Putin Tries to Find Asia Beyond China

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 121

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (foreground) and Vladimir Putin, Vladivostok, September 4 (Source: Reuters)

The Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last week (September 4–6)—the fifth one since the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2012—was traditional in its pompous proceedings but rather unusual in the content. Originally, the main purpose of this high-level gathering was to energize economic development in the Russian Far East by opening it up to dynamic neighbors in the Asia-Pacific and encouraging their investments. Despite years of high-level diplomacy, however, the Far East is presently in a deeper depression than at the start of the decade, owing in no small measure to devastating corruption and resulting in its progressive depopulation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). Two Hyatt hotel towers in Vladivostok, built specifically for the 2012 APEC summit, have decayed sadly since then—a poignant symbol of Moscow’s wider development failure in this region (Kommersant, September 6). Chinese investors were supposed to arrive en masse to the resource-rich Far East; but they did not. And it was the absence of an appropriately numerous Chinese delegation that made the recent Vladivostok forum rather unconventional (Novaya Gazeta, September 6).

Instead, the guest of honor was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and President Vladimir Putin entertained him for a full day before the opening of the event (Kommersant, September 5). The Russian leader avoided any mention of the tensions between India and Pakistan after Modi’s decision to change the status of Indian Kashmir, inviting him instead to visit Moscow next May for Victory Day celebrations (Interfax, September 4). Nevertheless, the Indian prime minister declined to sign the long-negotiated deal on purchasing 200 Russian Ka-226T air force utility helicopters (RIA Novosti, September 4). Russia’s offer to build India six diesel-electric submarines on the basis of an inter-governmental agreement instead of partaking in the already-announced Indian tender was also left unanswered (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). Multiple assurances of the traditional bilateral friendship can barely hide concerns in Moscow about Indian preferences for cultivating military-technological ties with the United States (Russiancouncil.ru, August 20).

Another prominent guest in Vladivostok was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who surprised Putin with a new strongly argued proposition for signing the long-overdue peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow (RBC, September 5). The issue is hopelessly deadlocked over their dispute about the ownership of the South Kurile Islands, and Abe’s persistent attempts to negotiate a series of compromises have failed to move Putin to proceed from vague promises to a single practical step forward (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5). If anything, the Kremlin leader’s stance has become more inflexible (see EDM, January 24, March 19), and he pointed to the threat of deployment of US land-based short-range strike missiles as the main reason behind Russia’s intransigence (Kommersant, September 6). This threat has indeed acquired new proportions after the breakdown of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Moscow blames on the far-reaching but short-sighted military modernization plans of the Donald Trump administration (Ezhednevny zhurnal, August 1; see EDM, September 6). Putin even found it opportune to boast about Russia’s superiority in the development of hypersonic missiles and to make the US an offer to purchase Russian technologies, which was duly turned down (RIA Novosti, September 7).

On the way to the Far East, Putin made a ceremonial visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; and Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga reciprocated by attending the high-level session of the Vladivostok forum. But these demonstrations of rapport cannot revive the stagnant bilateral ties (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 3). Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, 94, also made a trip to the Eastern Economic Forum, but talks on the possible purchase of Russian fighters and helicopters did not advance much; so the high point of his appearance was a dubious joke about Putin’s plans to stay in power until a similarly mature age (Carnegie.ru, September 5). Moscow finds polite conversations in the dynamic and competitive Indo-Pacific region yielding few tangible results necessary for asserting its status as a serious political influencer.

Relations with China, meanwhile, are far longer on mutual praise of the unique strength of the “strategic partnership” than on economic substance. Experts in Moscow increasingly ponder over the prospect of upgrading this partnership to a formal military alliance and suggest, reluctantly, that if China finds such a development desirable (which is presently not the case), Russia would have to kowtow and accept the position of a subordinate ally (Russiancouncil.ru, August 19). This scenario may presently be entirely hypothetical, but French President Emmanuel Macron made an elliptic reference to it to justify his aims of expanding dialogue with Russia, which the Kremlin finds quite satisfactory (Novaya Gazeta, August 30). Beijing remains indifferent to these conjectures because, in the trade war with Washington, which occupies its priority attention, Moscow brings little benefit and may even be a liability due to the various complications caused by US sanctions (Izvestia, September 4).

Putin, thus, faces an awkward problem of convincing his Chinese counterparts of the firmness of his grasp on power, even though symptoms of his weakness are unmistakable—such as when his loyal enforcers take the initiative to forcefully suppress the opposition or squabble among themselves (Moscow Echo, September 5). The Kremlin is eager to blame the street protests on hostile Western interference, much the same way as Beijing tries to denigrate the public uprising in Hong Kong (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 5). The Chinese leaders, however, remember the Marxist theory on domestic drivers of revolutions too well to believe their own propaganda. And regular Russians, as opinion polls show, do not see Western plots behind the deepening social discontent either (Levada.ru, September 3).

Joint military exercises tend to receive inordinate attention, but the tenuity of economic ties and the deficit of political trust leave the Russian-Chinese quasi-alliance in a rather indefinite state. Putin seeks to broaden the horizons of Russia’s Asia policy but finds few takers for his invitations to invest. For politicians and entrepreneurs from India to Vietnam (which was notably absent at the Vladivostok forum), economic performance constitutes the main criteria of success; but the Russian economy is stuck in stagnation due primarily to bad political mismanagement. The Kremlin now relies on a combination of projecting military force and employing such “hybrid” means as the export of corruption and disinformation, but it cannot find a way to apply these policy instruments to the complex competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Russia cannot perform any meaningful turn to the East and cannot hope to achieve success in its confrontation with the West, turning itself into a troublesome and troubled quarter of Eurasia.