Some crucial changes can pass almost unnoticed, as happened earlier this month, when it was decided to put off the EU-Russia summit from December to the end of January, or possibly even later.
A few years back, relations with the EU were a top priority for Russia. Beyond the undoubted historical and cultural links, Europe accounts for over a half of Russia’s trade and offers solutions for modernizing the country.
In the second half of the 1990s, Moscow insisted that summit meetings be held not just regularly, but twice a year. The EU had not held summit meetings so often with any other partner – including the United States, China, Africa or Ukraine – but it made an exception for Moscow. Their agenda seemed so saturated and so promising as to warrant frequent meetings at the top level.
They both regretted their decision by the mid-2000s.
Officials racked their brains about which issues to discuss and which documents to adopt, because heads of state cannot just meet for the sake of meeting.
But the EU-Russian portfolio of issues for discussion grew thinner. Contentions issues remained on the agenda, but proposals for a common future gave way to issues of minor significance, such as visa-free travel or the rights of sexual minorities. Economic relations are discussed at the bilateral level, and their development is mostly beyond Brussels’ responsibilities.
Neither the EU nor Russia wanted to reduce the number of summit meetings, because this would mean admitting their relations were withering. As a result, they made a technical decision and announced that their busy schedules prevented them from meeting in December, although the summit has not been cancelled outright.
What are Brussels and Moscow so busy doing?
Europe is working to overcome an internal crisis and to develop new relations with the United States.
These are challenging tasks. Europe has abandoned its ambition to become an independent center of influence and is negotiating new conditions for US support, this time within the framework of the Transatlantic Free Trade Area. At the same time, the more Europe learns about the scale of US sweeps of online and telephone data, the angrier it becomes. But there is nothing it can do.
Russia for its part is looking in the opposite direction. In the past three weeks alone, President Vladimir Putin welcomed the Indian prime minister to Moscow and visited Vietnam and South Korea. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev led a large Russian delegation to China. And the Russian foreign and defense ministers attended the first “two-plus-two” meeting with their Japanese counterparts.
So is Russia turning towards Asia?
For the past 400 years, nearly all important events for Russia happened on the European side of its borders, which is why its Euro-centrism was quite logical. But in the 21st century, the perspective shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Some 300 years ago, the status of a great power depended on its presence in the Baltic or Black sea, but now it depends on the soundness of its positions in the Pacific.
This is an unusual situation for Russia. For the first time in centuries, there is a discrepancy between its historical and cultural affiliation – which will remain European for as long as the country is populated by Russians and other ethnic groups that have lived side by side for centuries – and its political and economic development priorities. One consequence of this is that although three-quarters of Russia’s territory is located in Asia, three-quarters of its people live in the European part of the country.
There is an acute need for more intensive development and use of Siberia and the Far East, without which Russia cannot hope to play a major role in Asia. Economic mobilization methods will not resolve the issue.
The Kremlin needs a comprehensive program to attract human resources to the eastern territories. People should not see them as a gloomy periphery but as the country’s most promising region.
The idea of drafting a comprehensive Asian strategy aimed at developing the Russian territory and improving the country’s position in the Asian-Pacific region, which are two interdependent goals, was first voiced in 2009.
Since then, Russia has hosted an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting, established a ministry for the development of the Far East and become more diplomatically active in Asia. Asian issues now feature more prominently on the national agenda. These are mostly ritual and symbolic moves – and also very expensive ones, as seen from the example of the APEC summit. The Russian leadership has so far taken very few decisions that could really change the situation, and there is no time to get started.
Russia should use ties with dynamic Asian countries to boost the development of its territory beyond the Urals. Siberia and the Far East have huge opportunities for economic cooperation, not only with Asian neighbors but also with Europe and America.
I believe that the planned Eurasian Union should be used to address eastern issues. One of the policy articles that Vladimir Putin wrote before the 2012 presidential elections includes the idea of a Eurasian integration project as the first step toward creating a common economic space from Europe to the Far East. This is a much more important goal than battling with the EU for Ukraine or any other post-Soviet country.
Asia is lingering in a state of uncertainty. It has not yet learned the ropes of political leadership. Some Asian countries have a huge potential, but they don’t know how to apply it and are in conflict with each other. At its current stage of development, Asia needs Russia as a balancing factor, an independent player that has constructive relations with all the leading powers and is helping them to maintain the balance. This is why Russian leaders are welcome everywhere, including Beijing, Tokyo, Hanoi, Jakarta, Seoul and Singapore. But this will not last forever. Unless Russia takes proactive and creative steps, Asia will learn to live without it. And then it will be Russia that will have to adjust to Asia.
In short, Russia should not waste time on ritual meetings with European officials. The stakes are much higher in the Pacific region.