Pivoting to Asia

This week’s class on ‘Russia and the West’ looks at the Russian oil and gas industries. The week’s big news on the subject is the signing of another natural gas mega deal between Russia and China. Russia will deliver 30 billion cubic metres of gas annually to China via a new western route, the Altai Pipeline. This follows a previous deal in May of this year to deliver gas into eastern China through the Power of Siberia Pipeline, a deal supposedly worth about $400 billion to Russia over 40 years.



Western commentators always view Russian gas deals through political lenses. In this case, they are cited as evidence that Russia is ‘pivoting’ towards China, seeking a closer alliance with its Asian neighbour in order to reduce its dependence upon the West. This is a process supposedly accelerated by recent tensions between Russia and the West, and especially by the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia because of its role in the war in Ukraine.

But is this explanation of Russia’s actions accurate?

Only partly, I would say. Certainly, many Russian political and economic leaders are speaking of the need to find alternative trading partners to Europe. This means not only China, but also the other BRIC countries – Brazil and India. However, I would caution against making too much of this. One cannot simply shift one’s trade from one part of the world to another overnight, let alone do so without substantial cost. Furthermore, this year’s gas deals with China are only preliminary in nature. Crucial details of the first agreement remain to be decided, and its practical implementation is far from a done thing.

More significantly, it would be wrong to see Russia’s desire to trade with China as solely, or even primarily, a reaction to tensions with the West. As Vladimir Putin said in his speech to the Valdai Club in October:

Some are saying today that Russia is supposedly turning its back on Europe – such words were probably spoken already here too during the discussions – and is looking for new business partners, above all in Asia. Let me say that this is absolutely not the case. Our active policy in the Asian-Pacific region began not just yesterday and not in response to sanctions, but is a policy that we have been following for a good many years now. Like many other countries, including Western countries, we saw that Asia is playing an ever greater role in the world, in the economy and in politics, and there is simply no way we can afford to overlook these developments.

We in the West are very prone to a common cognitive failure. We think that what other countries are doing is always somehow about us, and thus requires some response from us. But often it isn’t, and doesn’t. Russia would have sought stronger ties with China regardless of what happened in Europe, and if Russia and China both end up better off as a result, then that is all to the good.

Russia and the Common European Home

Russia and the West are ‘on the brink of a new Cold War’, according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said at the end of last week that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.’ Actions such as the bombing of Kosovo, the enlargement of NATO, and the wars in Iraq and Libya, led to a ‘collapse of trust’, according to the former communist leader.

Talk of a new Cold War is overblown. The Cold War was not just a case of bad relations between East and West, but rather a global struggle for political hegemony driven by sharp ideological divisions. No such struggle or divisions exist today. Gorbachev’s words are nonetheless striking, not because of what was said but because of who said it.

In his 1987 book Perestroika Gorbachev wrote that, ‘The history of Russia is an organic part of the great European history’. Addressing the people of Western Europe, he remarked that ‘Europe is our common home’ and that Russia was part of ‘a common European civilization’. Never has a Russian leader linked his country more categorically to its Western neighbours. If even Gorbachev is blaming the West for the current tensions, then there can be little doubt that the West has thoroughly alienated not just Russian nationalists but even that segment of the Russian population which was inclined to view it favourably.

Gorbachev’s idea of a ‘common European home’ was one in which Russia and the West cooperated with one another as equals. ‘We must learn to live in a real world, a world which takes into account the interests of the Soviet Union’, he wrote. Substituting Russia for the Soviet Union, this remains a good idea. One does not have to agree with another country’s definition of its vital interests to realize that threatening them is not conducive to harmony. While seemingly idealistic, the idea of a common European home thus rests on a profound realism, in which the nations of Europe not only advance their own interests but also respect those of others. Sadly, this is something which at present we in the West seem to have trouble grasping.

Object Lesson – Soviet sugar lumps

In my research, I deal primarily with documents rather than with objects. But even the most trivial object can tell a story. With that in mind, I plan to regularly post a photograph of one of the numerous Russian/Soviet objects that I have collected over the years. I also invite others to send me photos of any interesting objects that they may have, whether they have historical significance or just come with a story.

For this week, here is a package of sugar lumps purchased in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. The label says that they cost 1 ruble 18 kopecks per kilo, and that they were produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Ukrsakharprom at the Khodorovskii Sakhkombinat.



The sugar lumps got me thinking about the packaging of Soviet consumer goods. Given that they didn’t have to compete to sell their goods, why did Soviet producers bother decorating them? What purpose did the packaging serve? That made me wonder if anybody has studied the subject. My initial survey of the literature on Soviet consumer culture reveals little, although the Moscow Design Museum held an exhibition on the subject last year. A subject for somebody’s PhD, maybe?




NATO shoots itself in the foot

This week in my course ‘Russia and the West’ we shall be discussing Russia’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Right on cue, NATO’s top military commander, Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, has announced a new set of measures designed to counter the supposed Russian threat.

The measures include the following:

  • Suspension of a ‘joint program to train counter-narcotics workers from Afghanistan’.
  • Halting ‘a project providing spare parts and training for Afghan helicopter technicians’.
  • Excluding Russia from ‘an initiative to link radars to provide a fuller picture of airspace in case of hijacking’.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘The Kremlin responded angrily, saying the moves would hurt the West as much as Russia, while helping terrorists and other lawbreakers. “It isn’t hard to imagine who will win from the rolling back of joint Russia-NATO collaboration … particularly the fight against terrorism, piracy, and natural and man-made disasters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “That would definitely not be Russia or NATO member countries”.’

NATO officials actually agree with him. According to one, ‘It’s unfortunate that these projects will be damaged, because they were doing important things. But we have to be able to take a little damage to stand up for our principles.’

There are only two possible explanations for this bout of self-harm. Either, despite its rhetoric, NATO doesn’t actually care that much about Afghanistan, counter-narcotics, and terrorism; or it is acting in a fit of pique, cutting off its nose to spite its face, as the saying goes. I suspect a bit of both.

Two elections, two responses

Election workers prepare ballots in the Donetsk Peoples' Republic
Election workers prepare ballots in the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic

The new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, got off to a quick start in her job with a statement on 2 November saying:

I consider today’s ‘presidential and parliamentary elections’ in Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognise it.

These negative comments compare unfavourably to the reaction to parliamentary elections in the rest of Ukraine a week earlier. In a typical response to those, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper commented that:

I would like to congratulate the people of Ukraine for stepping up, for the second time in 2014, to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. Today’s elections represent an important step in the process of strengthening democracy in Ukraine, and its people continue to show resilience, courage and commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous country for themselves.

This contrast displays, I think, a misunderstanding of what political legitimacy is. Simply put, it is ‘the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern. It is a judgment by an individual about the rightfulness of a hierarchy between rule or ruler and its subject and about the subordinate’s obligations toward the rule or ruler. … legitimacy itself is a fundamentally subjective and normative concept: it exists only in the beliefs of an individual about the rightfulness of rule.’ Western leaders are quite entitled to consider one process legitimate and another illegitimate, but it is a mistake for them to think that their personal opinion is an objective fact.

As I have mentioned previously, turnout in the Ukrainian election in those parts of Donbass which are still under Ukrainian government control was only about 30%. By contrast, officials in breakaway Donbass claim a turnout of about 60% in their election. We cannot confirm this figure, but even Western journalists who are not noted for their support for the Ukrainian rebels reported ‘great enthusiasm’ and ‘huge crowd[s]’ at polling booths. Western leaders may view the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics as illegitimate and the government of Ukraine as legitimate, but the people who live in Donbass obviously have a different opinion.

In a post for the CIPS blog some months ago, I remarked that the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk in May should serve as a wake-up call indicating that a large part of the Ukrainian population disliked the government in Kiev and that some political concessions were necessary to prevent the situation from getting worse. Instead, Western and Ukrainian politicians chose to bury their heads in the sand, with disastrous consequences. Denying reality does not make it go away.



Ukraine remains divided

‘This war has consolidated our nation, united the people of Ukraine.’ So said the Ukrainian president, President Petro Poroshenko, expressing a view which has become widespread in recent months. Many commentators now claim that outside of the war zone in the east of the country, the war has brought Ukrainians of all stripes together in a common sentiment that their country is under attack from Russia and that their future belongs with the West. The overwhelming victory by ‘pro-Western’ political forces in this week’s parliamentary elections is supposed to be proof of this fact.

Electoral maps show a somewhat different story.

This map shows turnout in the recent election. The picture is clear: the further south-east one goes, the lower the turnout, with over 80% of eligible people voting in the area around Lvov in the far west of the country, but only about 30% voting in the parts of the far east which remain under government control.


This next map shows the results in the various electoral districts: The yellow and red markings indicate victories by the ‘pro-Western’ parties; the blue indicates victories by the opposition, which might be said to represent the ‘not pro-Western’ point of view.


Comparing the two maps, what is immediately clear is that the more pro-Western an area was, the higher the turnout was. The low turnout in the south-east of the country, coupled with the fact that those who did vote there tended to vote for the opposition, certainly suggests that that part of the country remains hostile to the Westernizing project.

Now compare all this with a third map, which shows the linguistic divisions in Ukraine. This reveals another correlation: voting for the opposition or not voting at all is closely related to being a Russian speaker.


In an interview this week Gennady Moskal, the governor of that part of Lugansk province which remains under Ukrainian control, remarked that ‘pro-Russian sentiments are very high, in some towns 95%, in some 80% … people have an extremely negative attitude towards the authorities in Kiev.’  All in all, this information suggests that the war in Ukraine has not in fact forged a new unified national identity. On the contrary, Ukraine remains a divided country.

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