A turn to Asia: the history of the political idea

13 january 2016

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Resume: Russia has already made its turn towards Asia, and the important question now is how deep and successful it will be.

Russia has already made its turn towards Asia, and the important question now is how deep and successful it will be. It is also critical what forms and substance it will assume, what costs and benefits it will bring, and whether it will be accompanied, in the best tradition of Russian political maximalism, by an attempt at civilizational divorce from the European spiritual and cultural tradition rooted in the millennia-old history of Russia, the Russian Tzardom, the Russian Empire, and eventually the Soviet Union?

This turn, intensified by the latest deterioration of relations with the West, including enlarged Western Europe, has a difficult intellectual history. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was advocated almost solely by Russian Orientalists. They were, and still are, a strong intellectual force and were less affected than other international relations experts when science was constantly underfunded. But Orientalists had only little influence in the past, nor do they have much of it now, as they focused more on culture, languages and civilization rather than on contemporary politics and economy. Besides, underfunding limited the possibility of experts in the modern West and the modern East to study the latest trends.    

But the biggest difficulty in finding intellectual substantiation for the need to make an economic turn to the East was a political one. The prevailing opinion among the Russian elites and intellectuals was, and probably still is, that all the good things had come to Russia from the West, and if Russia could only try to join it, or at least come close enough, all its problems would be solved. This tradition is deep rooted. Ancient Rus borrowed its original culture and religion from Byzantium, which was the most advanced part of Europe at that time.     

Reforms carried out by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and other transformations that followed were largely based on the European experience. Both Zapadniki (Westernizers) and Slavophiles undoubtedly shared European views and cultural traditions. The former tried to implant the European experience passionately as only Russian can do. The latter tried to adapt it to the Russian traditions, history, geography, and character. The nineteenth century, the best in Russian history, was quite European in nature as it gave Russia and the world the greatest works of literature, and in political terms it passed in the shadow of the brilliant victory over Napoleon, and of the Congress of Vienna where Alexander I played first violin.       

Russia’s intellectual and political elite overslept changes in global development at the end of the twentieth  century. Asia, which had always been viewed, ignorantly in part, as a symbol of filth, poverty and tyranny, made a leap forward at the turn of the twenty-first century, pushing the West aside and regaining leadership in the world economy, and to some extent in science and culture, which it had lost in the second half of the last millennium. By contrast, Europe, having reached the peak of its civilizational development and produced the best ever political achievement of mankind – the European Union, started drifting away from persistent labor and other traditional values, sank into a multilayered crisis with no end in sight, and began to retreat. In fact, Spengler’s prophesy about the decline of the Europe may come true.  

European-minded Russian intellectuals have found strong support among the new bourgeoisie, which they so dislike but which historically came onto stage largely with the help of economic ties with the West where it kept its money. Zapadniki also dominate the economic part of the ruling elite in Russia, while Slavophile economists have not been cultured yet or they have not been let into the corridors of power. 

Russia’s turn towards rising Asia and its rapidly growing markets was also hindered by the fact that it had long been advocated by the Russian supporters of “Euroasianists”, that is, the descendants of Russian ultra traditionalists, if not downright obscurantists; and also recently by communists who, as always, nourished the utopia: idea of social and political adherence to the Chinese model of development. Mystical and often confusing works of contemporary “Eurasianists” clearly revealed strong aversion to the West, and to progress and modernization which over the past several centuries were closely associated in the minds of Russians with that damned West. Calls from “Eurasianists” provoked ever stronger resistance from the Zapadniki, who were rapidly falling behind the times, and lent more energy and legitimacy to their arguments and views. Clearly, most of the present-day “Eurasianists,” just like contemporary westernizers, have never known modern Asia, or Europe, or their new achievements, or their new problems. The fight in the Russian intellectual and political space was going for or against their ephemeral perceptions, as well as for the self-identification of Russian people who were drifting away from Soviet identity but who had not yet found a new one. (For the time being Russia has returned to its initial main national ideas – defense and sovereignty at all costs. It may be a good interim solution but could be dangerous as the final one. No country can succeed or win in the modern world solely by defending its own identity) But let us take a closer look at the central idea of this book.   

Fifteen years ago, while thinking about how to invigorate the withering national economy and seeing clear signs of strong economic growth in Asia, the author put together a group of experts and politicians under the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy so that they could figure out how to use this rise and also, or rather above all, find ways to rejuvenate Siberia and the Far East, which had been most affected by the turmoil of the 1990s. The working group, co-headed by State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov from Altai and Taimyr Governor Alexander Khloponin, published a book titled “A Strategy for Russia: New Development of Siberia and the Far East” [1]. It contained rather innovative ideasfor its time and focused on the search for ways to make Siberian regions more competitive on the emerging markets. It also put forward the “Project Siberia” which called for developing the region by attracting  investments not only from China but from all leading Asian and European countries, and of course by giving maximum freedom to local entrepreneurs. In fact, local initiative and Russian adventurism had always played a key role in the development of Siberia. Every time the state took over, the growth stopped (as in the late period of Catherine’s era) or claimed millions of lives and was economically ineffective (as during Stalin’s rule).

Some had tried to prove that Russia would not have enough resources in the coming decades to spur a new era of economic growth in Siberia. The report offered a completely new approach, especially amid almost identical development programs that had turned out in great numbers but proved unrealistic already in Soviet times since they required enormous budget investments. They looked quite ridiculous in a capitalist and free market economy. But the report went to waste as the country and its elite had more urgent matters to attend to than Asia and Siberia, they were busy struggling to survive and grab property. The prevailing part of the elite thought that the only way to do so was the closest possible integration with Europe and the West. This explains why the arguments for a turn towards rising markets were never heard although they were quite modernist and rational, that is, Western as defined in the Russian intellectual tradition.  

This struggle is still going on even though everyone understands now that Asian markets have a big future and that the European crisis will be complex and long and will further complicate relations with the European Union, exacerbated by the sanctions which not only harm current economic relations but also turn Europeans into unreliable partners for Russia and other countries in the future.   

But let me go back to the history of this book. Six years ago, when Russia’s foreign economic strategy with regard to Asia was still based on what we could offer to its markets rather on what they actually needed, that is, on totally non-market and unrealizable principles, our Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics started exploring prospects of Russia on Asian markets. We looked for available Russian studies and found almost none. So, a team of young post-graduates working at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of our Faculty was tasked with finding new niches for Russia in Asia. And they came to some very interesting conclusions. It turned out that for the first time in history Siberia and the Russian Far East could be more than just the home base in the confrontation with the West or a frontline in the fight with China. Changes in global markets had given them strong competitive advantages, primarily in water-intensive industries that make food, cellulose, and synthetic fiber for Asian markets, almost all of which lack water for industrial and agricultural purposes as well as for individual use. Another competitive advantage is their ability to make energy-intensive products. In fact, even cold weather can become an advantage if used properly. Low temperatures and relatively cheap electricity make it much less costly to store data in Siberia than in Hong Kong or regions around it where most data centers are located and where they need large amounts of electricity for air conditioning. The first such data storage center is being built near Irkutsk.    

These and other industries use modern technologies and promote their development. Many authors who wrote about the rise of Siberia and the Russian Far East noted the need for innovations in the region and called for a new round of industrialization. But this day-dreaming only distracted attention and failed to take into account the industrial growth in Asia with its much bigger and less expensive labor resources. This does not mean that research and production clusters should not be created around Novosibirsk, Tomsk or Krasnoyarsk. The question is, how should this be done and for what markets? 

To this end, numerous studies were conducted, some two dozen situation analyses made, and countless memos, articles, and reports written. We visited government agencies, state corporations and banks, trying to prove the obvious. They politely heard us out, but that was it. And yet, little strokes fell great oaks, and gradually the attitude began to change. Of course, our work was only a small part of the efforts undertaken by different people in the government, the business community, and mass media to advance the idea.

It did not go smoothly and had to fight its way through the strong resistance of traditional mentality and economic interests. The authors of the idea, who I think rightfully considered themselves progressionists and modernists, were accused of going “against Europe,” against “modernization” and even “against democracy.” In orders to overcome serious opposition and put questions squarely to themselves and society. For example, we,argued that if Peter the Great were still alive today, he would establish a new Russian capital not in St. Petersburg but on the Pacific coast. That assumption stirred heated debates in society. It was ridiculed at first, but then the government made the decision (which has not been implemented yet, as is often the case in Russia) to transfer some of its agencies and head offices of large corporations from Moscow to the Far East. Mentality of the Russian elite was slowly shifting eastward, which is quire rational in the twenty-first century.

The working group kept growing and began studying major economic phenomena in Asia. It made a very important innovative conclusion that East, Southeast, and South Asia, which had risen by exporting products and services to other countries, was rapidly redirecting commodity, investment and financial flows to domestic Asian markets, moving from the “Asia for the world” to the “Asia for Asia” model. This shift will have important economic and geopolitical consequences that have yet to be assessed. But one thing was quite clear already several years ago: China would most likely be turning Westward, towards Central Asia and Europe, and therefore towards Russia. This turn has now taken shape as the Silk Road Economic Belt concept.  

The study of the logistics aspects of Russia’s eastward turn showed that traditional transport routes did not (and still do not) match development needs of the trans-Urals territories under new circumstances. They did not allow Central Siberia, one of the Russian regions with the most developed industrial potential and human resources, to overcome its “continental curse” – remoteness from markets. Plans to increase the transportation of goods from the Pacific to Europe and back at best were outdated and uncompetitive and failed to meet the needs of the market, or were even harmful and diverted resources. The future of the Northern Sea Route looks more optimistic. Its economic potential has been studied in numerous works, some of which can be found in this book. It also transpired that the main infrastructure shortfall in trans-Urals Russia was almost a complete lack of vertical, or meridional, routes – railways and paved roads – that could link Siberia and the Far East with vast markets in China and potentially in Iran, India, and Pakistan.    

By thinking over a logistics strategy providing a “new transport framework” for Siberia and the Russian Far East, and analyzing other geo-economic and geopolitical factors in Asia, experts came to the conclusion that it would be possible and desirable to create “Central Eurasia” (this concept was outlined in a report of the same name released by the Valdai International Discussion Club [3]) as a new development region. It could be based on cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. The next step brought together experts from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and other countries to substantiate the possibilities and the need for integrating the EAEU and SREB, which hitherto were regarded in popular political and economic literature as perpetual competitors. This academic idea eventually found its way into real policy when Russian President Putin and Chinese  leader Xi in May 2015 signed a joint statement on the "coupling" of the two projects.

The creation of the Ministry for the Development of the Far East was intended to help solve many issues. It practically did not work in the first few years but then made some progress. Having overcome bureaucratic resistance, the ministry presented a concept of advanced development territories and determined the first of them. But the progress of current projects is impeded by bureaucratic uncertainty and the lack of initiative on the part of the local authorities, as well as by the administrative gap whereby Siberia and the Far East are not managed as one whole. Although the president has designated the development of this region as Russia’s main project in the twenty-first century, sometimes it seems that its implementation may be delayed until its latter part.    

Economic processes and plans are studied in our project and book in inseparable association with strategic and foreign policy developments in the macro-region of East, Central and South Asia. Now that a new situation has developed there and traditional geopolitics has come to the region, Russia has a chance to play a constructive and active role, which until recently was quite limited.

Russia must pursue an active Pacific policy aimed at helping to settle crises under a more or less optimistic scenario where China and the United States (primarily the latter) avoid fierce confrontation and build a Pacific Cooperation Community as proposed by Henry Kissinger or in case if rivalry prevails. Whether it is competition or cooperation, Russia must be active in determining the agenda and getting engaged in the work of a new global center that will  in  economic, political and military-strategic matters occupy the place of the Atlantic  world  occupied  for the last several centuries. Russia’s participation is all the more necessary now that some countries are trying to prevent it by dividing Europe again and fueling confrontation over Ukraine keeping Russia in the old political markets.  

Our studies revealed signs of an emerging new economic and political space in Eurasia, a space that is open to cooperation with all countries and that can tentatively be called a Greater Eurasian Community. It is forming around the ever expanding and strengthening Shanghai Cooperation Organization.   

Russia’s economic turn to the East was boosted by dramatic confrontation with the West which began in 2013-2014. It is no longer just a beneficial shift in the economic policy. It is assuming geopolitical and civilizational features.

Angered by the Versailles policy the West has been trying to pursue in silk gloves over the past twenty years by advancing the zone of its influence and control towards the Russian border, the Russian ruling elite decided to make it clear that it would not agree to be treated as a defeated power. In addition, there are differences in values as Russia sought to embrace traditional European values, while the European elite was abandoning and leaving them behind. As a result, Russia, which has become a more European country over the last years, was moving farther away from contemporary European culture.       

From the very beginning we tried to emphasize in our works that a Europe-or-Asia choice was not only disadvantageous but actually quite dangerous for Russia. In fact, a country that had become a European power due to the audacity of trailblazers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries always developed as part of European civilization.  

We do hope that a choice which is dangerous for the Russian identity and unproductive for the Russian economy will never be made. Russia is on the way to obtaining the status of great Eurasian and Atlantic-Pacific power, which will be beneficial and natural for it in the new world; sovereign but at the same time absorbing resources and the best practices of its mother civilization in Europe and the resurging Asian one. The Greater Eurasian Community concept should by all means include the western, European, part of the continent, for this will ultimately benefit Europe which has entered a period of deep crisis and has to adapt to new realities.     

The series of reports prepared by the Valdai International Discussion Club as the sinew of our project is called “Towards the Great Ocean.” [2] This was the motto of entrepreneurs, engineers, workers, and military oficers who built the Trans-Siberian Railway at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Not only did they open up new eastern horizons for Russia, but they also pulled Europe, its culture and technologies towards the Pacific Ocean. We shall hope that the new eastward turn will allow Russia to increase its power and prosperity, and facilitate the wellbeing of all nations in Eurasia. In the twenty-first century our country will take a worthy place as a great Atlantic-Pacific power that brings together Europe and Asia in a peaceful and advantageous neighborship. 

The works presented in this book are only a tiny part of our project. I am sure they will be followed by more materials written together with our colleagues from Greater Eurasia. But most importantly, ideas, articles, reports, and books will pave the way for a plenitude of new economic, political, logistics, educational, cultural, and information projects. 

The work to build a Greater Eurasian Community has just started.


  1. Ye.N. Andreyeva, Zh.A. Zaionchkovskaya, O.V. Kuznetsova, V.N. Leksin, V.N. Lyubovny, Ye.Ye. Skatershchikova, A.K. Ushakov, A.N. Shvetsov “A Strategy for Russia: New Development of Siberia and the Far East” / edited by V.N. Leksin, A.N. Shvetsov. Project Heads V.A. Ryzhkov, A.G. Khloponin. Moscow: Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, 2001.
  2. T.B. Bordachev, O.N. Barabanov. “Towards the Great Ocean, or the New Globalization of Russia” / edited by S.A. Karaganov. Moscow, Valdai International Discussion Club, 2012; I.A. Makarov, O.N. Barabanov,T.V. Bordachev, Ye.A. Kanayev, V.L. Larin, V.A. Ryzhkov, “Towards the Great Ocean-2, or Russia’s Breakthrough to Asia” / edited by S.A. Karaganov. Moscow, Valdai International Discussion Club, 2014; N.V. Bordachev, S.A. Karaganov, A.A. Bezborodov, A.T. Gabuyev, K.V. Kuzovkov, A.B. Likhacheva, A.V. Lukin, I.A. Makarov, Ye.A. Makarova, A.S. Skriba, D.V. Suslov, I.N. Timofeyev. “Towards the Great Ocean-3: Creating Central Eurasia” / edited by S.A. Karaganov. Moscow, Valdai International Discussion Club, 2015.
  3. T.B. Bordachev, S.A. Karaganov, A.A. Bezborodov, A.T. Gabuyev, K.V. Kuzovkov, A.B. Likhacheva, A.V. Lukin, I.A. Makarov, Ye.A. Makarova, A.S. Skriba, D.V. Suslov, I.N. Timofeyev, “Towards the Great Ocean -3: Creating Central Eurasia” / edited by S.A. Karaganov. Moscow: Valdai International Discussion Club, 2015.

// This is a translation of the preface to the monograph "A Turn to the East: Development of Siberia and the Far East in the Context of Strengthening the Eastern Vector of Russia's Foreign Policy" published in Russian by Mezhdunarodnye Otnoshenia Publishers, Moscow, 2015. 

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