Country Report: Russia (July 2013)

Country Report: Russia (with the assistance of Olga Puzanova)

This is an ideal time for a debate about the balance of Russian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Nervousness about its economic prospects keeps growing with implications for its strategy to develop the Russian Far East, whose plight drew new attention in 2012 when Vladivostok hosted the APEC summit. China’s assertive foreign policy is provoking second thoughts in some circles about how closely tied Russia has become to its strategic partner, limiting other options in the region. New leadership in Japan is showing greater interest in Russia. The Obama administration wants to reset the “reset,” including cooperation over Central Asia in and after the pullout from Afghanistan and over North Korea in joint pursuit of denuclearization. A new president in South Korea would, no doubt, be interested in coordination on North Korea, as she strives for multilateral trust building. Yet, Vladimir Putin is now focused on criticizing the United States and domestic critics who are being labeled “foreign agents.” Russian publications breaking new ground are difficult to find.

These are troubled days for Russian media coverage of international affairs. Apart from the lingering presence of some figures who found an independent niche in the 1990s and are struggling to maintain it and to make their voices heard, the overwhelming presence of government-funded specialists means that few dare to risk their careers by criticizing policies widely understood to be initiatives of Putin. The sullen mood in the big cities, where Putin’s domestic authoritarian steps are resented, leaves many on edge in considering the tilt to China amidst renewed demonization of the United States. Yet, that does not mean a revival of the romance with the United States of the Gorbachev era. The critique of US disregard for the interests of Russia has penetrated too far for that kind of backlash. The palpable air of daring to find a way to challenge the established line, albeit indirectly as in the late Brezhnev era, has yet to become conspicuous. Thus, we find little debate on the new assertiveness of China, profound skepticism about Russo-Japanese relations, and virtual silence on the Korean Peninsula despite dramatic developments there in recent months. One has to dig deep for Russian materials in contrast to the surfeit of Japanese and South Korean articles reflecting democratic diversity and even the more narrowly constricted but abundant Chinese articles on Asian foreign relations.

Unlike the Brezhnev era, there has been an exception in the journal Russia in Global Affairs (Russian edition, Rossiia v global’noi politike) and by authors who live abroad or work for foreign think tanks, who convey views with indirect criticisms of Putin’s foreign policy. This results in some liveliness of debate, but the most striking examples of that come from those who are stridently critical of the United States as they press for closer ties to China or even North Korea or illusive “multipolarity.”

The media of each country naturally highlights the summitry of its leader as the most significant. In 2013 Barack Obama met with Abe Shinzo in February, then Park Geun-hye in May, and Xi Jinping in June, but his summit on the sidelines of the G-8 with Vladimir Putin drew the most dramatic commentary in Russia for its great impact on international affairs. An image was conveyed of Putin as the forceful ruler of a great power playing at the highest level in the international community in trying to resolve the most urgent matters of our times: the threat of a conflagration in Syria spreading to consume the Middle East and even result in war between two powers, and the balance between the danger of nuclear war and the deployment of missile defenses that destabilize the world with the potential of a preemptive strike. While the setting of Northern Ireland and the gathering of leaders mostly from the West did not lend themselves to much attention to Asian themes, these have occupied a greater place in media justifications of Russia’s stature as a major power.

Although international coverage dwelt on the negative side of the Obama-Putin summit, Russian writings found a silver lining. It was seen elsewhere as a Cold War confrontation between two states arming opposing forces in Syria’s Civil War and as a prelude to Obama’s Berlin speech calling for Russo-US negotiations to cut the number of deployed nuclear weapons by one-third, which Putin snubbed as a trick to leave Russia vulnerable to a growing US ballistic missile defense network. Yet, Russian sources portrayed two global leaders wrestling with the burning issues of the day in anticipation of the two-day Moscow summit to be held just two months later when Obama visits Russia for the G-20 summit. In the background appeared reports on increased Russian oil exports to China and the troubled state of various European countries, showcasing the big advantages of Russia’s refocusing on Asia.

The review article to appear in this first issue assesses a textbook edited by Alexander Lukin. In the May 1 issue of Rossiia v global’noi politike Lukin clarified his concern about the drift in China toward a harder line with its neighbors on disputes over territory. Warning that this has the negative effect for Russia of tightening ties between these states and the United States, he argues that Russia should use its influence with China to prevent nationalist tendencies from becoming the basis of Chinese foreign policy. Lukin further insists that Russia has to take note of these developments and study where they are heading. The fact that it leads countries to give preference to one state over others does not serve multipolarity, which is the goal of Russia. While acknowledging China’s formal reason for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Sino-Japanese dispute, Lukin sees a more fundamental cause in China’s rising power and the pressure that creates for boldness, using the military, to extend its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, it is very painful for Japan to make concessions given attacks from nationalist voices. Unless Beijing is forced by future economic troubles to turn toward more pressing issues, its strengthening power could well lead to even more assertiveness, a prospect that has little prospect of resolution, readers are warned.

Lukin further notes that in Southeast Asia Washington is playing on the real fears of China’s neighbors. His primary attention centers on Vietnam amid Russian discussions with that country about the possibility of returning its navy to Cam Ran Bay as well as its companies jointly developing with Vietnamese natural resources on the continental shelf. While China is not pleased, the Russian naval presence is seen as less objectionable than a US presence would be, given concerns that the latter is trying to contain China. Plans for dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River are another factor Lukin notes in driving Vietnam to the United States. Also warning that a deficit of trust between China and India could seriously destabilize the region, Lukin gives substantial weight to what China is doing to raise concerns.

Explaining what is behind China’s assertiveness, Lukin points to the rising influence of the military and security establishment. Tensions with Japan intensify this tendency while pouring fuel on the fire of an aroused public, stirred by official propaganda and going beyond it in seeking to pressure Japan in the manner of Mao Zedong without fear of alienating the outside world. While these sentiments are not now driving policy, their influence on foreign policy is beginning to grow, he argues in concluding that Russia must not support any one side in these conflicts but should keep good relations with all and press for an effective regional security system. This article makes a bold case for multipolarity without discussing how different this would be from current Russian policy and how it would likely be received in China.

Yuri Tavrovskii in Nezavisimaia gazeta assessed the Xi-Obama summit, the second foreign trip of China’s new leader after his March Moscow summit. Noting that the Sunnylands summit followed a month of softening toward the United States, the author suggests that it results from a perception that after Obama’s re-election he may be putting limits on the rebalancing toward Asia that had disturbed China. One reason, Tavrovskii identifies, are pro-American sentiments within China’s elite and the desire to stick to Deng Xiaoping’s low profile approach. Yet, he warns, America needs an opponent to make the budgetary case for its military-industrial complex, and China recognizes that it is much weaker and is trying to avoid confrontation. In this analysis, China and Russia are in the same boat, victims of US hegemonism and intolerance for independent actors. TPP leaves Russia as well as China out of this zone of free trade, undermining the widening of its economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The upshot of US policy is that China and Russia are driven together, but there is a powerful break in the path of improved relations, the writer adds. Russia resents Chinese silence about Soviet assistance to the Chinese Communist Party and in the victory over Japan. The Russian people are susceptible to the myth of a “Chinese threat,” and the Chinese to the supposed pain of their lands being taken away by Tsarist Russia. These old themes hold sway instead of a collective response to the threat from the US “pivot to Asia,” raising ties to a higher level.

More than other countries, Russians follow Sino-Indian relations, including the recent visit of Premier Li Keqiang. Responses vary from a positive evaluation of China’s new efforts to build trust, which serve also to boost the triangle involving Russia, to a negative view of the lingering shadow of the territorial dispute on India, resulting in a summit with little impact on the overall situation. The role of India in Asian affairs, including its improved ties with Japan, has been consequential for Moscow for more than half a century. Less central now, it remains an interest.

Aleksandr Zhebin in Nezavisimaia gazeta responded to the tenser rhetoric of North Korea by urging more diplomacy to resolve the situation. Reacting to Obama’s statements to Park Geun-hye during their summit as further sign that Washington is relying on force rather than diplomacy, Zhebin outlines a program for success in denuclearization of North Korea in return for a full transformation in the security environment of the region and support for its economic development. The fault lies not in Pyongyang for resorting to belligerence and nuclear tests, but in Washington for forcing it to take such measures. This is a widely presented view in Russia. When Abe met with Putin, their gap in thinking about North Korea was described in these terms too. Both sides wanted North Korea to turn away from nuclear weapons, but Russia wanted to renew dialogue with it, while Japan sought to heighten pressure through economic sanctions, argued Vladimir Skosyrev in Nezavisimaia gazeta, as if the only thing preventing the North from denuclearization is pressure targeted at regime change when it is inclined to do so once it is treated in a normal fashion.

Avoiding any criticism of China except for rare, bold indirect writings while blaming the United States for the North Korean problem as well as others around the globe with scant refutation, keeps Russians in the dark on the geopolitical state of the Asia-Pacific region. There is no momentum for compromise with Japan since the benefits are scarcely discussed. Sticking close to China no matter what remains the likely direction of Russian policy in the absence of a lively debate on the effects.