As Tensions with West Rise, Moscow Looks to Asia
Image Credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

As Tensions with West Rise, Moscow Looks to Asia


Russia’s security differences with NATO countries have been encouraging Moscow to strengthen ties with Asian countries, above all China. These differences range from concerns over U.S. missile defense programs to unease about NATO’s increasingly capable conventional weapons to dissatisfaction with Moscow’s minimal influence on European security issues due to Russia’s non-membership in NATO. The U.S. “pivot” to Asia has also irritated Russian policymakers given Washington’s reluctance to engage Russia as an Asian power. But Moscow and the West do share overlapping security interests in Iran, North Korea, WMD nonproliferation and especially Afghanistan. These interests should buffer Russian-Western tensions for now and perhaps provide the foundation for a better relationship in the future.

Washington’s new Asian focus has removed some sources of strain between Russia and the West. For example, U.S. efforts to offer NATO membership to more former Soviet republics, such as Georgia and Ukraine, have noticeably slackened since the rebalancing began. Yet, the pivot confronts Moscow with the problem that the main European security actor, the United States, considers the Middle East and East Asia higher priority areas than Europe, which Washington sees as a relatively stable security environment. Russians insist that European stability is fragile due to Moscow’s artificially marginalized status. A reinforcing problem is that Washington policymakers often treat Russia as a second-rate Pacific player. Most visibly, U.S. officials fail to mention Russia in key speeches on Asia, such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s speech at the recent Shangri-La security conference in Singapore. Moreover, since Russian analysts discount U.S claims that Iran, North Korea, or other rogue countries are serious threats to Western security, they suspect that U.S. policymakers cite Asian disputes as a convenient pretext to justify augmenting U.S. military capabilities, such as missile defenses, that Washington could use against Russia.

Russian policymakers have responded to these challenges by acting more assertively in Asia and developing security ties with China, including renewed arms sales and new bilateral military exercises, and other Asian players to remind Western countries that it too is an Asian-Pacific power. 

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The various U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) initiatives in Europe and elsewhere have been the most immediate source of Russia-West tensions. In Europe, Russian diplomats have been seeking to derail U.S. BMD plans in NATO for years. Although the Obama administration has twice restructured its BMD deployment plans in ways that should have pleased Moscow, Russian officials continue to depict U.S. missile defenses in Europe as threatening Russia’s vast land-based missile arsenal. In the Middle East, Russia has been arguing that diplomacy rather than missile defenses can best moderate Iranian nuclear and missile ambitions. In East Asia, Russian analysts have implied that the United States is using North Korean missile launches to augment its BMD and other military assets in Asia as well as strengthen its alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other countries in ways that could adversely impact Russia’s security. Although Russians recognize that the U.S. missile defenses in California and Alaska are not presently very effective, they profess to fear that the United States could achieve a revolutionary breakthrough that could render the U.S. homeland considerably less vulnerable to Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Russian leaders see the U.S. missile defense program as one more example of the alleged U.S. quest for “absolute security” rather than “equal security.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has complained that the problem with this quest is that “absolute invulnerability for one country would in theory require absolute vulnerability for all others.” Russian officials believe they must sustain their mutual hostage relationship with the United States to prevent Washington from taking unilateral military actions that could threaten core Russian interests. The Russian government has been spending enormous sums to augment Russia’s offensive nuclear forces to ensure that they could overcome any U.S. missile defenses and deter Washington from engaging in military actions that could threaten vital Russian security interests.

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