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Russia Can't Afford To Choose Between East and West

If it wants to grow in a balanced way, Russia should not think a rash of new agreements with China will permit it to forsake the West.

Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama in 2014
Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama in 2014
Fedor Lukyanov


MOSCOW — The Cold War was always described as being between "the East and the West." The terms were geographical, but they were understood to include political and ideological differences. It's curious that although it was a worldwide conflict, the geographic root for the names of the different sides was purely European.

Now, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the strongest symbol of East vs. West, there seems to be a new wall forming, somewhere through the contested Ukrainian region of Donbass. But the division between East and West is moving further east.

Does this mean that the world is destined to become more isolated, or that Ukraine's conflict will spread like a domino effect? No. If the mechanisms currently in place to control the Ukrainian conflict are sufficient, Ukraine will become nothing but a sideshow. And that's related to the fact that today's political East now corresponds to the geographic East — Asia, led by China, which is now self-confident in contrast to years past.

There is another "East" too — the Middle East, divided into segments and falling ever deeper into hopeless chaos. The forces in the Middle East are factors in world politics, but they are not primary actors.

Russia has always liked to juggle the East and West roles, trying to adopt postures that fall somewhere between the two political and cultural poles. But in the past 300 years, Russia has never genuinely managed to position itself "between." Before the 20th century, Russia was an undisputed player in greater European politics, while China did not yet represent a world power. During the 20th century, Russia became part of the East.

But now Russia is clearly playing its desired role of the go-between. The country refused to become part of the West, as some thought it would during the 1990s. But neither did it become part of the East, as it became obvious that it would be impossible to call the shots in the land of the rising sun. Modern Asia is also much more clearly defined culturally — and concentrated around China, which doesn't feel natural to Russia.

Positioning itself between two major political poles opens many opportunities, but it also carries dangers. Suggestions that Russia will just become China's colony, a source for raw materials, and will lose its independence are politically motivated. For some reason, being a source of raw materials for the European Union is considered a valid route towards development, while for some reason doing the same for China would mean oblivion for Russia.

No stepchild

It's almost always taken for granted that in any China-Russia partnership, Russia is destined to be the stepchild, because China's economy is several times larger. But even though that's also the case with Russia and Europe, Russia's diplomatic abilities have ensured that it isn't treated as less-than.

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The Trans-Siberian railroad near the China-Russia border. Photo: Kyle Taylor

In terms of political pressure, China, in contrast to the European Union and the United States, also never tries to pressure other countries about how they should manage their domestic affairs. The West is certain that it has the best system, and that it should be applied everywhere. China, on the other hand, is certain that it is unique, and that its culture is so complex that it's pointless to try to make other countries conform to its ideas. China is more pragmatic in its relationship with other countries. It just wants money properly invested, and the rest is your business.

In truth, Russia and China haven't worked closely together for a long time, and the last time they did so was when the roles where reversed — when the Soviet Union was China's mentor. The active phase of working together is just beginning.

Contrary to what's being claimed in oversimplified commentaries, Russia is not choosing between the East and the West. In today's world, you don't choose between two powers; you add. This false choice is best illustrated by considering what happened in Ukraine. There were years of needless debate about "who are we with — Europe or Russia?" That ultimately led to the fall of the government and the current unrest. Now everyone, even the most ardent nationalists, understands that the country will only be able to develop if it fosters relationships with both Europe and Russia.

Russia doesn't have a choice between East and West, because it needs both to grow in a balanced way. But there's another reason that there isn't a choice. First of all, Russia's pivot to the East has been late and slow. Secondly, China has made a turn towards the West.

Specifically, China is turning to Eurasia, hoping to gain market share in Europe and the Mediterranean region and feeling an acute need to stabilize its own western areas. It's also looking for a new Silk Road, a fast and cheap route into Europe.

For Russia, the pivot to the East is absolutely essential. Things would be much better if it had started years ago, when people first began talking about it. Now Russia is certainly part of China's pivot West. The question is whether Russia will be just a transit country, a way for Chinese goods to travel to Europe, or whether it will be strong enough to take advantage of growth in both the East and the West.

*Fedor Lukyanov is the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Politics.

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