Putin’s New Eastward Pivot
Over the past several years, whenever Moscow entered into a difficult encounter on the Western “front,” it has typically tried to show interest in expanding ties in the Asia-Pacific. In the last couple of weeks, the fruitless meeting of the NATO-Russia Council was followed by several risky intercepts and mock attacks by Russian fighters over the Baltic Sea (RIA Novosti, April 30; see EDM, April 21). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov found it opportune to label Lithuania the most “Russophobic” state and to warn Sweden against joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but his promise of “military-technical” counter-measures did not go over well at all in Northern Europe (Rosbalt,Newsru.com, April 29). It was far easier for Lavrov to communicate with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and to pave the way for President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China in June (Kommersant, April 30). He also scored diplomatic points by securing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Sochi in early May (Forbes.ru, April 28).
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs presents this long-discussed meeting as a victory over US objections, but Abe and Putin may have rather different expectations about their upcoming tête-à-tête (Lenta.ru, April 16). Japanese authorities assume that Russia’s deepening economic crisis will compel Putin to be more flexible regarding the deadlocked dispute over the South Kurile Islands, compelling him to bargain for a compromise (Rbc.ru, April 28). In Moscow, the prevalent assumption is that Tokyo is so worried about the deepening strategic partnership between Russia and China that it is ready to bracket out the eternal disagreements over the lost islands and to soften the sanctions regime (Kommersant, April 15). The fact of the matter is, however, that Japanese businesses find the investment climate in Russia singularly unattractive, even in the energy sector, and so these companies are generally not all that upset with sanctions (Carnegie.ru, April 28). What Japan is indeed worried about is the series of missile tests executed by North Korea. But Russia can only express disapproval of such reckless behavior and, apparently, sees no need to actively do anything about it, despite the obvious risk for nearby Vladivostok.
Lavrov was eager to condemn, together with Wang, the United States’ plans for deploying in South Korea new elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, claiming that such actions are more destabilizing for regional security than North Korea’s misbehavior (Newsru.com, April 29). Addressing a meeting, in Beijing, of 26 Asia-Pacific region foreign ministers, Russia’s top diplomat was also happy to elaborate on the topic of US responsibility for the escalation of global conflicts and the spread of the international terrorist threat. And Lavrov expected to find perfect accord with his Chinese audience (Kommersant, April 28). Yet, Russian rhetoric on the steady growth of tensions in the “multi-polar” world and on the growing probability of clashes between the main “poles” tends to surpass the level of bellicosity China feels comfortable with (Rbc.ru, April 29). Beijing prefers to emphasize new stability underpinned by its “peaceful rise,” and it seeks to minimize the fallout from any micro-confrontations on China’s hugely important economic relations with the US.