Author: Mariam Macharashvili, Master of International Relations, International Black Sea University
The first half of 2023 saw Russian President Vladimir Putin being less active in terms of foreign visits – such visits having been reduced since the Hague International Criminal Court (ICC) charged him with illegally deporting children from Ukraine and issued an arrest warrant. This means that states which are parties to the Rome Statute (123 in total) are required to arrest the Russian president if he steps foot on their territory, and then transfer him to the International Court. That explains why this year Vladimir Putin visited only occupied Donetsk, Kherson, Lugank and Crimea. Yet, despite his caution, Putin resumed foreign meetings in September 2023, visiting Kyrgyzstan for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit, and later attending the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) forum in China. At the conference, Putin also met Global South leaders, and a visit to North Korea is planned, though the date of the meeting has yet to be set. The question arises, what is the purpose of Putin’s frequent visits to the Asian countries? Our blog discusses several possibilities.
The multipolar world order – on the basis of the statements made by the leaders of China and Russia at the BRI forum, their main goal, to establish a multipolar world order that is fitted to their own autocratic interests and common visions, was revealed. For that purpose, close cooperation is important. In addition to the common goal, both highly value each other. As Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Center for Russia and Eurasia, pointed out, for China, “Russia is a safe neighbour that is friendly, that is a source of cheap raw materials, that is a support for Chinese initiatives on the global stage, and that is also a source of military technologies, some of which China doesn’t have…For Russia, China is its lifeline, economic lifeline in its brutal repression against Ukraine.”
The fact that they have the same views on the current international events was again confirmed when both refrained from condemning the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel and only called for a ceasefire. According to Putin, “common threats,” by which he means the West, especially the US, led to the rapprochement of the two countries. China and Russia believe that the US is undermining international security and trying to gain a unilateral advantage, which they oppose. According to their vision, the multipolar world order, in which both of them will be a separate pole, should be based on the idea of respecting “civilizational diversity”, where every state has the right to develop its own model of development. This is contrary to the principle of democracy and the need to protect basic human rights and freedoms in all countries. China believes that the Belt and Road Initiative is an alternative development path that will “create a new framework for the international system,” and, for Putin, such ties are important for establishing an international platform where “no one imposes anything on others.”
Restoration of traditional ties – After the war in Ukraine, Russia and its president became the object of harsh criticism from the West, seeing Putin named a dictator and aggressor, and sanctioned and strongly condemned for his gross violation of the principles of international law. Therefore, Putin, who is rejected by the West, is trying to show the world that he is not alone and is still maintaining traditional relations with his old allies. This was the purpose of his visit to Kyrgyzstan during the CIS summit, where he called on member states, most of which are Central Asian countries, to strengthen relations, and reminded them of their common values. As the President of Russia said: “It is a choice for each of us: do we want to preserve our own identity or not? This opportunity is given to us through working within the CIS. It strengthens our positions without holding us back from cooperating with each other, and it respects our national specifics.” Putin also noted that the CIS countries should develop unified foreign policy approaches and cooperate with the Global South countries, with whom they have similar views. In addition, by going to Bishkek, Putin showed the world that despite his country’s failed attempts in Ukraine and complicated relations with Armenia, there is a region (Central Asia) in the post-Soviet space where Russia is still the leading state and dominant power. Putin visited a Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan and announced the creation of a joint anti-aircraft defense system, underscoring Russia’s important role in ensuring regional security. For Russia, Kant’s military base is a strategic point that allows for the demonstration of power in the region, expansion of influence, and increase in military cooperation.
Seeking Economic Opportunities – Following the invasion of Ukraine, the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia, placing it under approximately 13,000 restrictions. As a result of the sanctions, Russia’s GDP decreased by 2.1 percent last year, and the Russian financial sector lost hundreds of billions of dollars. Sanctions have hit Russia’s energy sector hard after the European Union banned most Russian crude oil imports in December 2022, and the G7 imposed a global price cap on Russian oil purchases. The Russian gas sector has also become a target. In March, the EU announced that it will reduce gas imports from Russia by two-thirds within a year.
Russia naturally began to look for new opportunities and increased trade with its allies in Asia. In 2022, trade with China increased by 1/3 and reached a record level (US$ 190 million). Russian energy exports to China also increased. The visit of the Russian president to Beijing in October of this year as part of their “no limits” cooperation is a continuation of this tendency, and experts believe he wants to agree with China on increasing the supply of natural gas and the construction of the Siberia 2 pipeline. In addition, Russia is trying to circumvent sanctions by increasing parallel imports with Central Asian countries, as evidenced by Putin’s statement in Bishkek, where he emphasized the importance of double-digit economic growth with Kyrgyzstan. Nevertheless, Russia’s actions did not go unnoticed, and the US imposed sanctions on four Kyrgyz companies for re-exporting electronic components to Russia. Russia’s aim to strengthen economic ties in Asia was confirmed by his answer to reporters’ questions that he would hold talks in China on the “Belt and Road” projects, which he wants to link with the economic alliance of post-Soviet countries in Central Asia to “achieve common development goals.”
Personal Image – After the decision of the International Criminal Court, Putin was for a long time absent at international summits and meetings. He did not attend the BRICS summit in South Africa or the G-20 meetings in India. This led to the belief that Putin was avoiding leaving his country, and that the court, through its decision, had essentially “locked” him inside Russia. The appearance of the Russian president in Asian countries from September 2023 onwards can be described as a move serving to restore his damaged image. By doing so, Putin wants to show that he is not in fact limited in his visits abroad, that he is still in control of the situation, and that he can visit countries that are still under Russian influence. However, despite his efforts, his visit to Central Asia already signifies a certain isolation.
In conclusion, while searching for reasons for the Russian president’s recent frequent visits to Asia, several important factors were identified. After the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West, Putin is trying to deepen relations with China and traditional allies, which on the one hand shows the world that Russia remains a power to be reckoned with in the post-Soviet space, and on the other that the aforementioned ties are important in terms of establishing a multipolar world order. Further, against the backdrop of economic sanctions imposed by the West, Russia is trying to expand economic and energy relations with Asian countries and thereby balance the negative consequences of the Western sanctions. It is significant that these visits are Putin’s attempt to restore his damaged image and show the world that he is not isolated and can still freely visit friendly states.