Country Report: Russia (March 2014)


Russia’s writings on Asia over the past two months included much on Russia’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, its relations with Japan, and its approach toward the Korean Peninsula. Writings on China were detailed and mainly focused on China’s domestic developments, as well as some celebratory remarks about the Olympics cooperation between the two nations. China features mainly in the analysis of Russia’s other bilateral relationships in the region, as well as in recognition of its general Asia-Pacific strategy. The showdown over Ukraine and the Crimea came too late to shape much of the coverage of Asia, but we begin with recent writing that focuses on it.

Russia, Ukraine, and China

At the outset of the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia’s official sources claimed to have secured China’s support. There has been little detailed analysis in Russian media, however, of China’s position on Ukraine. The few articles published on the issue differed in their interpretation of China’s ambiguous stance on the crisis, with some arguing it showcases China’s implicit support for Russia, while others perceiving China’s neutrality as serving its strategic interests. One of the most extensive comments on Chinese thinking is summarized below.

Alexander Lukin in a conversation on ChinaFile on March 10 disagrees with the US university professor Alexander Pantsov on China’s response to Russia’s actions. He begins by asserting that China will surely not support the West, since the crisis was engineered by the West with the aim of world domination. As a specialist on China, Lukin is confident that it views Russia as a “valuable ally.” He cites an editorial in Xinhua on March 7 entitled, “The West’s Fiasco in Ukraine,” praising the “credibility and shrewdness” of Russia in cleaning up a mess in its backyard created by the West. Although China is relieved that Sino-US relations will not be damaged by this crisis, it is actually pleased that Russia was brave enough to stand against Western hegemonism, Lukin argues. China also welcomes the diversion of attention from the “alleged plot of encircling China and limiting its legitimately growing influence in East Asia.” Using the same term “mess” that Beijing uses for “color revolutions” and the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, China sees this crisis as another occasion to blame the West. It would veto any economic sanctions proposed at the Security Council, Lukin affirms. Conscious of parallels with its own country, China would draw the line only at supporting the annexation or independence of Crimea, but it will insist on a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the conflict on the basis of compromise. Implied in this conclusion is that Russia can count on China quietly to acquiesce to the reality on the ground, as it did in 2008 after Russia annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Sergeev’s article in Nezavisimaya gazeta on March 10 offers a different interpretation of China’s position. He argues that the “collapse of Ukraine” benefits China’s economic interests, as Western sanctions against Russia will create more space for China’s investment in Russia, while Ukraine’s tensions with Russia will mean more economic opportunities for China in Ukraine. His logic, however, presupposes that China wants to invest more in Russia and that it would not have access to economic deals in Ukraine if that country were more stable.

In the most recent editorial on China-Ukraine, Skosyriov argues that China will not take sides in the conflict despite the attempts by the United States to enlist it against Russia. China’s cautiousness on Ukraine reflects its strategic relations with the United States, as well as its adherence to the principle of territorial sovereignty and non-interference in the external affairs of other countries. Taking sides on Ukraine has no benefit for China. It wants to build closer economic relations with Ukraine regardless of what government takes over, and it wants to maintain its strategic relations with Russia without compromising its ties with the United States. When China abstained from the Security Council resolution on March 15, Western media interpreted this as deepening Russia’s isolation, but Russian media were largely silent on the matter.

Russia’s Pivot and the Asia-Pacific

Russia’s writings on great power relations in the Asia-Pacific and Russia’s pivot towards Asia carry a cautionary tone. Alexei Arbatov’s article in Nezavisimaya gazeta argues that security cooperation between the United States, Russia, and China in the Asia-Pacific region has significantly declined in recent years. The relations between Russia and China in the security domain are ambiguous, he notes. Despite their strategic partnership, the two nations do not have the kind of military-political union found among the United States, Britain, and France. It is even possible that part of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is pointed towards China, while that of China is pointed towards the Russian Far East. Arbatov expresses considerable concern about the escalating political tensions and an ongoing arms race between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific, arguing that it is comparable to that between NATO and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He notes that it is reasonable for China to expand its military spending for self-defense purposes, but cautions against it taking Germany and Japan’s behavior in the 1930s as a model for its security strategy, and hopes for it to take a diplomatic route in securing reliable supplies of natural resources. Russia’s economic and security presence in the Asia-Pacific region is weakening, and it is increasingly being perceived by other Asia-Pacific powers as a resource-abundant depopulated territory. In order to improve Russia’s position in the region, Arbatov suggests that the first step should be facilitating economic and demographic development of Siberia and the Far East, including diversification of foreign investment in the region. It is time to come up with long-term political and economic reforms that could shift the regional economic development from being solely driven by resource exports to that guided by high-tech innovation. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States, and Canada would all be important partners for achieving this goal, as they are interested in gaining profits, not on capturing Russia’s natural resources. Second, it is necessary to strengthen Russia’s security along the border with China, which, he thinks, will make bilateral ties more predictable, not worse. Third, Russia needs to diversify its security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, rather than exaggerating the military importance of the dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands. This issue should be put aside and not obstruct the strengthening of bilateral ties. Russia’s interest in Asia requires much tighter collaboration with Japan, the United States, and South Korea, not aimed at China, but simply part of a balanced security strategy in the region, warns Arbatov, who opposes unilateral security collaboration with any one country. As an outlier in his analysis of national security, Arbatov has long fought against the tide.

Karaganov and Makarov argue that expert discussions on Russia’s approach to the region have thus far produced little result, revealing contradictory opinions, advocating for the Asia pivot, while maintaining a Eurocentric mindset and holding unrealistic fears of China’s dominance of the Russian Far East (the authors note that its presence there is smaller than during imperial times). Russia’s leadership declared development of the area to be a national priority, but this did not translate into practical results. Large-scale funding for the APEC summit in Vladivostok did not trickle down to development of the region. There is a lack of understanding that it is impossible to seriously develop the region without attracting massive foreign investment from the entire Asia-Pacific region, as well as Europe. The authorities are also not grasping the advantage of turning Russia into an overland transport corridor between Europe and Asia, which would require building more railroad infrastructure in Eastern and Western Siberia among other things. The reason for Russia’s incoherent strategy towards the Asia-Pacific is also rooted in its competing national development strategies: European, Eurasian, and that focused on Siberia and the Far East. The authors, however, argue that these projects can complement one another. If Russia’s role in the Asia-Pacific strengthens, it will also make it a more attractive partner for Europe. As one more indication of Karaganov’s struggle to find a new strategy, as he has been tasked, this sounds as if it is substantive, but apart from criticisms of past problems, it shows little sign of the hard choices ahead.

Russia and Japan

Pavliatenko writes in Nezavisimaya gazeta that Japanese media have expressed a more favorable stance towards Russia in 2013, following the bilateral meetings between Putin and Abe. Fewer articles were focused on territorial claims, and when the territorial dispute was discussed, it was done so more in the context of a “peace agreement.” Pavliatenko, however, stresses that this generally positive impression about improving relations between Russia and Japan is misleading. First, Tokyo’s official stance on the Kuril Islands remains the same. The majority of Japan’s public and political elite believe that they historically belonged to Japan and therefore are lawfully within its sovereignty. Second, Japan keeps presuming that the only acceptable resolution is the return of the islands. While it might use flexible terms such as “delayed sovereignty” or “Hong Kong formula” in discussing the islands, it still expects to get them back in the next 10-20 years. Third, since returning to power, Abe has stressed that he will do whatever is necessary to resolve the historic dispute with Russia, in this way fulfilling the wishes of his father, Abe Shintaro, who put much effort into this pursuit. Abe sees establishing a personal rapport with Putin as part of his strategy. Much of Japan’s media focused on Abe’s attendance at the Sochi Olympics, boycotted by many Western leaders, but what they failed to note is that Abe came to Sochi straight from a nationalistic meeting in Japan where he assured the audience about his capacity to resolve the territorial issue under the current generation. Japan’s media continues to frame Japan-Russia relations as moving in the right direction, in contrast to the worsening relations with China and South Korea. Whereas in seeking to resolve territorial disputes with those countries, Japan tries to internationalize its claims, with Russia, it is doing the opposite. This should not be misinterpreted in Russia as a sign of substantial improvement, or else, disappointment will ensue, warns Pavliatenko.

Russia and the Korean Peninsula

Khudolei presents a detailed analysis of Russia’s position on the DPRK crisis, pointing to three main views. The moderately traditionalist one sees unification as unlikely in the near future and views the DPRK’s development as gradually following the path of China, and its nuclear program as unpleasant but not threatening to Russia. The pragmatic view perceives unification as likely to take place in the medium term since the DPRK regime has reached a dead-end, and thereby become fairly unpredictable, with its nuclear program threatening the interests of Northeast Asian countries, including Russia. Russia should, therefore, mainly focus on strengthening its relations with South Korea. There is also a view sympathizing with North Korea. It regards both Koreas as sovereign states and accepts North Korea’s right to develop as a socialist system. The proponents of this view see the DPRK’s nuclear program as justified as a protective measure against the United States and South Korea—two nations responsible for international crises and tension in Northeast Asia. Some proponents of this view support the DPRK’s political and economic development as an alternative to the current world order.

Russia’s policies towards the DPRK exhibit a mix of these approaches, we are told. They include: an attempt to maintain the status quo, a willingness to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula, a wary attitude towards the attempts of other nations to use the Pyongyang threat as an excuse to fortify their military presence in Northeast Asia; a determination to resolve the North Korean crisis only through peaceful means; an attempt to maintain a balanced relationship with both the DPRK and South Korea; and finally, tight cooperation with China in resolving the crisis. The North Korean nuclear crisis affects Russia’s interests, as it diminishes Russia’s nuclear leverage, weakens the influence of the UN Security Council, and poses a direct threat of a military conflict on Russia’s border. Any conflict affecting the Far East and Siberia would, we are informed, endanger Russia’s chances of effective integration into the Asia-Pacific region.

Khudolei argues that the only way to resolve the North Korean crisis is through creation of a single Korean democratic state with a market economy, tightly integrated into the Asia-Pacific region. For Russia, Korean reunification could only pose a danger if it were accompanied by a military conflict. Peaceful reunification through evolutionary processes is beneficial to Russia. A unified and independent Korea would be a strong partner for Russia in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia can facilitate this process by collaborating with other major powers involved. Khudolei especially emphasizes the importance of cooperation with South Korea, which has been growing in recent years. The two countries do not have any territorial disputes and share common views on many international issues. Signing a general political agreement between them, which would include various bilateral consultations and high-level meetings, would further facilitate closer ties. More work also needs to be done in increasing civil society exchanges and improving media coverage of one another, which often tends to portray the relationship negatively. When it comes to Russia’s relations with the DPRK, Khudolei advocates mainly sticking to the framework of Six-Party Talks and strongly supporting denuclearization, but at the same time maintaining some pragmatism in other spheres of bilateral interaction. Khudolei, therefore, is a proponent of the second view, guided by pragmatism and international collaboration. While he concludes on a hopeful note about Russia’s constructive efforts towards reunification, he offers no evidence that this view is on the ascendancy versus the other positions, which he outlines in the article.

Russia and Southeast Asia

In the February issue of Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ Vlasov Nikita writes about the US return to Southeast Asia. He notes the rise of the Asia-Pacific region in place of the West as the center of gravity and the locomotive of growth, and attributes to ASEAN the most active integrating role in this macro-region, which has made it a priority of the Obama administration. Southeast Asia, Nikita argues, is critical for US efforts to recover its lost world leadership since China’s rise threatens US global dominance. Contrary to the US pretense to be a stabilizing factor, Nikita sees it as striving to bring China under control. Reviewing in detail US policies since 2009, including the priority given to Obama participating in summits in the region, he contrasts this with Putin’s absence at these meetings and concerns that Russia does not give the region high priority. Nikita proceeds to divide the countries of ASEAN according to their relations with the United States and China, observing that most are drawing closer to the former primarily to avoid one-sided dependence on the latter. In this vein, strengthening ties with other major powers, including Russia, is welcomed as a guarantee of regional stability, although the United States seeks to monopolize this role. Special attention is given to Myanmar and Vietnam, seen as counterweights to China. Yet, old mutual fears persist: the United States refuses to sell lethal weapons, and Vietnam refuses to “transfer” military bases to the United States. Unwilling to remain on the sidelines in the long-term Sino-US rivalry, Indonesia draws close scrutiny from Nikita, as does Malaysia, whose ties with the United States have been improving for a decade. In neither case is there an impression of much closer ties ahead, given the absence of analysis of China’s behavior and reactions to it. As in the discussion of countries close to Washington, such as Singapore, the author makes it clear that all are careful to take China’s interests into account, not fully supporting what is implied to be the US strategy in this deepening competition.

Summarizing the findings from his survey of the region, Nikita finds prerequisites for US “rebalancing,” since countries see it as a supplementary factor for strategic balance. Following a pragmatic strategy, the United States also seeks to expand TPP with the maximum possible partners and to return to its old military bases. It will face barriers, readers are told, in realizing its goals: 1) distrust left from its policies in the Cold War; 2) China’s influence, drawing on extensive trade ties and overseas Chinese, even if territorial disputes reduce its popularity; 3) one-sided US foreign policy using military force in the Middle East, a problem especially with Indonesia and a factor limiting US possibilities elsewhere. Typical of Russian analysis, Nikita’s article puts the onus on the United States more than China, while holding open the possibility of Russia finding an opening due to aspirations for a balance of power.

In these snapshots of Russian coverage of the Asia-Pacific region in early 2014 we find no sign of a coherent strategy. The old battles are being refought, even as the tilt toward China persists. Distrust of the United States prevails, and Russia keeps seeking a path to improved relations with other countries without clarifying how this might fit into the way Sino-US relations have been evolving. The overall strategic context is absent or distorted.


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