The 'illogic' behind Russia's Asia strategy

Moscow's unpredictable policy moves are aimed at giving its policymakers room for manoeuvre.

ONE would have thought that the last thing Russia needs, being embroiled in the biggest confrontation with the West since the end of the Cold War, is to further alienate its neighbours.

Yet that's precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin now appears to have done, by authorising the launch of large-scale military exercises in the disputed Kuril Islands, whose seizure by the Russians in 1945 was never recognised by Japan.

The Japanese are outraged. "This is utterly unacceptable for our country," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose officials also let it be known that last year, Japan's air force scrambled fighter jets against Russian aircraft on 235 separate occasions.

But the truth is that Russia's latest military moves are only accidentally related to Japan as such; they are part of a wider and more intricate Russian game to consolidate a foothold in Asia.

The new Russian strategy tries to copy the "hub-and-spokes" network of bilateral alliances which the United States has created in the region. But unlike the American alliance system which is designed to maximise US strength, Russia's budding Asia policy is designed to mask the country's current weakness. This is unlikely to succeed, but it could make Russia a potential spoiler in Asia.

Russia has always claimed to be an Asian power: The bulk of the country's territory is in the Asian land mass and, as Russians love to point out, their double- headed eagle national emblem looks both east and west. But just as the double-headed eagle story is a historic myth, so are Russia's Asian credentials.

European outlook

THE overwhelming majority of Russia's population live in Europe and all the country's rulers have been Europeans with no understanding or interest in Asian affairs. Unsurprisingly, therefore, every time Russia tried to dabble in Asia, the results were an abject failure.

Russia was the first modern European power to be militarily defeated - roundly - by an Asian nation, in a war with Japan in 1905. The subsequent Soviet leadership fared no better. It grabbed the Kuril Islands from Japan at the end of World War II as an afterthought, and it monumentally bungled links with communist China.

Finally, as Professor Sergey Radchenko, a Russian scholar based in China, recently pointed out in his Unwanted Visionaries, a study of Moscow's more recent diplomatic efforts, Russia continued to fail in its engagement efforts with Asian powers after the fall of the Soviet Union and was relegated to "the sidelines of the Pacific Century".

The only constant features of Russia's policy over the centuries include a recurring tendency to see Asia as merely an adjunct of European affairs, a desire to turn to Asia only when all other options have been tried and failed, and a persistent refusal to learn from past mistakes.

Mr Putin's recent decision to sign a US$400 billion (S$498 billion) energy mega deal with China fits perfectly into this historic format: It was concluded only in desperation, after Mr Putin's relations with the West turned sour. And it proved to be an inferior deal to what Russia could have had years before, when China rather than Russia was the supplicant; that's why the financial details of the Sino-Russian deal remain a closely guarded secret.

But there is plenty of evidence that, far from seeing the deal with China as the bedrock of a new opening in Asia, Russian leaders are nervous about becoming too dependent on Beijing.

They resent China's growing influence in Central Asia. And they have an almost atavistic fear of China's potential as a global power: Many of today's Russian diplomats recall the words of the Soviet Union's long-serving foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who once memorably warned his colleagues that, "you may be in a euphoric mood now about China but the time will come when you will all be shedding tears".

Mr Putin is, therefore, keen to diversify his Asian policy away from just China. And instead of treating it as a handicap, Mr Putin believes that his country's long absence from the region is a source of strength.

Pick-and-choose approach

MOSCOW picks and chooses what positions it takes on key Asian security questions. On the thorny territorial disputes in the South China Sea, for instance, Moscow supports multilateral negotiations - something which pleases Vietnam or the Philippines - but also argues that countries should deal individually with China, to the delight of Beijing. In effect, Russia tries to have its cake and eat it.

The same applies to Russia's bilateral relations with individual Asian countries. Russia supplies weapons to China and hopes to sell more. Yet it is also the chief seller of arms to India and Vietnam, who purchase these weapons largely in order to match what they regard as a threat from China.

Mr Putin also lavishes praise on South Korea and dangles new energy contracts in Seoul, including a fantastic pipeline project which will never be built. But at the same time, he also forgave all the debts that North Korea had with Russia, and put himself forward as North Korea's new protector, just as China started applying economic pressure on Pyongyang earlier this year.

Relations with Japan are even more of a see-saw. On the one hand, Mr Putin frequently expresses an avid interest in Japanese cash and deep-sea drilling technology to exploit energy deposits in Siberia; the Russian leader is still officially scheduled to visit Tokyo next month to sign such contracts. But then, he orders a military exercise which scuppers this trip and much of the budding relationship with Japan. Just keeping up with this Russian diplomatic roller coaster is not for the faint- hearted.

But there is a peculiarly Russian logic to what would otherwise seem as just an erratic policy. Russia assumes that an epic rivalry between China and the US will be Asia's defining characteristic for years to come. The Russians also believe that Asia will not evolve more coherent regional security structures. These two assumptions lead Moscow to conclude that Russia could play a unique strategic role, and end up being wanted by every key Asian nation, with Russia leveraging one country against another.

Sales of Russian weapons to India and Vietnam not only produce cash, but also serve as an indirect warning to the Chinese not to encroach too far into Central Asia or other Russian spheres of influence. Similarly, close Russian links with South Korea and Japan not only attract much-needed investments into the Russian economy, but are also designed to act as a reminder to Beijing that Russia has many other Asian options.

But just in case South Korea or Japan may, in turn, be tempted to take Russia for granted, Moscow is ready to play the North Korea card against Seoul, or the Kurile Islands card against Japan - the latest military exercises in the Kuriles are staged as a warning to Japan not to join in US-led economic sanctions against Russia.

As a serious player in Asia

WESTERN analysts long accustomed to similarly intricate Russian diplomatic games in Europe tend to dismiss their current appearance in Asia as an irrelevant curiosity. After all, the Russians have none of the economic heft or the long-term military capabilities to make themselves serious players in Asia. And even their oil and gas, which are in high demand, will require many years of heavy investment in hitherto non-existent pipelines before they become strategically relevant in the Asian context.

Still, Russia's current games can complicate Asia's security arrangements.

The Japanese government appears to have persuaded itself that it could use Russia to counter-balance China; it is now shocked to find out otherwise. And, as North Korean officials told me recently, they set great store in Russia's "return" to Asia.

All illusory, but the kind of illusions that add a further layer of unpredictability in Asia.

But ultimately, the biggest loser from this game will be Russia itself. For although its Asian diplomacy is resourceful and often imaginative, it cannot produce what it wants most - a return to the status of a great power.

Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's longest-serving prime minister, once tried to explain why he and other politicians failed to halt their country's decline. "We tried our best," he said, "but matters turned out as always."

The same will apply to Russia's latest push into Asia: It will conclude as all of Moscow's previous Asian forays have done.