Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

After Crimea: Southeast Asia in Russia's Foreign Policy Narrative

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

After Crimea: Southeast Asia in Russia's Foreign Policy Narrative

Article excerpt

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. …

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