LONDON • At first glance, it hardly deserves attention: the recent tour by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to many South-east Asian capitals seemed to be more about protocol than substance, and the communiques produced at the end of the meetings distinguished themselves only by the number of tedious cliches squeezed into their texts.
"Our people are bound by old ties of friendship, mutual respect and trust," read the document at the end of Mr Lavrov's visit to Thailand. "We noted with satisfaction our coinciding or similar positions on most international and regional issues," said the Russian Foreign Minister at the end of his talks with Ms Retno Marsudi, his Indonesian counterpart. And, yes, just in case you wondered, all the talks between the chief of Russia's diplomacy and his hosts in various South-east Asian capitals were both "constructive" and "productive".
Even last week's opening in Jakarta of Russia's Permanent Mission to Asean was curiously bland and undistinguished: "Our decision to open this mission confirms our commitment to further Russia-Asean cooperation in the foreign policy dimension" was all that Mr Lavrov could muster by way of an explanation.
Yet appearances in this case are misleading, for Mr Lavrov's tour of the region does herald an important step: an evolving new Russian approach to Asia as a whole, an initiative which seeks to reposition Moscow as an Asian power, with its own stakes in the region. It is not yet a fully articulated Russian strategy, and it is still a policy initiative too obsessed with countering the United States, rather than truly engaging with Asian nations. Still, this is a strategic development which deserves far more attention than it currently gets.
Despite its claims to be both a European and an Asian power - the double-headed eagle, Russia's national emblem, looks both east and west simultaneously - the truth is that Moscow remains a resolutely European city, ruled by a political elite far more concerned about, say, the slightest mishap in a small northern European country like Estonia or the defence strategy of tiny Montenegro on Europe's southern approaches, than about the epic strategic shifts of truly gigantic proportions now unfolding in Asia.
NEGLECT OF ASIA
Russia's leaders are perfectly aware of the long-term consequences of China's rise to global power status. Moscow also knows that most of Chinese President Xi Jinping's One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects criss-cross the vast spaces of Central Asia which Russia considers as within its own sphere of influence. Yet, somehow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates simply can't free themselves from their European-centric mentality: Mr Putin felt so strongly about developments in Ukraine that he sent Russia's troops to fight and die there, while Russia's long-term strategic challenges are piling up not in Europe, but in Asia.
Russia's neglect of Asia is starker still. The Russians took part in the Six Party Talks diplomatic framework designed to deal with the problem of North Korea, but for most of the time were just content to be there with the "big boys", rather than offer any genuine contribution. Nor, for most part, did the Russians say anything about northern or south-east Asia's other problems; the belief in Moscow remained that on all such matters Russia's best approach was to have no approach.
Meanwhile, Russia's trade with most of Asia sunk so low as to often go unrecorded. During his latest Asean tour, Mr Lavrov pledged a fivefold increase in his country's trade with Thailand. But even if this feat is achieved in the years to come, Russia's overall trade with the Thais will be no bigger than the volume of trade Singapore enjoys with Thailand today. The same applies to Indonesia, where Russian overall trade currently stands at a puny US$3 billion (S$4 billion).
And even the much-touted Russian link with China which increasingly revolves around the sale of Russian oil and gas is not hugely significant; Malaysia, to use just one example, currently trades more with China than does Russia, a country many times bigger in both size and population.
Nor do the Russians seem to have any idea on how their commerce can be improved, beyond vague promises in places like Indonesia to provide "significant favourable conditions for traditional Indonesian exports such as fish and other foodstuffs", as Mr Lavrov put it last week.
But although Russia's trade with key Asian nations is unlikely to develop fast, the politics of trade deals with Asean nations offers in themselves an attraction for Moscow. For the Russians would like to persuade Asean member-states to sign free trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union, a group of former Soviet republics which Russia touts as its equivalent of the European Union.
The Russians know that this is unlikely to happen soon, and that even if such free trade deals are concluded, they are unlikely to affect economic development in the former Soviet space. But the mere conclusion of such deals with Asean countries will count as a political triumph for Russia, an indirect acknowledgement that Russia is back on the global stage as a big power, a leader of a pack of nations which rely on Moscow's protection and munificence.
WEAPONS AS LEVER
And there is one trade commodity which the Russians are now pushing hard: weapon sales. That's not only because this is one of the few manufactured goods in which the Russians can compete with others, but also because Asia is one of the few regions of the world where defence budgets and weapon purchases are rising, and where Russian business can still expand markets.
Weapon sales also provide a subtle hint to China that, if push comes to shove, Russia has levers to counter-balance growing Chinese influence. So, while President Putin professes his strategic solidarity with China and in return is granted top honours by President Xi (Mr Putin was invited to speak first at the recent OBOR summit in Beijing, for instance), the fact remains that Russia has supplied submarines to Vietnam and remains one of the key weapon providers to India, countries whose entire military effort is devoted to containing China.
But the chief reason why Russia is now increasingly interested in Asia is that Moscow has realised - belatedly - that this is where the world's major strategic confrontations are likely to unfold, and where the United States is going to devote most of its energies.
The Russians have nothing new to add to the current effort to deal with the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons. And President Putin has burnt his fingers there already a few years ago, when he tried to engage with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, only to be confronted by a set of unreasonable demands from Pyongyang.
Still, the mere fact that Russia is now again advertising its interest in the Korean peninsula and in other Asian crises gives Moscow some leverage. For this is in keeping with Mr Putin's global agenda, which is to force the US to take Russia seriously by inserting Russia into every international crisis. That was, essentially, the main reason why Mr Putin decided to intervene in the civil war in Syria; the operation seemed risky to start with, but it did not prove very costly for Russia, yet allowed Mr Putin to become one of the Middle East's chief decision-makers, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost three decades ago.
Matters won't be so straightforward for Russia in Asia; there are no conflicts in which Russian troops can be inserted, and no confrontations where the presence of the Russians is indispensable. The strategic stakes for both China and the US in Asia are also so high that Russia's room for manoeuvre is correspondingly much smaller.
But that won't prevent Mr Putin from trying to raise his country's profile in Asia, by being ready to seize on every opening. And, provided that Moscow's diplomats are willing to continue engaging in the region while dangling weapon sales to the highest bidders, the Russians remain convinced that plenty of opportunities will present themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Russia's Asean moves part of Putin's power play'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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