longer the reliable partner it once was, and now both political elites and businesspeople share the same vision that Russia should turn towards Asia.


The argument is that current international and domestic constraints are pushing Russia towards East Asia, but there are a number of problems that slow down this process. The problems include the incomplete institutionalization of the Ministry for Development of Russian Far East, the non-transparent mechanisms of financial support for Siberia and the Far Eastern Development, and Russia’s asymmetric relations with its East Asian states.


Regarding the domestic dimension, there are demographic and social problems in the Far East. The reason is that there has been a ‘shadow integration’ between Russia and East Asia. That is, people and companies are integrating in their own ways through trans-nationalization of companies or cross-border black markets. This problem calls for Russia to rethink its territorial development in terms of its institutional framework. What can be done with such a vast territory? Russia has found the answer in the ‘territories of the advanced development’ project.


On the international dimension, Sino-Russian relations are not only a matter of regional significance, but also of global significance. Furthermore, Russia has weaker economic links with other regional players in Asia, namely, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and ASEAN member states, but this is mostly due to the historical background. Finally, although Russia has demonstrated its interest in APEC after hosting the event in 2012, it has yet to participate more actively in it.


To sum up, Russia’s eastward turn is not without problems. One of the most pressing tasks is to rethink Russia’s territorial development in the Far East. There is also a problem of the intra-elite struggles, and the two levels of asymmetry in Russia’s relations with East Asia, namely its relations with China and its relations with the rest of the region.


The implications for both Russia and Thailand are that both countries need to focus on pressing internal problems and to find appropriate responses to them. Also, both countries have a strong impetus for the diversification of their foreign partnerships. Finally, good historical legacies in bilateral relations can be now converted into more robust economic ties if both partners act efficiently and creatively.


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak: How would you like to see the Ukraine crisis be settled? What is Russia’s outlook towards the Baltics and other areas?


Dr. Victor Sumsky

The problem in Ukraine is not an issue at all. Ukraine is all about a regime change in Russia. The United States thinks that Russia is incredibly weak, so it messes with Russia. In Crimea, it was Russia’s responsibility to protect; no one was killed and the economy was intact. In fact, 80% of Crimea is enthusiastically supportive of Russia. Russia is now at the forefront of the global development, and it must stand firm in its position. President Putin has been resilient and must stay strong in the face of the assumption that Russia is weak.


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ekaterina Koldunova

Regarding the Baltic states, this is a good opportunity for them to make themselves visible internationally. Regarding Ukraine, although we wish to see it become more democratic, in reality we see a political clash. This is unfortunate as Ukraine has the economic potential equivalent to that of Germany. Russia’s dialogue with Ukraine has so far not been very fruitful. Because the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict in 1969 has provided important lessons for both Russia and China, Beijing has proven to be quite responsive to the Russian concern.



Dr. Peter J. Shearman

Russia’s eastward turn is not a reaction to the United States' pivot to Asia but is the result of the last breath of its attempt to integrate into the wider West. The precipitant cause for Russia’s turn to the East is the crisis in Ukraine that was caused by the illegal coup supported by the United States. It caused the society to split, and it made clear to all whose side the United States is on. That was the last straw for Russia. Taking a wider lens, the intermediate causes go back centuries. Ukraine has always been very important to Russia. Losing it after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 is comparable to the United States losing its twelve original states.


Looking at the individual level of analysis, President Putin is the person responsible in large part to this event. Some say that the President is trying to restore Russia to its past empire and that this could prove to be a threat to the world. However, Shearman believes that if it were not President Putin in the Kremlin, the world would be in a much worse place.


At the international level, it is argued that Russia is pushed to the East rather than voluntarily turning to it. After the Cold War ended, bipolarity gave way to unipolarity, and Russia looked to the West. Gorbachev and his successors adopted liberal, western-oriented policies. However, Russia has become increasingly isolated from the West. One reason is that the West has continued to expand NATO without any purpose while continuing to exclude Russia. NATO was established during the Cold War to fight communism, but even after the end of the Cold War, NATO was still expanding and can be perceived as a threat to Russia. Thus, Russia did not jump into Asia but was pushed into it by misperceptions, misunderstandings, and the United States' aggressive policy. Russia did not have any choice but to look East and to China in particular. However, Russia’s eastward turn will not last long not only because of the history of conflict between Russia and China but also because the United States will soon or already have recognized the danger of Russia’s strategic alliance with China. The Ukraine problem must be resolved through diplomatic means, and the ultimate resolution might be some sort of federalism or the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine. Russia’s eastward turn is temporary, and it will sooner or later move back to the West, where Shearman believes it belongs.


Assist. Prof. Dr. Natthanan Kunnamas

Russia has not moved entirely from the West to the East. The crisis in Ukraine will be used as a turning point to discuss Russia before and after the crisis. The important question is whether the crisis is large enough to make President Putin feel the need to become closer to China.


Before the crisis, Russia and the United States had the same interests in the Asia-Pacific, namely the nuclear security in North Korea and growing economy in the region. East Asia is a very dynamic region with a lot of savings and a big market to which Russia exported a lot of oil and gas. China was a big supporter of Russia in terms of international alliances, for instance, on human rights issues that the West was trying to pressure the Russian domestic politics.


When the crisis started, it was a very big test for President Putin’s diplomacy. Kunnamas believes that the President has ahd the plan to turn eastward for several years. It was not only because Russia wanted to benefit from the growing Chinese economy, but also because there has been more pressure from the West’s sanctions and embargoes on Russia. Thus, the crisis in Ukraine is an important turning point for Russia’s pivot to Asia.


China has recently proven to be a close ally to Russia by abstaining from voting on a UN Security Council draft resolution that would have condemned the referendum in Crimea as illegal. Although Japan is reluctant towards Russia because it is in the Western club and must oppose Russia’s position on Ukraine and Crimea, Japan needs energy supplies from Russia. Thus, Japan’s relations with Russia is a big dilemma. India, on the other hand, is very serious about fostering its relations with Russia because they have been security partners since the Cold War.


Regarding the Asia-Pacific, Russia has made a big move towards the region. It has the Department of Asia-Pacific Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deal specifically with the region, and the city of Vladivostok will potentially provide many opportunities for Russia’s participation with Asia. Furthermore, there are also bilateral ties between Russia and each country in ASEAN. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have accommodated Russia for a long time due to the Cold War ideology in the past. Thailand and Russia have also had long diplomatic ties, but there were some troubled times in their past relations especially during the Cold War when Thailand – like many countries in Southeast Asia – felt the need to frame Russia as a threat in their fight against Communism. Nonetheless, Thailand is the largest partner with Russia in Southeast Asia today despite the political turmoil.


Mr. Bunn Nagara

Russia’s turn to the East should not be assumed to be permanent just like any other alignment. For instance, Germany, one of the closest allies of the United States, was the first to join China’s AIIB.


ASEAN has been a pro-regional status quo and has not been pro-outside power. ASEAN as a whole has not been aligned with any countries because it cannot afford to do so. ASEAN’s primary goal is national interest based on peace, stability, and prosperity, each of which would not be possible if ASEAN were to align with any countries.


Previously, Russia has always been about Moscow. However, the truth is most parts of Russia are in Asia. Russia has always over-invested in the West and under-invested in the Far East and in Asia. On the contrary, the United States has been investing in both the West and the East, and that is one of the many reasons that enable it to be the most powerful country in the world. Thus, for economic and strategic reasons, it makes sense for Russia to do more in the East. However, sustainability is a big question because Russia was pushed rather than willingly jumped into the region.


However, there are both the push and pull factors. The push is of course the negative reaction from the pressure by the West. The pull is the attractiveness of the East from its growing economy and also its geostrategic importance to Russia. Next, six areas of Russia’s Asia pivot will be discussed.


I.         Problems facing the Russia’s Asia Pivot

A.       Bureaucratic and institutional inertia in enforcing something new and unfamiliar in the region.

B.       Negative international image of a hesitant and uncommitted novice as a player in Asia’s affairs (due to its underinvestment in the              East).

C.       Diversion competing for policy attention and resources (such as Ukraine).

D.       Absence of impressive track records of dealings in Asia to ensure potential partners and investors in this region.

E.       Lack of substance in Russia’s eastward turn:

1.       Lack of cohesive, visionary, and integrated plan over the long term.

2.       Lack of resources from Russia for an enduring investment in a project of this kind.

3.       Lack of consistency and demonstrable commitment.

4.       Lack of institutional preparedness.

5.       Lack of appreciation and understanding of Asian cultures and norms.

6.       Lack of experiences of operating smoothly and confidently in Asia and in the Far East.

II.       The likely regional responses to Russia’s turn

A.       The primary or national responses of individual countries will depend on the issues of goals of Russia whether they are competing or mutual with those of the countries in Southeast Asia, the bilateral diplomatic relations whether they will support or obstruct key economic interests, and the history of bilateral relations whether they are positive or negative.

B.       The regional institutional responses will be cautious, tentative, and largely observational, and it will depend on Russia’s policy action, initiatives and style because countries in Asia are reactive in nature.

C.       The consequential or follow-up responses based on the responses of major power themselves could be the division and partisanship or factionalism that could lead to a new cold war.

D.      The inadvertent or negative responses that should be avoided are mostly the result from perception such as Russia being too close to China and therefore is perceived as a challenge to the West or Russia being perceived as too militaristic in its pivot.

III.     The common themes and objectives shared between Southeast Asia and Russia

A.       Pragmatism in policy matter including disputes and contentious issues.

B.       Sense of national sovereignty.

C.       Principle of nonintervention or interference in internal affairs.

D.      Regional non-alignment and global multipolarity.

E.       Common prosperity, policy reciprocity and actions to serve mutual interests.

IV.     The differences between Southeast Asia and Russia

A.       Big and small power relations.

B.       Different cultural mindset.

C.       Different work culture.

D.      Lingering dispute, for instance, over island territories.

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