Why Russia Is Tilting Toward Asia, Even If It Needs The West More Than Ever

There are signs of historical insecurity in Russia's move away from Europe and the U.S. But at the end of the day, China looms as the real threat for Moscow's future.

Leaning towards its eastern partners?
Leaning towards its eastern partners?
Alexenia Dimitrova


PARIS - Less than a year before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics – a costly demonstration of its “new grandeur” – Russia seems to be drifting away from Europe and tilting closer to Asia.

This evolution is the result of a long process and has historical, cultural and political explanations.

For starters, the more Russian leadership feels weak, the tougher it is – inside and outside the country – with its citizens or foreign powers. This is a self-defense reflex, which finds its foundations in the Russian intellectual Slavophilia movement, which was opposed to Western Europe influences taking hold in Russia.

Today the effect is that it pushes the Kremlin toward authoritarian Asia, instead of democratic Europe.

To justify this evolution, Russian leaders use an emotional weapon – humiliation. “Be careful, we have the choice of going east or west. If you humiliate us by not taking us seriously, we will choose Asia.” I still remember this warning, administered 20 years ago after the collapse of the USSR, by Vladimir Lukin, who was chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

All throughout its history, Russia has alternated between turning toward Europe and the Western world – the dominant culture of its intellectual and artistic elites – and turning toward Asia – more suited to its political culture. When he was talking about Stalin’s Soviet regime, German-American historian Karl Wittfogel would use the expression “Oriental despotism.”

In truth, the temptation of despotism in Russia – despite denials from the Kremlin – is stronger than it's been in decades. So much so that my older Russian friends have the dreadful impression of having gone back in time. They feel like they are being listened to, watched and monitored in a way that they hadn’t experienced since the fall of Communism.

Of course, the freedom to travel abroad is a major victory, but it is not accompanied by freedom of opinion or of speech. Putin's 2013 Russia – this was not the case ten years ago, when controls were not as thorough as they are today – is, in terms of freedom, closer to that of the end of the Brejnev era than to any recent historical period.

Struggling to stay relevant

The way NGOs with offices in Russia – like the Adenauer or Ebert foundations – have been treated recently resulted in heated exchanges between Chancellor Merkel and President Putin during Putin’s recent German visit.

This is the most worrying symbol of the hardline adopted by Russia, which despite its energy riches and the economic weight of its oligarchs, can’t seem to exist in a positive way. It is a country that says “no” as loud as it is scared of not being relevant. Case in point the international conferences where China gets all the attention, and Russia hardly rates a mention.

Hardening its stance to stay relevant, playing the humiliation card to mask its deep weaknesses in demography and competitiveness, is Putin’s Russia walking backwards toward its future?

The main explanation for this sad observation is political. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote French philosopher Montesquieu in 1748. This is even truer when fear is hiding behind authoritarianism. The Kremlin is aware of how fragile power is, and that it is faced – in cities like Moscow or St Petersburg – with a protesting middle class, which is has ever-higher political expectations.

Against this pro-democracy movement, which is inspired by Western models, the Kremlin uses dissuasive repression as well as humiliation. When Putin described the end of the USSR as the “biggest catastrophe in the 20th century,” he plays on the wounded pride of his citizens.

When Russian diplomats mention including former countries of the Warsaw Pact like Poland or former integral parts of the USSR like the Baltic states, into NATO, or when it mentions the NATO bombings on Belgrade at the end of the 1990s, it is doing pretty much the same thing Iran does when it still rants about Mossadegh, the Prime Minister deposed by the U.S. in 1953.

It is necessary to take these wounds into account in our diplomatic analysis, but not to let them paralyze us. What’s most important is to make Russia understand – even if it is not ready to hear it – that it is going down the wrong path.

Politically, Russia can try to strenghten its weakened regime by following the Asian model. But strategically, Moscow needs the West much more – to balance China – than it needs Asia to be relevant to the Western world. Nature abhors a vacuum. In the long term, the only threat for Russia comes from China, not from the Western world. In the short term, the only threat comes from Russia itself and its incapacity to heed the fact that the artificial grandeur of the nation cannot build itself without the respect, or the happiness of its citizens.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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