Country Report: Russia (November 2013)

The Russian media kept its eye on areas around China’s borders, cautiously raising questions about clashing Russian and Chinese interests. In September the spotlight turned to Central Asia. In November with Lavrov and Shoigu going to Japan for the first 2+2 meetings and then Putin traveling to Vietnam and South Korea, areas on two other sides of China drew attention. In between, in October, Putin travelled to the EAS in Southeast Asia. Although Russian leaders refrained from any criticism of China, these trips prompted commentaries in Russia as well as abroad. The fact that discussion of China was becoming livelier is the most noticeable trend in this period. In the midst of these visits, Medvedev went to China, sustaining the relationship.

One of the boldest critiques of Russian foreign policy comes from Georgy Kunadze, who a quarter century earlier had similarly taken the lead before briefly serving as deputy foreign minister at the start of Yeltsin’s first term as president. Arguing that only China benefits from Russia arguing with the United States, he bemoans Russia’s wasted “moralizing role” through “pompous meetings” of BRICS or the SCO. Viewing an anti-American psychosis as favorable for some politicians but not the country, he warns that it leaves the masses with a distorted image of the world order. Joining in the chorus of voices arguing against Russia becoming an ally of China, Kunadze says it would be a burden, but he acknowledges that Russia will not confront China even if it sometimes refrains from supporting it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing that Russia should form an alliance with China, Iury Tavrovsky explains that this is the right way to resist US pressure and that of other global powers. In addition, he equates joining with China to choosing the eastern direction in both foreign policy and development. Attributing this choice to Putin in 2011, he warns that there are influential circles in Moscow that resist it, even trying to hamper the development of the Russian Far East and Siberia. With China’s help, he concludes, Russia can succeed. This article suggests that economic interests inside Russia diverge in their priority for China. Medvedev’s visit to China in October with a substantial economic agenda indicates the continued weight of those emphasizing China’s role, and Tavrovsky carries the argument well beyond economic cooperation to a military alliance and clear rejection of the West.

On October 23, Tavrovsky insisted that the West is pushing Russia to the East. Charging that Ukraine’s reorientation to the EU is one more success of the West, constraining Russia’s living space, he posits a struggle between West European civilization and Russian civilization. The loss of Ukraine, populated by Russian speakers and closely linked to Russian culture, is nothing less than a catastrophe, in Tavrovsky’s eyes. In his opinion, Russia still has an option—the intensive development of Siberia and the Russian Far East—with China’s close cooperation. Over the past two years, Putin has championed a “turn to the East,” which means a Moscow-Beijing axis. In turn, fearing a blockade, China has a strong interest in acquiring resources from Asiatic areas of Russia. Warning that the existing model of bilateral cooperation in using natural resources is badly flawed by criminal deals with corrupt Russian officials and that Russia may react with envy to China’s successful acquisition of resources in Central Asia, Tavrovsky proposes a package agreement on joint opposition to global forces that are threatening both countries, encompassing military, economic, and infrastructure cooperation on an unprecedented scale. This would be a true alliance.

Other articles at the time of Medvedev’s visit acknowledged that bilateral trade has decreased this year and the promises Putin and Xi made to each other in March are proving to be difficult to realize, noting that the visit was aimed at attracting more investment in Russia’s resources at a time when economic problems are mounting in the country. One article warned that Gazprom and CNPC have reached a deadlock on the price of natural gas, as the Russian monopoly insists on pegging the price to that of oil. It added that negotiations have fallen back to the stage they reached at the beginning of the year, leaving all of the key questions still on the table.

As in the prior Country Report on Russia, Evgeny Bazhanov stands apart for a wide-ranging assessment. In Nezavisimaya gazeta on September 2, he assesses Russia’s direction in Asia-Pacific, starting by noting the generally positive conditions for its regional involvement: there are no alliances or countries that are hostile to its engagement; and Russia is not directly involved in any regional conflicts. At the same time, Bazhanov argues that there are underlying tensions that affect Russia’s interests: intensifying Sino-US competition for a sphere of influence, as the latter reignites alliances in the hope of containing China’s growing military influence; and inter-regional conflicts, on the Korean Peninsula, between Taiwan and mainland China, and between China and Japan. The only regional dispute in which Russia is directly involved is with Japan, but it is unlikely to develop into a direct confrontation. Bazhanov points to the underdevelopment of Russia’s Far East and Siberia, which could make them vulnerable targets for other regional powers.

Given this assessment of tensions, Bazhanov renews his appeal for multipolarity. In this article, however, he points more to regional interests as a whole, rather than to Russia-specific objectives. Bazhanov argues that a stronger alliance with China would not bring about peace and stability in the region, but would facilitate intensification of the regional arms race, while hurting relations with the West, which are equally important to Russia’s modernization and security. He, therefore, advocates a balanced approach to the Asia-Pacific, neither solely joining with China nor accommodating US pressures to engage in containment against the growing regional power. Instead, Russia should initiate multilateral dialogues and implement preemptive diplomacy, which would ameliorate ongoing conflicts. Given the increasing interdependence of regional powers and their preference for informal agreements and gradual change, as well as Russia’s limited financial resources to devote to regional diplomacy, this approach is the most sensible. Bazhanov suggests that a balanced diplomatic approach could be applied to specific inter-regional conflicts. For instance, it could provide for an international negotiations platform for China and Japan, as well as advocate for Six-Party Talks. Russia, he adds, should help to establish a more adequate arms sales regime in Asia-Pacific, and be cautious about its own arms exports to the region.

Bazhanov concludes by advocating for a more active role for Russia in establishing a regional framework for economic security. Here he returns to the sensitive domestic issue of Siberia and the Russian Far East, arguing that Russia should seek international support for modernizing these regions. Unable to successfully develop them on its own, it should rely more closely on its neighbors, especially on China, Japan, and South Korea. Bazhanov’s conclusion is somewhat contradictory given his remark earlier in the article about the possibility for regional powers to take advantage of underdevelopment there. It seems that Bazhanov on the one hand is apprehensive about the imbalance in regional economic development, while on the other, aware that the only way to correct it is by intensifying interdependency and economic exchange rather than by remaining in isolation. While Bazhanov favors attracting more labor, capital, and technological investment into the region, he does not specify how this could be achieved, and whether Russia’s regional authorities would be capable of overcoming their fear of being overpowered by China in seeking out this engagement.

Articles on North Korea did not break new ground. Alexander Zhebin, writing in Nezavisimaya gazeta on October 14, explains that, after a pause, Pyongyang is ready to be a friend of Moscow again. Acknowledging that debates in Russia keep swirling about North Korea, the author stresses a balance of interests. Rather than attribute the warming of relations with South Korea in the early 1990s as an indication of de-ideologization and more interest in pursuing economic interests as well as regional cooperation, Zhebin says it was a result of ideologization. Abandoning its treaty with North Korea from 1961, Russia undercut one of the pillars of security in Northeast Asia, resulting in a loss of influence on the peninsula, as seen in the nuclear crisis of 1993-1994. To defend its interests on the peninsula, the author argues, Russia must stand on two legs. Refraining from blaming the North, Zhebin calls for optimizing Russian national interests and cooperating with the North due to new international realities. Satisfaction is expressed toward the legacy of Soviet industrial and cultural ties with North Korea as a basis for renewed exchanges. After all, this is one of the countries where Russia’s impact is most profound. The opening in late September of the reconstructed leg of the railroad between Khasan and Rajin is noted as a step toward grand corridors to spread across the peninsula. Zhebin quotes Putin in arguing that forceful interference in the internal affairs of North Korea bears some of the blame for the nuclear problem. He concludes by asserting that the degree of Russian support for it should be proportional to its consultations or responsiveness to Russian interests, but that Russia should demonstrate to the United States and to China too that there is an alternative in Moscow for the DPRK.

In covering other neighbors of China, Russian articles often minimize the conflicts they have with China and the possibility that Russian leaders are contributing in any way to steps to counter China’s pressure on them. In a Nezavisimaya gazeta article of October 15, it appears that under Xi Jinping’s new policies, China is ready to compromise with Vietnam, realizing that its ambitions frighten its Asian neighbors, hurt its image, and lead to tensions that the United States exploits. Leaving some doubt as to how far China is willing to come to terms with Vietnam on their territorial dispute (and putting none of the onus on Hanoi), the article praises a decision to establish a joint group to investigate the South China Sea for a far-reaching agreement. A month later when Putin went to Vietnam much praise was given to joint oil ventures involving Russian companies with scant mention of how this exploration in the South China Sea is being perceived in China.

An article in Kommersant on October 9 interpreted talks related to economic regionalism at APEC as deepening the division into economic blocs. It perceived China as objecting to the pro-American partnership of TPP as exclusively a new sphere for advancing US interests. In contrast, China and Indonesia, the host, were actively pushing for RCEP, a 16-nation grouping that excludes Russia as well as the United States. The upshot was that efforts to conduct TPP talks right on the grounds of the APEC forum were thwarted.

Prior to Putin’s visit to Seoul, there was discussion of the construction of an underwater gas pipeline from the Russian Far East to South Korea. Given Seoul’s doubts about the security of a land route across North Korea, this alternative has been considered. If prices for gas fall with increasing supplies, will South Korea be willing to lock in a long-term contract at today’s prices? Also, who will pay for the expensive pipeline? An article in Kommersant on October 17 suggested that prospects are dim since it would be cheaper to send liquid natural gas from Vladivostok to South Korea, and even that the issue is being raised as a way to put pressure on China to agree to a contract for a gas pipeline.

Putin’s visit to Seoul on November 13 was marked by repeated calls for separating “politics” from three-way economic cooperation among Seoul, Pyongyang, and Moscow; appeals for proceeding without preconditions to Six-Party Talks; and urging that Seoul commit to long-term, costly plans for an “Iron Silk Road” and energy pipelines. Five distinct goals became intertwined: 1) restarting the Six-Party Talks without preconditions; 2) putting economics in the forefront in working with North Korea to forge a north-south corridor; 3) developing the Russian Far East, drawing on South Korean support, including reestablishing shipbuilding in this area; 4) extracting commitments to develop the North Sea route and utilize it; and 5) increasing bilateral trade with an emphasis on energy.