Features | Politics

As Tensions with West Rise, Moscow Looks to Asia

With large-scale military exercises and huge energy deals, Russia has been increasingly assertive in 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. 

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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Russian officials do not share President Obama’s professed interest in universal nuclear disarmament, a condition that in Russian eyes would make the world safe for U.S. conventional military superiority. In this regard, Russian officials have cited NATO countries’ novel non-nuclear capabilities, which like their Russian equivalents are not covered directly by existing arms control agreements, as constraining their willingness to further cut their nuclear forces. In addition to missile defenses, these advanced conventional capabilities included precision-guided weapons, unmanned robotic systems, and prompt global strike capabilities. Referring to the latter, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month said that, "Imagine a [non-nuclear] weapon which is delivered to any part of the earth in one hour…It doesn’t have an inhumane effect of a nuclear weapon, but militarily it’s much more efficient. We have to take this into account before we decide on any further [nuclear weapons] reductions.” Although none of these systems use nuclear weapons, Russian analysts claim they have strategic potential since they could be used to attack a country’s nuclear deterrent more effectively than more traditional though less capable conventional weapons (like tanks) or better controlled nuclear weapons (such as long-range ballistic missiles).

With respect to the latter, Russian diplomacy seeks to induce other states possessing nuclear weapons to join Russia and the United States in negotiating limits on them. Russian officials affirm in public that they will not sign another START-like nuclear arms reduction treaty unless other nuclear weapons states besides the United States join the process. “We cannot disarm endlessly while some nuclear powers are arming themselves,” Putin insisted in a February 2012 article. “No way.”

Russian officials want other countries having nuclear arms to reduce them as Russian forces began to approach their levels. Lavrov recently said that his government wanted all countries having nuclear weapons to participate in reductions, not just the five countries (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) legally recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as possessing nuclear weapons. India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan are countries that are not parties to the NPT and are widely understood to have nuclear weapons capabilities. Russian officials have more recently clarified that the other nuclear powers did not have to make reductions like Russia and the United States, at least initially. Earlier this year in Geneva, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that “we can start, for example, with an obligation of other members of ‘the nuclear club’ not to build up their nuclear forces. We could think about joint transparency and later on verification measures.” But Antonov at least has said that, “In the longer run the multilateral regime should cover not only P5 nations but also countries with significant nuclear-weapon capabilities” such as India and Pakistan.

Although they cite the 1987 Russia-U.S. Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required Russia and the United States to eliminate an entire category of nuclear-armed missiles having ranges between 500 and 5500 km, as a concrete contribution to mutual nuclear disarmament, Russians complain that none of the many other countries that have acquired intermediate and shorter-range missiles during the past 25 years have accepted the Russian-U.S. initiative to join or apply the treaty to their own forces. They also argue that, unlike the United States, which faces no threat from such missiles and has no need to target nearby Mexico and Canada with missiles, Russia is surrounded by countries that are acquiring large numbers of short- and intermediate-range missiles, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and China. Although the Russian Air Force has planes capable of dropping bombs or launching air-to-surface missiles, Russian commanders often use ground-to-ground missiles for rapid strikes.

These other governments have generally ignored Moscow’s invitation to join the nuclear arms reductions process. For example, Beijing’s longstanding position is that China will eliminate its nuclear weapons when all other countries do, without specifying any intermediate steps toward that goal. PRC representatives have at times suggested that they might consider making interim reductions, but only when Russia and the United States make much deeper cuts in their own nuclear arsenals, which most analysts believe are many times larger than those of China. The Obama administration cites this gap separating Russia and the United States from other countries, as well as a desire to avoid complex multi-party negotiations, to support its position that the next strategic arms control treaty should still involve only Moscow and Washington. Unlike Russia, China has, along with the United States, not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, though all three countries have long ceased conducting complete nuclear weapons tests with actual fissile detonations.

Chinese officials have also not expressed as much concern as their Russian colleagues about new U.S. conventional weapons. Although Chinese expressions of dissatisfaction regarding U.S. missile defenses are growing, China is noteworthy for its comprehensive efforts to employ asymmetric means of negating U.S. military power as well as to develop its own advanced non-nuclear weapons, such as cyber weapons. But Chinese officials have joined their Russian colleagues in accusing the United States of violating international law by employing force against other countries without the approval of the UN Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow have the power to veto decisions they oppose. In addition to the 1999 NATO attack on Serbia and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Russia and China believe Western governments exceeded their UN mandates in the 2011 Libyan War by employing excessive force. At present, they worry that Western governments will attack Syria, Iran, or other countries without UN approval and over Russian and Chinese objections.           

Russia’s frustrated ties with NATO might explain why the Russian armed forces have conducted some unprecedented (in terms of size or duration) military exercises with Iran, China and other countries. Those with China have been much larger than the modest military drills Russian troops have been conducting for years with NATO countries. In early July, the Russian Navy engaged in a military exercise with Iranian warships in the Caspian Ocean. A few weeks later, Russia and China conducted their largest joint maritime exercise ever in the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, Russia’s arms sales to China have also sharply increased in the last few years, following years of decline. The Russia-China energy partnership has also recently expanded, with new oil deals and discussions of a possible resolution to their long-deadlocked natural gas negotiations. Although these negotiations continue, China’s has already become Russia’s largest trading partner, displacing Germany and other European countries. Meanwhile, the EU continues its quest to reduce European dependence on Russian natural gas and the new leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense has shown less interest in purchasing major NATO weapons systems such as the Mistral amphibious warship that Moscow bought from France a few years ago.

Yet, one should not exaggerate the extent or uniqueness of Russia-China military ties. Both countries deny they aim to build a bilateral defense alliance or that their military exercises are targeted against a third country. Russia soon followed its joint exercise with China by holding an even larger national military exercise in the Russian Far East, using forces that Russia would rely on to counter China or other security threats in East Asia. Russian arms sales to India and Vietnam also remain high, despite their unwelcome nature in Beijing, which has territorial disputes with these other Asian states. In addition, the Russian government has been seeking to regularize its territorial dispute with Japan rather than establish a common anti-Tokyo front with Beijing. When Chinese warships sailed off toward Japan following the recent Russia-China naval exercise, Russia’s vessels declined to follow them in what could have been a joint show of force designed to intimidate Tokyo, which has territorial disputes with both Russia and China. 

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The one area where Moscow seems most open to cooperating with both the West and China concerns the security of Afghanistan and Central Asia. Russian alarm about the security of its southern neighbors has grown as Western governments have announced troop and equipment withdrawals from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Of course, Russians are cross-pressured, not wanting to see NATO military bases in the heart of Eurasia but fearful that the NATO withdrawal will dump a major security problem on the lap of Moscow and its allies.

Russia has been seeking to strengthen its position by reviving its previously strong security and economic ties with Afghanistan. Russia has been selling weapons to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and restoring some abandoned or unfinished Soviet-era economic projects. NATO even paid for the military helicopters Russia has transferred to the incipient Afghan Air Force as well as for the associated maintenance and training. Russia and NATO also pool their resources to train Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics personnel. Finally, Western governments have been sending enormous volumes of supplies to their military contingents in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network, which runs through Russian Federation territory and those of the other former Soviet republics. Some NATO forces are now leaving Afghanistan via this route.

Russian officials have effectively lost hope and no longer badger NATO to use aerial spraying of herbicides against Afghanistan’s poppy crop, large volumes of which are converted into heroin and used with deadly results by Russian addicts. But the Russian government still regularly presses NATO to engage directly with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of Belarus, Armenia, and several Central Asian countries, on Afghanistan and other Eurasian security issues. NATO governments have thus far shunned the CSTO. They worry about legitimizing an organization that reinforces Moscow’s security primacy regarding many former Soviet republics. Instead, alliance members and the NATO international staff have insisted on engaging with the Central Asian countries either bilaterally or through other multilateral structures, such as the Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe.

A more recent Russian concern is NATO’s possible transfer of excess defense items to CSTO countries. These could be equipment now in Afghanistan that the allies decide not are not worth transporting out of Eurasia. Such transfers could undercut Russia’s military sales to CSTO states. Although Russia does not derive much if any revenue from these transactions, which are often subsidized, Russia’s weapons sales to its CSTO allies do give Moscow important leverage over these countries’ national security policies. Many of Russia’s largest foreign military exercises have been with these states.

The CSTO has been developing a rapid reaction force and other capabilities that could be used against threats in or from Afghanistan. Should this occur, NATO governments may decide they need to deal more directly with the CSTO. Before then, NATO could more easily meet another Russian complaint—that NATO only provides Moscow with intermittent briefings on its policies in Afghanistan despite Moscow’s strong security interests there—by establishing a regular mechanism for consultations with Moscow on Afghanistan issues. It might be wise to channel this dialogue through the NATO-Russia Council to remind Moscow that NATO is a partner as well as a potential problem for Russia’s Asian security agenda.