This paper discusses the strategic framework for Russia’s policies toward Northeast Asia, placing it in the context of Moscow’s geopolitical repositioning after the Ukraine crisis and the ensuing confrontation with the United States, and the alienation from Europe. After 2014, the Ukraine crisis put an end to Russia’s quarter-century-long attempt to integrate with the West and become part of a Greater Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community. At the same time and in the same place (Ukraine), Russia’s attempt to build a power center in the former Soviet space came to an end. Ukraine was not the cause of either failure, but it was the trigger of both. The conclusion was clear. Russia was not fit for integration into something that was bigger than Russia, and Russia was no longer capable of integrating former borderlands. Two-plus decades after the break-up of the former Soviet Union, Russia stood alone—but also free. Such was the end of a grand illusion linked to the West, and also the end of three centuries of empire-building.
It was also a beginning. Hemmed in the west, Russia did not pivot to China, as many inside and outside Russia thought. It actually pivoted to itself. Today’s Russian borders follow, with few exceptions, the boundaries of pre-Petrine Russia, circa 1650. Within these borders, the country is much more homogenous ethnically and culturally, with 80% of its population composed of ethnic Russians, and much more consolidated politically: in both cases of state collapse, after the Russian revolution of 1917 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the bulk of the territory that is now the Russian Federation never seceded from the central authority. In the 21st century, Russia is not a superpower, it is no longer an empire, and it is not ideology-driven.
Nor does it pretend to be part of Europe, politically. Mikhail Gorbachev’s common European home3 with an in-built Russian section appears a long-forgotten illusion. Economic, political, and normative Europe is now embodied in the European Union. The Eurasia that used to denote the territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and was thus synonymous with the Russian state is gone, its various parts gravitating to Europe or the Muslim world. The Russian Federation is just Russia—spread over 11 time zones, having borders with Norway and North Korea, but belonging to no bigger entity. It has failed to join the European family and dissolved its own Eurasian one. And Asia, of course, is no relation.