Country Report: Russia (September 2013)

Russia’s thirst for multipolarity on terms that would not require reconsideration of its assumptions about countries active in East Asia was on vivid display through the summer. Hopes rose appreciably for North Korea’s help in this pursuit, doubts about China were limited in ways supportive of this overall objective, and commentaries on South Korea, Japan, and India did not suggest anything to the contrary. There was no indication of any shift toward optimism about the US role in the region, resulting in a search for scenarios to bypass its obstructionism rather than to satisfy its needs. The Cold War school of thought seized on events to continue its resurgence, even as the multipolar school sought, obliquely as necessary, to differentiate itself. In many articles, whether from officials associated with the Foreign Ministry or from experts on countries in the region working in institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences, national identity deductions masqueraded as realist analysis. The occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War provided one opportunity.

Former ambassador to South Korea Gleb Ivashentsov wrote in the July issue of Mezhudarodnaia zhizn’ a sweeping history of how North Korea has figured into international relations since the war. The manner in which he invokes balance of power theory and national identity theory are telltale signs of a prevailing pattern in Russian publications for at least the past decade. The starting point is perceptions of the United States straight from the Cold War. Ivashentsov argues: the West lost its preeminence with the Soviet victory in World War II and a second blow from the victory of communism in China; despite varied views on who lit the spark igniting the Korean War, the outcome of the war was the United States stationing troops in South Korea and using the war as a pretext for deepening its presence in Asia and forging alliances against communism; the two Koreas became pawns between East and West, as insistence on resolving international relations issues from a position of US strength prolonged the standoff; instead of recognizing (along with South Korea and Japan) North Korea, the United States preferred the Cold War status quo, seeing tensions as convenient for intensifying its military and political presence in the region; it drove North Korea to develop nuclear weapons in light of legitimate fears of the unilateral use of force against it or other governments deemed unsuitable; in labeling the North part of the “axis of evil,” Bush brought the US position more into the open and hardened the North’s posture; it has remained unprepared to talk and opposed to the North’s rightful activity as in the peaceful use of space; along with South Korea it overreacted in 2010 to uncertain evidence of how the Cheonan sank; and in the summer of 2013, Pyongyang has again signaled its readiness if it is not backed into a corner to be a reliable partner; and there is reason to be optimistic if Washington were to recognize that denuclearization follows a peace treaty after it drops its hostility to unification and to constructive cooperation to end, at last, what is implied to be the continuing Cold War due to US thinking. This line of reasoning is missing any acknowledgment of US overtures to North Korea over the past 20 years or any attempt to grasp changes in US policies. It is reminiscent of Soviet writings.

On the other side of the ledger, Ivashentsov depicts Russia and even China as forces for positive solutions to the North Korea issue, saying little about South Korea.

An article in the August issue of the same journal by Evgenii Bazhanov (read along with his August 2 article in Nezavisimaia gazeta) provides an overview of Russia’s policy in the Asia-Pacific region with some pointed suggestions. The first thing that stands out to international readers in Bazhanov’s historical overview is how the Cold War is treated: it is an inevitable outcome of two antagonistic camps, for which Moscow is not faulted for never trying what Gorbachev did, and values, except US anti-communist emotions, are of no relevance. The Korean War is covered as if it were an expected byproduct of the two opposed sides without further interest in assigning blame. Two mistakes are cited: first, weaker than the two superpowers, China chose to battle against both, then had to decide and chose the West; second, the Soviet Union, reacting ideologically to China and quarreling with almost every state in the Asia-Pacific region as well as fighting in Afghanistan, aroused an anti-Soviet front along its borders with many negative consequences in the late 1970s and 1980s. Crediting policies of the late 1980s with abandoning ideology as well as normalizing relations with almost all states in the region, especially China, Bazhanov faults the period of the collapse of the Soviet Union for turning Russia’s back on the region and strongly praises what has been achieved since that stance was reversed. He is particularly positive on success with China, which supports Russia’s reforms and needs peaceful surroundings, as does Russia. There is no hint that China may not support some modernizing reforms or that Russia has hitched itself too closely.

Bazhanov warns against criticism harmful to relations that over the horizon Russia should be worried that a shifting balance of forces will empower China to pressure Russia, and he urges Russia to seize the opportunity of China wanting close ties to build a model of mutual cooperation for this century. Yet, he proceeds to set forth an agenda in the region directly opposed to China’s: building on overlapping interests in international relations with Japan by trying harder to overcome the past, no longer seeing each other through the prism of the territorial dispute; while keeping a balance in relations with North and South Korea, recognizing that ties to the South are much closer and drawing it deeper into the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East; and accepting ASEAN as the core of regional integration, while deepening strategic ties with Vietnam and recognizing a basis for cooperation with the United States. Yet, Bazhanov charges the US rebalancing to this region is taking an anti-China direction, even as it is welcomed by almost all states that prefer US leadership and fear China’s militarization. He acknowledges that polarization is occurring as regional conflicts intensify. As for Russia, he notes that it is only a direct participant in one dispute with Japan, for which there is no threat of a confrontation.

Bazhanov points to two contending opinions on what Russia’s Asia-Pacific regional strategy should be. 1) It is best positioned on the sidelines, as tigers battle with each other, eventually appealing to win Russia to their side. After all, Russia has no desire to join in the great power rivalries. Given parallels to the late nineteenth century situation when Germany was rising, the struggle for leadership in the Asia-Pacific region may prove very dangerous; however, leaving little room to keep one’s distance, he notes. 2) Russia should join China in a military alliance against US hegemonism, as some in Moscow propose and military analysts as well as others in Beijing are urging. The article by Bazhanov makes the case against this. First, there is the problem on the Chinese side, even if its leadership may find it useful to frighten the United States or Japan with this prospect, since there is good reason to doubt that China would cross this line. After all, even as China officially rejects US proposals for what is essentially a G-2, it is flattered to be treated as an equal. Recalling what happened in the 1950s with the alliance with Beijing, Bazhanov warns that drawing so close may backfire.

Second, Bazhanov lists drawbacks for Russia. It would become a pawn of China, get drawn into conflicts, put up barriers to normal contacts with other countries, and play a role in undermining the whole global system of international relations. Such an alliance with China would also destroy multipolarity, which requires interactive, not conflictual, poles, normal relations with the United States, not a new cold war, cooperation with the West for both the security and development of Russia. For him, multipolarity is essentially a status quo approach, not, as it has been interpreted by many Russians over two decades, more vigor in countering US hegemonism.

Bazhanov sets forth a regional strategy, seeking the goal of a collective system of security, but with more specifics on five objectives: 1) joint economic projects on the Korean Peninsula along with a deal guaranteeing the security of North Korea as it renounces preparations for nuclear weapons, optimally through Six-Party Talks; 2) avoidance of becoming entangled in disputes in the East China and South China seas, being careful about allowing Russian oil and gas companies to anger China as well; 3) for Russian security and the security of other companies, being careful also about the transfer of military technology and weapons sales to China; 4) modernizing with foreign investments and other inputs to Siberia and the Russian Far East in a manner that prevents the hegemonism of one country, which means welcoming Japanese and South Korean companies as well as Chinese ones in a fundamentally new way, breaking the pattern of Russian development; and 5) achieving a breakthrough with Japan, given its energy and geopolitical interest in Russia. Although this article omits recognition of the ascendancy of the first set of opinions and the anticipated Chinese reaction to this multipolar agenda, defying China on Japan, they are its background.

An article by Konstantin Sarkisov for the online Eurasia 21 Research Institute was more detailed in exploring the prospects for Russian-Japanese relations. Expressing skepticism, he assesses the global and regional contexts as well as the domestic context in each country and political will to resolve the territorial question. Since Sarkisov wrote a response to Togo’s “July Topics of the Month,” this summation of his views is quite brief. For the global context, he stresses that both Japan and Russia are weaker powers than when they negotiated before and there is no prospect of balancing China’s rising power. In regional relations Japan and Russia have also lost ground. Abe’s approach leaves little hope of progress in relations with South Korea. Internally, Putin is losing popularity, and dismal economic news could cost him much of his remaining political capital. A deal with Japan could be the main success of his third term, but it does not depend on him alone. Abe enjoys a stronger domestic base as long as Abenomics is working, and he is positioned for a more decisive compromise with Russia. Despite doubts owing to the gap between the two countries’ positions, Sarkisov views a deal as theoretically possible on the basis of a compromise seen in Japan as 2+alpha and in Russia as 4-alpha, whereby an arrangement is made for the two big islands that lets Japanese be there without passports and recognition of Russian sovereignty while future-oriented partner relations give a big boost to the quality of relations, most of all economic ones. This message largely reinforces that of Togo and Putin for the Russian audience. It takes Abe’s interest seriously and points to a way forward. Above all, on the Russian side, it clarifies what Bazhanov and others may contemplate as the path to multipolarity.