Russia adroitly links seemingly distant global events, using each as leverage for plans elsewhere.
By Taehwa Hong*
World War II is not over yet. Technically, Japan and Russia are still at war. After the United States dropped an atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Joseph Stalin hurriedly ordered the Red Army to join the Pacific Theater, declaring war on Imperial Japan. In the process the Soviet Union “liberated” the islands of Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and the Habomai group. Even after Japan’s surrender to the allies in August 1945, the USSR continued to occupy the “Southern Kurils,” and Russian troops are stationed on the islands to this day.
This territorial dispute has long obstructed the formal signing of a ceasefire, and in December Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the handover of two islands.
Russia’s attempt to improve relations with Japan comes at a time of a Russian pivot to Asia, whereby it tries to profit from the delicate balance of power among the United States, Japan and China. With increasing tensions between Japan and China, the former is wary of the prospect of Russia-China partnership in the region. In September, Russia and China conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. Russia is well aware of its advantages and hopes to secure a flow of Japanese investment to the Russian Far East. Russia also expects relief from the sanctions Japan put in place in accordance with the West embargo following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the same time, Russia continues to enjoy a cordial relationship with China, its largest trading partner since 2011. In 2014 the two nations agreed to construct a pipeline that will deliver 38 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to China annually and sealed a landmark $400 billion gas deal.
Russia’s expanded role in East Asia has less to do with engagement in the region than with the promotion of its national interests globally. In fact, Russia’s trade in Asia accounts for less than 1 percent of the region. As The Economist rightly pointed out in November, “Russia’s trade policy in the region boils down to selling weapons to anyone who will buy them.” Russia has been adroitly linking seemingly distant global events, using each issue as leverage for the other. In October, Russia suspended a Plutonium Disposition Agreement with the United States after the State Department announced suspension of talks on Syria. In 2008, Russia used the prospect of a joint anti-terrorism front with the West as leverage to avoid retaliation for the invasion of Georgia.
Cooperation with Japan in East Asia can be used as leverage in dealing with China, amid speculations that China’s One Belt One Road initiative will collide with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, the single biggest Russian project in Asia. Although Russia and China remain strategic partners, China’s growing influence in the former Soviet zones jeopardizes Russia’s potential sphere of influence in Central Asia. In recent years, former Soviet states have looked eastward to balance Russian influence. For instance, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan explicitly made their commitment to neutrality policy, detaching themselves gradually from Russia’s grip. Azerbaijan is keen to participate in the China’s One Belt One Road project, as it has much to gain from the development of infrastructures in the port of Baku, its capital, on the Caspian Sea. China replaced Russia as the biggest buyer of Turkmenistan’s gas in 2015, while Russian imports of Turkmen gas decreased from 40 billion cubic meters in 2008 to about 10 billion cubic meters in subsequent years.
The Ukraine crisis, plummeting global oil prices and international sanctions reveal the limitations of reliance on Russia. Overall, the Eurasian Economic Union faces internal problems already, as Russia imposes a single tariff based on its own pre-existing trade barriers. As Cholpon Orozobekova has noted, the union’s tariffs on goods from China are painful for countries such as Kyrgyzstan, which uses Chinese imports to produce and re-export. Against this backdrop, growing Chinese power in the former Soviet states poses a serious challenge to Moscow’s broader goal of remaining a major power in Eurasia. Chinese diplomats have argued that One Belt One Road and the Eurasian Economic Union will synergize to create opportunities for infrastructure construction – and although it’s true that economic projects aren’t zero-sum games, Russia remains politically cautious and skeptical towards China. Moscow has long enjoyed political influence and manipulations in Central Asian countries, using economic links and investment projects as bargaining chips. Furthermore, Russia have already seen how economic issues can bring political fallout with the Ukraine Revolution, triggered by a botched Russia-Ukraine trade deal that would have kept Ukraine away from the European Union.
Russia does not go as far as endorsing China’s claims when it comes to South China Sea, mostly resorting to diplomatic calls for restraint. And compare this to US State Department statements in support of its ally Japan that explicitly call out “coercive economic actions,” “confrontational rhetoric” and “escalation of tension” by China. Russia recognizes China’s self-proclaimed Air Defense Identification Zone, but abstains from direct involvement in the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. Improved relations with Japan may be useful for Putin when pressuring China to recognize the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet zone, where effort has been invested to maintain powerhouse status.
In Northeast Asia, Russia offers continued tacit support of North Korea’s survival and opposition to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, to be stationed in South Korea in response to the North’s nuclear aggression – despite relatively few Russian interests at stake. The situation provides leverage for Putin to exploit when it comes to the broader question of a “Russian reset” that could be revised under the Trump administration. In fact, the 2014 gas deal with China was an alternative to the European gas market after a series of EU sanctions. For Russia, East Asia is an alternative economic and political passage that can make up for the strained relationship with European countries and the United States.
Europe is not the only continent gripped with uncertainty after the victory of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has openly favored improving US-Russian relations. Analysts suggest Trump’s unexpected victory is already shifting Russia’s strategy when dealing with the issue over “Northern Territories.” Russia now has reason to assume that international sanctions on the Kremlin will disintegrate – leaving Putin with less incentive to concede territories to Japan. Meanwhile Japan is nervous about the prospect of US retrenchment coupled with a China-Russia alliance. At least in the short term, there are certainly fewer incentives for Putin to pile on resources for his own pivot to Asia. Improved US-Russian ties may motivate Russia to project more influence in Asia, or allow it to concentrate on rebooting its power in Europe.
The central theme of Russian foreign policy, at least since mid-2000, revolved around its resurgence as a relevant global power. Its interventions in Ukraine and Syria are in large part fueled by the hope to reassert its position on the global stage. In the same vein, Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers in Asia come in tandem with the idea of expanding Russian stature. Russia is often depicted as a twin-headed eagle facing both Asia and Europe. Europe has long been Russia’s main political battlefield and will remain so over the next few decades. Whether Asia will truly become its second “head” or remain an auxiliary foreign-policy agenda depends on Kremlin’s calculus in this turbulent era.
*Taehwa Hong is a student and Huffington Post blog writer from Seoul, Korea. His research focuses on the Middle East, East Asia and Russia.