Russia (January 2014)

At year-end there were many wrap-up articles issued in Russia. The big picture is seen through the prism of Sino-US relations and Russia’s decision to veer to the East. Japan drew more attention than usual. Articles also focused on territorial disputes, the Korean Peninsula, and Vietnam. A balance was struck between reticence to criticize China and affirmation of Russia’s own approach to various parts of the region. The overall tone is more optimistic than that found elsewhere at a time of rapidly rising tensions in most bilateral relations across the region.

In a November article in Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, Sergei Troush wrote of a bipolar world with increasing Sino-US interdependence in trade and finance, but widening competition in geopolitics. Although he views China as opposed to the status quo and forecasts more conflict as China seeks more equality, a more extensive maritime presence, and maximum military power, Troush weighs other factors more heavily. He stresses economic imperatives as China prioritizes economic growth as well as stability in a narrowing global space, and he points to a ruling class—more so the economic bloc than the security bloc in the bureaucracy—that is closely tied to US life with children studying at top US universities and cosmopolitan attitudes. Yet, Troush identifies complicating factors without any framework for weighing their impact or indicating changes over time. He sees the presence of a mostly hereditary military leadership strongly inclined to state ideology, civilizational differences that lead to conflicting worldviews, and widespread anti-Americanism. The style of the article is deductive from some general concepts, leading to alternative scenarios, but no sense of urgency about what Russia must do in the face of increasing dangers.

A November 11 Kommersant article by Fyodor Luk’yanov recognized a sharp Asian accent in Russian foreign policy in 2013. Following new priority for Asia in 2009, the 2011 APEC summit, and the establishment of a ministry of the Far East, Russia is sending more oil and gas to the east and expanding its diplomatic contacts, he notes. Yet, he raises doubts that it has a development strategy for Siberia and the Russian Far East and a strategy for Asia, even though Russia’s standing as a great power depends on the Pacific. Pointing to countries eager to draw closer—China as competition with the United States intensifies, Japan as alarm about China grows, South Korea as the situation with North Korea leaves it an island isolated from the continent, and India as it frets about the military balance with China and Russia’s supply of weapons to China—, Lukyanov sees an opportunity, but no strategy. Noting growing suspicions of China in the region, he does not suggest how this may matter for Russian strategy. Many Russian experts seem to have an idea for a new strategy, but they hesitate to make it clear in an atmosphere where only Putin is the “decider” and his approach is essentially to avoid forging a strategy as he keeps China close or focuses elsewhere.

A December article in Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ by Gleb Ivashnikov also pointed to 2013 as a year of Asia for Russia, welcoming, among other things, the reworking in progress there of the traditional model of modernization on the basis of Western democratic forms and local political cultures. He sees Russia not as a newcomer to the region, but as playing catch up after neglect in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. Raising the question of whether the Sino-US struggle over leadership is similar to the Soviet-US Cold War competition, Ivashnikov sticks to Chinese terms for the relationship and downplays the chances of serious conflict since China only wants to reform the international system, not break it. The problem, he insists, is that the United States stands in the way, fearing that it would play “second fiddle” to China. Its policies, e.g. interference in China’s territorial disputes with neighbors, have an anti-Chinese character. Its advocacy of “green growth” at APEC and of TPP is seen as an effort to counter China’s rising influence. Having provided this background, the article turns to the US “fracking revolution” as a challenge to the region, given the importance of energy imports. One aim, he affirms, of the noise about this is to paralyze movement in the Asia-Pacific market for Russian gas, by pipeline or liquid. Doubting the future of fracking, partly for environmental reasons, the author casts doubt on advice to China, India, and others to count on this. He praises China and its cooperation with Russia and blames US insistence on control for any such problems.

Ivashnikov finds a silver lining in intensifying Sino-US competition: the growing interest in Russia of other countries, which share with Russia a desire not to allow tensions to disrupt the continued economic rise of the region. Fearing China, Japan has turned to Russia, as has India. South Korea seeks Russian support in the face of North Korea. This gives Russia a good chance of becoming the champion of “unity in diversity” in Asia. Russia, he says, must complement this interest in its political role with new conditions for an economic role. Listing failures in its investment climate, he mentions specifically South Korea’s decision against its companies participating in Kamchatka coal development and the tendency for Japanese and South Korean investments to go to European Russia and be focused on supplying their products to the Russian market, Ivashnikov calls on Russian leaders to invest heavily in the Far East with infrastructure rather than to keep announcing plans and not fund them.

Other articles are narrower in focus. With Russia’s economy slumping, optimism is still expressed about riding the wave of China’s economic rise. Andrei Zagorsky in a December 2 article in Kommersant marveled at China’s more rapid than expected growth, stimulated by government spending. He even suggested that China is successfully changing its economic model. Turning to the East and relying on China’s market, Russians well understand that it would be risky to rock the boat keeping all afloat. A few days earlier an article in Izvestiia described how trading in the renminbi has grown rapidly in Moscow in 2013, as loss of confidence in the dollar and euro has occurred. Although it indicates some sense of risk, an optimistic mood is conveyed.

Before criticizing Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, there was no clear message in Russian articles on Japan. Nezavisimaya gazeta covered Japan most extensively, as in a report following the 2+2 talks, which highlighted that Japan had requested these talks while omitting China’s criticism of Russia’s participation. Emphasis was placed on Japanese alarm over both North Korean and Chinese military behavior, while on the Russian side concern was raised about missile defense plans of the United States and Japan disrupting the balance of forces in the Asia-Pacific region. This coverage in no way suggests that serious discussions of the territorial dispute lie ahead or that Russia has a strategic need for Japan in contrast to Japan’s growing strategic interest in Russia. If anything, the message is that Russia is taking part in the distant hope that it can change alliance plans without any interest in altering its own policies toward China and North Korea, which are not in line with those of Japan. The same newspaper soon reported that Japan is further planning to reduce its tank forces in light of less concern about Russian forces and to focus on an arms buildup vs. China.

Coverage of Japan in Nezavisimaya gazeta candidly acknowledged concerns about the conditions for investment in Russia. With the new relationship between Putin and Abe seen as leading to massive joint investment projects, these concerns about an inhospitable business climate need to be addressed. Yet, the article gave no hint of progress on the Russian side and no details of who was to blame for the troubles Japanese business has faced. There was no basis for optimism about future projects, but also no acknowledgment that the massive projects were unlikely to advance.

On December 4 the same newspaper carried an article on Biden’s visits to Japan and China with emphasis on the duality of his mission of reassuring Tokyo and calming tension with Beijing. Given the stress in the article on a repeat of the Cold War competition over vast spheres of influence, there was no sign of optimism on the Sino-US talks.

The latest issue of Vestnik mezhdunarodnih organizatsii includes a detailed article by N. Vasilieva and M. Lagutina on Eurasian economic integration. While admitting that there are a number of sceptics of this project both in Russia and in Central Asia, the two authors argue in favor of this initiative. They dismiss the common concerns that Russian-led Eurasian integration merely serves to fulfill Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. While Russia is the driver of this initiative, the two authors contend that its aim is to create a common collaborative space, rather than to subdue other nations into Russia’s imperial orbit. Given the high level of education and technological development of the participant countries, the Eurasian Union, has the potential of becoming a global center of innovation. The establishment of the common union would help address the brain drain problem so prevalent in the region, as there would be more opportunities for cross-national exchange of ideas and development. The two authors also see potential for cross-national collaboration on health safety, education reform, and other urgent social issues in need of addressing. The spread of information technology and the rising interest in activism and entrepreneurship among youth in the participant countries further brings them together and facilitates the integration efforts in the long-term.

Finally, Vasilieva and Lagutina acknowledge that some view the Eurasian Union as being in stark competition with the EU and China-based initiatives in the region. They argue that Russia and its partners need to cooperate with both the EU and China, as only such a collaborative framework will bring about successful economic and social development in the region. Vasilieva and Lagutina do not engage with the China-initiated Silk Road project directly, but rather refer to China as an important regional entity. The two authors also do not offer any projections about the next steps in the Eurasian project, focusing on defending the ideas behind this initiative.

This review of Russian articles indicates a paucity of intellectual exchange. Even in late Soviet times, there were more publications discussing more issues related to Asian international relations. There is also no lively back-and-forth with authors disagreeing openly or even, normally, indirectly. This is a rather sterile situation.