After crimea: Southeast Asia in Russia's foreign policy narrative.

AuthorTsvetov, Anton

Sour relations with the West largely determine contemporary Russian foreign policy. The Ukrainian crisis was a tipping point for relations between Russia and the West which had been steadily deteriorating for over a decade. On the one hand, Moscow did not believe that the West was taking its interests seriously, and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), together with a planned missile defence system in Europe, were all perceived as unfriendly moves towards Russia in its immediate neighbourhood. On the other hand, the West expected Russia to demonstrate a faster pace of democratization and market reforms, as well as a willingness to "let go" of the former republics of the Soviet Union. These mutual perceptions provided the proximate cause of the full-scale rift which occurred after the two parties engaged in open confrontation over the future of Ukraine in 2014. The breakdown in relations between Russia and the West led Russian policymakers to turn their attention eastwards, leading some observers to speak of Russia's "Asian pivot", similar to that undertaken by the Obama administration since 2011. Though Russian officials reiterate, and scholars confirm, that this shift has been a part of the country's foreign policy for several decades--arguably starting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 Vladivostok speech--there is little doubt that it is precisely the Russia-West conflict over the Ukraine that gives the pivot new meaning. Yet it seems that Russia's pivot is portrayed as having been forced upon the country, as well as being tactical, lacking in substance and skewed towards China.

Southeast Asia is presumably among the targets and beneficiaries of Russia's Asian pivot, but substantial cooperation has yet to occur. The aim of this article is to assess Russia's current engagement with Southeast Asia within the broader context of the country's foreign policy. As such, the approach taken in this article is deliberately Russia-centric. This article proposes a motivational framework for interpreting Russian policies towards Southeast Asian countries as well as regional organizations, including ASEAN and ASEAN-centred forums. It outlines the functions of Russia's activities in Southeast Asia, connects them to the overall objectives of Russia's external relations, and thus assesses how substantive Russia's interests are in the region. These proceedings will allow us to forecast the development of Russia-Southeast Asia relations in the near future.

The first section of this article explains Russia's current foreign policy priorities and the driving forces behind them. We will see how the Ukraine crisis affected Russian strategic thinking. This section will serve as a reference point for understanding the intended functions of the Russian pivot towards the Asia Pacific. In the second section, we will briefly assess the current level of bilateral and multilateral ties between Russia and the ASEAN states in key areas. Finally, the third section will compare the substance of Russia's engagement in Southeast Asia with the mission of the country's foreign policy, bringing together the proceedings of the first two sections.

The arguments presented in this article suggest that Russia's Asian pivot is at least secondary to other directions in the country's foreign policy. Interactions with the West, even in their confrontational mode, continue to absorb most of Russia's foreign policy bandwidth. Moreover, in 2015 Russia began military operations in Syria, and this will remain a major distraction for the Kremlin's foreign policy. In addition, the administration of President Vladimir Putin will be prioritizing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a major economic project aimed at cementing Russia's leadership of post-Soviet republics. Against this backdrop, growing cooperation with countries in the Asia Pacific aims to bring significant public relations benefits and add to the mainstream narrative of Russian policy, which is primarily aimed at portraying Russia as a Great Power with a diverse and multifaceted foreign policy. Even within the Asian pivot, Southeast Asia is secondary to China, which generates more value and visibility to Russia's attempts at reducing its dependence on the West. In other words, Southeast Asia is far from being a top priority in contemporary Russian foreign policy, but does have a special function within Russia's global strategy.

However, Russia's difficult geopolitical situation along with internal issues may prove to be beneficial to Southeast Asian states and their relations with Russia. This article argues that current conditions provide for a more open-minded Russia, one that will be more cooperative and welcoming towards projects initiated by Southeast Asian countries, as long as such projects create immediate economic value and political visibility.

Russia's Foreign Policy after Ukraine: Drivers and Aims

The foreign policy of post-Soviet Russia has seen different iterations over the course of the last twenty-five years, but it has always been, and still is, shaped predominantly by the country's relations with Europe and the United States. Thus, in order to understand Russia's current foreign policy, it is vital to understand Moscow's relations with the West. Though most of the factors influencing the current Russia-West rift have been in place since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the events in Ukraine have certainly exposed the underlying differences, encouraged the parties to act upon these differences and entrenched their rigid understandings of reality.

Russia and the West before Ukraine

When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist in 1991, the young democratic government in Russia expected fast and deep integration with the European Union (EU). As cooperation expanded rapidly, so did Western influence in former Soviet republics. When Russia finally managed to cope with most of its severe internal development issues in the early 2000s, the new leadership under President Vladimir Putin centralized political power, which was necessary to deal with internal terrorism threats (1) and provide a new level of growth-fostering stability. This domestic campaign required a stronger international posture, one that was initially not intended to be hostile to the West.

Despite successful cooperation with the West following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, a whole series of events gave the Russian leadership the impression that Washington and its European allies were not treating Russia as their equal. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, NATO's fourth round of expansion in 2004 (to include seven Eastern European states, including some directly bordering Russia) as well as perceived Western support for the "colour revolutions" of 2003 and 2004 in Georgia and the Ukraine respectively, all contributed to Moscow's growing distrust of the West.

The Georgian conflict in 2008 provided another low for Russia-West relations, and encouraged the parties to seek a new understanding. At that time, Russia witnessed a change in leadership and the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, appeared to be a more comfortable partner for the West. This new attempt at improving relations resulted in an attempt to "reset" US-Russia relations, including the signing of a new arms reduction treaty in 2010 (the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START).

The 2011 Arab Spring, however, dealt a severe blow to Russia-West relations. The Russian leadership (though it was not unanimous on this matter (2)) decided to abstain from voting on the Western-sponsored resolution on Libya at the United Nations, essentially allowing it to be passed. But the no-fly zone provided by the resolution was later interpreted by the international coalition as allowing it to intervene directly. This ultimately led to the downfall of the Gaddafi regime and the subsequent erosion of statehood in Libya. This was seen in Moscow as yet another reason for mistrusting the motives of American and European democratic endeavours in the Middle East and elsewhere. Regime changes supported by social media activism, often ending in great internal turmoil, provided the Russian political elite with arguments to caution the country's population of the dangers arising from such dissent. Thus in 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, he promised even greater internal stability and a more proactive stance internationally --essentially meaning a foreign policy that would be more assertive towards the West. (3)

The Ukrainian Crisis and the Sanctions War

When the crisis in the Ukraine broke out in the spring of 2014, it became evident that it was caused by clashing perceptions. Russia saw Western support for the Maidan protesters as intervention in Russia's nearest neighbourhood, an area of great historical and cultural importance. Russia's response, domestically seen as defensive--the accession of Crimea and support for rebel groups in southeastern Ukraine--was, in turn, perceived by Europe and the United States as a shift towards a hostile, even aggressive foreign policy. Since then, Russia and the West have engaged in a renewed type of "cold warfare" that is being waged in three distinct dimensions.

First, in the political dimension of the current crisis the parties have reduced the level of contact and narrowed the scope of cooperation. Russia was suspended from the Group of Eight (G8), widely condemned for its actions in Crimea, and individual sanctions were applied to selected Russian state officials who played a part in the country's involvement in the Crimean affair and the rebellion in southeastern Ukraine. (4)

Second, economic instruments are also widely employed by both sides in order to influence domestic attitudes and gain leverage at the Minsk negotiations, where Ukraine, Russia, Europe and rebel groups from southeastern Ukraine are seeking a...

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