Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 216

Unlike his earlier appearances at important international gatherings, President Vladimir Putin’s participation in this week’s Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Brunei drew few headlines in the Western press. What was covered, furthermore, was primarily Putin’s meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton, which is likely to be their last official get-together during Clinton’s presidency. And there was little from the substance of Putin’s meeting with various world leaders on the margins of the summit to suggest that it had been a breakthrough of any sort for either Putin or Russian diplomacy.

But what was significant nevertheless was a series of articles and statements Putin issued just prior to the gathering. In them, the president made perhaps his clearest statement to date suggesting Russia’s intention to assign increased importance to its relations with Asia. The degree to which his statements reflect reality on this issue is, of course, open to question. The Russian president is known for telling his interlocutors what they want to hear, and his latest claim that Russia is a “Euro-Asian” state comes not too long after he went out of his way–in meetings with European leaders–to emphasize Moscow’s European orientations. Given enduring tensions between Russia and the West on a broad range of economic and security issues, however, it may be possible that Moscow will turn more toward the East and attempt to build on the relationships it has already developed in the region.

In the statements Putin made prior to the APEC summit, he attempted to make the case that Russia is something of an indispensable country in the Asia-Pacific region. In economic terms, he argued that his country is capable of serving as a bridge between East and West. He also suggested that it is simultaneously capable of providing a range of both natural resources and technical know-how–inputs that he argued could help power economic growth in the region.

In this context, Putin pointed to Moscow’s expanding economic links with Indonesia and Vietnam, and to its hopes of boosting trade relations with Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. He likewise argued that Russia’s trans-Siberian railroad could ultimately serve as a cheaper and faster alternative route for Asian countries marketing their goods in Europe, and said that his country’s air corridors could help bring the Euro-Atlantic and Asia Pacific regions closer together. “Russia’s full-scale involvement in economic collaboration on the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean,” he said, “is logical and inevitable.”

And while Putin’s accent both before and during the APEC forum appeared to be on the role which Russia might play as an actor in the region’s economy, he left little doubt in his pre-summit statements that Moscow also wants to reassert its political influence in the Asia-Pacific region and to involve itself in the resolution of the region’s key diplomatic and security problems. He offered assurances that Moscow brings “no secret agenda” to its dealings in the Asia-Pacific, but argued that the “region will always need Russia… both to maintain stability and security and to ensure a balance of interests of all sides.” More specifically, Putin pointed to Moscow’s ever-friendlier ties with Beijing, as well as to what he said was its improving relations with Japan, as proof of the stabilizing presence that Russia can be in the region. He also repeated earlier Russian demands that Moscow be dealt into negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement on the Korean Peninsula. In a more disquieting tone, Putin suggested that Russia’s input was required in the region because the Asia-Pacific has become a “breeding ground for terrorism, religious extremism, separatism and transnational crime.” Putin did not elaborate, but the logic mirrored that which Moscow has used both to justify its bloody war in Chechnya and to underpin the military relationships it is trying to build in Central Asia (AFP, November 12; The Age, Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 14; Reuters, November 9, 15).

Whether Putin was able to advance this ambitious agenda during his stay in Brunei is unclear. But Moscow’s intentions should become clearer in the months to come, as a new U.S. president (presumably) assumes the reins of power in Washington and as leaders throughout Asia grapple to deal with the wide array of political, economic, security problems that have developed in the region’s rapidly-changing post-Cold War environment.