Vladivostok is currently hosting the annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), which serves as a platform for Russia to showcase its pivot to the East. This strategic move, initiated by President Vladimir Putin over a decade ago, aims to prioritize the development of the Russian Far East and integrate it into the global market.
The EEF, since its inception in 2015, has brought together political, business, scientific, educational, and civil society leaders from Russia and various foreign countries. Major Asian leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the patriarch of regional politics, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, have also attended the forum. These high-level visits from Russia and its key regional partners signify the seriousness of Moscow’s plans to integrate its economy into the vast and diverse political-economic system of Asia.
Historically, Russia has not prioritized relations with Asian countries, despite its strong presence in the region. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, after successfully eliminating the threat of steppe nomads in the east five hundred years ago, Russia no longer perceived a security threat from that direction. Russian power easily expanded eastward, gradually occupying new territories beyond the Urals through settlement and administration building. This expansion faced few obstacles or adversaries that could threaten Russia’s existence. Even the conflict with Japan in the early 20th century was viewed by Russia as a colonial dispute rather than a threat to its territorial integrity. Today, the possibility of a security threat from Japan is even lower, as the United States controls the country and Alaska, which shares a border with Russia, is geographically distant.
Secondly, Russia has historically been closely tied to Europe and the West in terms of economic cooperation. Geography has naturally facilitated trade and cooperation between Russia and Western Europe, despite the hostility Western Europeans have displayed towards Russia. Even during times of war, such as the invasions led by Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte, Russia still maintained economic, technological, and cultural partnerships with European countries. In contrast, Asia has been viewed as a threat and has been less integrated into Russia’s foreign relations. However, Russia has always been open to redeveloping relations with Europe once wars have ended, while Asia has not been a significant part of the international system until recent decades.
Furthermore, Russia’s eastern regions have not played a significant role in the country’s economic system due to climate and topographical factors. The eastern edge of Russia, except for Vladivostok, has remained sparsely populated and disconnected from the central regions of the European part of the country. In contrast, favorable climates along the west coast of the United States have enabled the development of multiple urban centers near the Pacific Ocean.
Despite these historical factors, the Russian government has made the decision to prioritize its focus on the East. To do so, Moscow needs to address geographic and logistical challenges to strengthen ties with Asian countries. However, recent developments have presented new opportunities for Russia to shift its focus to Asia. The West’s efforts to isolate Russia economically and militarily have led to the severing of many ties with European countries, prompting Russia to seek closer economic and trade relationships with Asian countries. Increased trade and economic ties between Russia and Asian countries, as well as the rise of Vladivostok as a gateway for Russian goods to world markets, have occurred in the past year and a half. Additionally, amidst growing global turbulence, Asian countries themselves are interested in actively trading with Russia and transitioning to settlements in national currencies.
Although Asia remains a complex region for Russia and often an overlooked source of partners, the objective conditions for shifting focus to the East have emerged for the first time in Russian history. The Eastern Economic Forum serves as a crucial platform to strengthen economic cooperation and advance Moscow’s pivot to the East.