‘Povorot k Azii: Rossiskaia Vneshnaia Politika na Rubezhe Vekov i ee Activizatsiia na Vostochnom Napravlenii’ [‘The Pivot to Asia: Russia’s Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Century and Russia’s Shift to the East’]

A.V. Lukin, Povorot k Azii: Rossiskaia Vneshnaia Politika na Rubezhe Vekov i ee Activizatsiia na Vostochnom Napravlenii [The Pivot to Asia: Russia’s Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Century and Russia’s Shift to the East] (Moscow, Ves’ mir, 2014).

The 2014 compilation of essays by Alexander Lukin is a fascinating glimpse at the gradual shift of Russian foreign policy towards Asia, through the eyes of one of Russia’s preeminent sinologists. The volume contains a selection of his essays between 1990 and 2014 and is divided into four sections, each containing approximately 20 essays. The first section deals with general questions of Russian foreign policy; the second provides an overview of Russia’s involvement in the SCO and its broader policy towards Central Asia; the third section, “Asian Strategy and Tactics,” contains perspectives on Russia’s relations with various Asian powers as well as Asian multilateral organizations; the fourth is mostly a series of reflections on the author’s personal and professional travels. Lukin is a prolific writer and, while all the essays in The Pivot to Asia are presented in their original form, the selection of specific pieces speaks volumes about the author’s intention for the book. Scanning the table of contents, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that only three chapters deal with Sino-Russian relations. This is odd considering that Lukin, a Mandarin speaker, is best known as a leading Russian “China Watcher.” Perhaps, at a time of rising Russian fears of becoming over-dependent on Beijing, Lukin is attempting to portray Russia’s shift to Asia as having multiple vectors. He is not entirely successful in this venture as China’s influence clearly permeates throughout his explanations of Russia’s Asia policy. Nonetheless, Lukin’s volume is an important contribution to the literature, offering a broad chronological and geopolitical perspective on Russia’s international relations.

Gilbert Rozman’s review of Lukin’s previous book, Russia and China: Four Centuries of Interaction, identifies Lukin as a leading member of the multipolarity school in Russian foreign policy circles.1 This group, which includes scholars such as Evgenii Bazhanov and Sergei Luzyanin, advocates that Russia establish its own place as a unique civilization, while pursuing a balanced approach that is neither inherently anti-Western nor pro-American. In fact, the most recent of Lukin’s essays in “The Pivot to Asia” contain veiled, but obvious, criticism of the Kremlin, an element entirely absent from his previous book. For example, in the opening essay of Chauvinism or Chaos? Russia’s Difficult Choice, (17-32), Lukin explains that the current Russian leadership views Western intentions from a purely geopolitical perspective, assuming that the promotion of ostensibly important Western values such as human rights and democracy are mere fig leaves masking Washington’s real intention of creating and maintaining a unipolar world. Lukin’s (18) explanation for the prevalence of such thinking among the Kremlin elite is that the current Russian leadership is composed primarily of former intelligence officers whose formative professional years came at a time when few still believed in communist ideology, which by then only served as an excuse for the Soviet Union’s real goals. Therefore, these leaders superimpose this assumption on everyone else’s foreign policy as well. An even more overt critique is found several pages later as Lukin describes the longstanding theory, popular among Russian intelligence agencies, of the “authoritarian hook,” which claims that Russia can only be saved through top-down imposition of a besieged fortress mentality that seeks to “find an enemy in every neighbor and a traitor in anyone engaging in alternative thinking.” “Today,” continues Lukin (30), “unlike during the Soviet era or during the Yeltsin period, those pursuing the authoritarian hook are no longer constrained by the political authorities because they themselves are the political authorities.”

There is a note of lament and resignation here, as Lukin, the son of one of the founders of the political party Yabloko, was a pro-democracy activist himself in the 1980s, was elected to the Moscow City Council in 1990, and even wrote a book on the political culture of Russian democrats during the Gorbachev era.2 Still, Lukin never wore rose-colored glasses about the political reality of the Russian Federation. He strongly criticizes western scholars, such as former Ambassador Michael McFaul, who in the 1990s claimed that the “electoral democracy” in Russia was sufficiently consolidated to such an extent that Yeltsin’s heirs would be unable to remove it.3 Lukin sees such naiveté as being an inherent part of American foreign policy in which ideology, far from being a fig leaf, plays a pivotal role, often leading the West in general and the United States in particular to make short-term choices that end up being highly counterproductive in the long run. Pervading the volume is Lukin’s relentless criticism of US foreign policy.

The author spent several years in Washington (first at the Brookings Institution and then at George Washington University), which contributes to his understanding of the US foreign policy making mechanism. Throughout his essays, there are constant references to articles in journals such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, etc. According to Lukin, the West’s behavior over the last two decades is what forced Russia into making its “difficult choice”: if Russia turns toward democracy then it must also forsake its quest to become a separate power in a multipolar world and accept the role of a junior partner in US-dominated unipolarity; if it opts for self-strengthening then it must do so under the condition of dictatorship with nationalism that threatens all of her neighbors. Lukin ends the chapter with a plea for a “third way”—a strong, proud Russia that accepts the systemic elements of democracy as a solution to the structural problems of corruption, illegal migration, and nepotism, while rejecting western values that are antithetical to Russian culture and civilization; a Russia that chooses neither Dugin and Prochanov, nor Nemtsov and Kasparov. This is a manifesto of the multipolarity school clearly set forth in chapter 36, “Russia’s New Foreign Policy: Genuine Multipolarity?”(438-41) It is possible that Lukin’s views will eventually come back in vogue, but right now he and other members of his school of thought have clearly been sidelined within the Russian policy-making community.

The second chapter in the book’s first section analyzes the “clash of values” in the modern world and the impact of this clash on Eurasian integration. The essay, co-written with Lukin’s brother Pavel, is likely a short version of the argument presented in their book Understanding Russia Intellectually: The Political Culture of Post-Soviet Russia and Russian History (2014). This is an extended critique of Western liberalism with its emphasis on individual freedom, freedom of expression, gay rights, and materialism. Lukin sees these values as fundamentally incompatible not only with Russian culture, but also with large swaths of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Likening the current situation to the Hellenic age when Greek liberalism co-existed uncomfortably with the conservative morals of Persia, Egypt, and Judea, Lukin believes that the backlash against Western morals will serve as a source of cooperation bringing the Chinese, Indian, Russian, and Brazilian (which completes the BRIC acronym, even if it is misplaced) civilizations closer together. A better historical example would have been the 1815 Concert of Europe, when the authoritarian Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and British monarchies were drawn together in their joint opposition to the powerful democratic and liberal forces that were released as a consequence of the French Revolution.

Lukin fails to mention the fact that today’s Russia is heir not only to the autocratic legacy of the tsars and the conservative social values of the Orthodox Church, but also to the seventy years of communist rule, which included some progressive social policies. To be fair, a later chapter in Lukin’s volume does focus on the impact of the Soviet legacy on contemporary Russia’s foreign policy, but never on the USSR’s impact on Russia’s national identity in the twenty-first century. This is a pity since the synergy created between China and Russia due to a shared post-Communist legacy is the main topic of Gilbert Rozman’s recently released third volume in a trilogy on national identity and international relations in Northeast Asia.4 Observers of Northeast Asian politics would benefit from hearing Lukin’s response to Rozman’s thesis.

The first section of Lukin’s book focuses primarily on the volume’s subtitle (Russia’s Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Century) and is geared for a reader interested in the general contours of Russia’s international relations. An exploration of the US-Russia relationship plays the dominant role in this section and Russia’s “pivot to Asia” is discussed only as a tangent of this larger paradigm. The heart of the volume is the second and third sections, which contain essays on Russia’s bilateral and multilateral relations with Asia (including the Middle East). Lukin is the founder and current director of the Center for the Study of East Asia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at MGIMO. Therefore, it should be of little surprise that the most illuminating essays of the entire volume are to be found in his analysis of the SCO. His ten essays on this subject, written between 2005 and 2013, provide a rich overview of the dynamics of the organization’s evolution, Russia’s interests in it, and Moscow’s hopes for the future of this expanding institution. It remains unclear why no essays written prior to 2005 are included in the compilation since Lukin has been writing on the topic since the creation of the Shanghai-5 in 1996. This criticism can be extended to the entire volume in general, which is heavily skewed toward essays written over the last ten years with just a few pieces from the early 1990s sprinkled in for decoration. The reader is left wondering whether Lukin’s views from the late 1990s and early 2000s were too controversial or were later proven to be incorrect.

It is understandable that the most relevant essays to today’s geopolitics are those written in recent years. For instance, the opening essay of the third section examines Xi Jinping’s “New Silk Road Initiative,” first proposed during a speech in Astana on September 16, 2014. Lukin’s take (199-212) on Russia’s response is that it does not object to Xi’s concept, but also prefers to use the term “Eurasian integration.” According to Lukin, Moscow wants to maintain its traditional role in the region, which it still sees as part of its sphere of influence, while creating room for cooperation and the reestablishment of economic and political ties. The truth is, of course, more complicated. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Moscow worked hard to limit China’s involvement in Central Asia (as well as the Russian Far East) before throwing caution to the wind over the last several years.5 For instance, in late 2014 it was announced that Putin’s “Eurasian Union” will be integrated with Xi’s “New Silk Road” as part of a larger framework.6 The Chinese, perfectly aware of Russia’s interests in the region are treading carefully, but with increasing assurance.7 For his part, Lukin echoes former Russian representative to the SCO, V. Vorobiov, in encouraging economic integration between China and Central Asia to take place under the auspices of the SCO. In fact, over the last several months, Russia’s fear of China’s encroachment into Central Asia through bilateral ties has led it to actively encourage the creation of an SCO development bank (in sharp contradiction with policy of previous years when it actively lobbied against the creation of such a mechanism).8

Central Asia is sure to remain the most important region within Russia’s Asia policy, and Lukin astutely assesses (262-276, 277-278, 316-317) its interests in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Curiously absent, however, are essays on Russia’s bilateral relations with Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the region’s geographically largest and geo-economically most important states for Russia. In terms of South Asia, Afghanistan is well covered in several chapters (notably, 219-243, 479-491), and there is also a comprehensive essay on Russo-Indian relations, but curiously none on Pakistan. Turning to East Asia, Lukin provides eight informative pieces on Russo-Korean relations, including a fascinating essay from 1990 (630-635) on the normalization of Soviet-Korean relations in the aftermath of ROK President Roh Tae-Woo’s visit to Moscow. Three chapters (505-522, 525-528, 529-532) on Moscow’s policy towards Pyongyang, in light of their recent rapprochement, are particularly timely. In contrast, there are no essays on Russo-Vietnamese relations, a lamentable omission considering the tightening economic bond between Moscow and Hanoi.9 Although The Pivot to Asia deliberately avoids focusing much on China, a reader hungry for Lukin’s take on current developments in Sino-Russian relations can open his recent article in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ which is well summarized in The Asan Forum’s March Country Report: Russia.10

Lukin’s compilation was published in May of 2014, just as the Ukraine crisis was entering its most heated phase. This aspect of Russia’s foreign policy was impossible to avoid, but Lukin’s views on it are somewhat hidden in the last section of the book. Unlike every other chapter, the dates of original publication for his two Ukraine essays are suspiciously not listed in the Table of Contents. The first essay, entitled “Ukraine Moves West” (555-557), discusses the ramifications of the September 2013 decision by the Ukrainian Parliament to move to a closer association with the European Union. The second essay, “Can Ukraine Survive the Current Crisis?” (614-617) is a piece from 1993 that outlines the Ukrainian situation in the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse. The link between the two is that in both cases, Lukin urges Russian restraint in reaction to Kiev’s policies. This was likely not the most popular stance at the time of the book’s publication and, therefore, the two chapters were relegated to the back of the volume, sandwiched between Lukin’s description of his travels to a conference in Great Britain and several of his book reviews.


The essays compiled in Lukin’s The Pivot to Asia offer the student of Russian international relations a clear perspective on Russian foreign policy since the 1990s. Written by a member of the generation that came of age as the Soviet Union was falling apart, the essays paint a picture of a Russia that in the early 1990s briefly flirted with the West, but has since moved decidedly in a revisionist direction, seeking to create a multipolar world and, above all else, to protect what Moscow considers to be its own spheres of influence and core interests. Lukin is no Atlanticist, but nor is he a Dugin. Still, the aura of Eurasianism permeates his recent essays, reflecting a decidedly rightward shift in the Russian political spectrum that has left even such moderate thinkers as Lukin opposed to the status quo. Nonetheless, Alexander Lukin has been a mainstay in the Russian academic community for more than a quarter-century and is a well-known figure in both China and the United States. An entire generation of Russian sinologists and diplomats has studied under his tutelage at MGIMO, the Diplomatic Academy, and the Higher School of Economics. If Russia’s pivot to Asia accelerates in a multipolar direction, Lukin’s stature as a key link between Russia and China with a broad view of Asia and great power relations will certainly grow.

1. Gilbert Rozman, “Review Article: Russian Perceptions of Sino-Russian Relations,” The Asan Forum 1, no. 1 (July 2013).

2. Alexander Lukin, Political Culture of the Russian “Democrats” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

3. Michael McFaul, “What Went Wrong in Russia?” Journal of Democracy 10, no. 2 (April 1999).

4. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East Vs. West in the 21st Century (Washington DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014).

5. Gaye Christoffersen, “Russia’s Breakthrough into the Asia-Pacific: China’s Role,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 10, no. 1 (2010).

6. Gilbert Rozman, “The Russian Pivot to Asia,” The Asan Forum 2, no. 6 (December 2014).

7. Zhao Huasheng. “China-Russia Relations in Central Asia,” The Asan Forum 1, no. 3 (November 2013).

8. Alexander Gabuev, “To Domesticate the Dragon: How to Use China’s Financial Ambitions in the SCO,” Russia in Global Politics (February 19, 2015).

9. Liz Wishnick, “Russia: New Player in the South China Sea?” PONARS Eurasia, Eurasia Policy Memo #260 (July 2013).

10. Alexander Lukin, “Konsolidatsiya ne zapadnogo mira na fone Ukrainskogo krizisa,” Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, March 2015; Editorial Staff, “Country Report: Russia,” The Asan Forum 3, no. 1 (March 2015).