Russia Looks Eastward For Economic, Political Allies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a case for deeper Russian involvement in the East and says he wants to pursue stronger economic and political ties with the Asia-Pacific region.

"I think the time has come for us and the countries of the Asia-Pacific region to go from words to deeds, that is, to build up economic, political and other contacts," Putin wrote in a commentary published Thursday in the Singapore Straits Times.

"The region will always need Russia, both to maintain stability and security and to ensure a balance of interests."

Writing ahead of next week's summit in Brunei of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum - which both Putin and President Clinton are due to attend - the Russian leader cited a strengthening of ties between Russia and China, an alliance he described as a "weighty factor in preserving global stability."

But he said Russia was also reaching out to other countries in the region, and wanted to expand the number of Asia-Pacific countries that see in Russia a "reliable economic partner."

"New oriental vistas are opening for Russia," Putin said, and noted that during the past six months he had paid official visits to China, North Korea and Japan.

Economic ties with Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam were strong, and Russia hoped for mutually-beneficial cooperation with countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand..

"Russian foreign policy has made a decisive turn towards the Asia-Pacific in the past few years," he said, promising that the policy would continue.

He warned of the challenges posed by "terrorism, religious extremism [and] separatism," but offered Russia's help in maintaining regional stability and resolving regional problems.

"Russia as a responsible partner is not going to stand aloof from the effort to unravel complex regional tangles," he said. Moscow was, for instance, keen to facilitate the national reconciliation of the two Koreas.

Putin stressed that Russia had no "secret agenda" in the Asia-Pacific, and that its policy objectives were clear.

"Our country is living through profound domestic transformations and is interested in a generally healthier regional atmosphere in a continuously stable and predictable situation in Asia and the Pacific."

Russia had much to offer the region, he said, giving as an example the fact transport routes from Asia to the West could be drastically shortened if they passed through, or over, Russia.

His vast country, he said, should be seen as an "integration junction linking Asia, Europe and America."

Eastern Tilt Shouldn't Concern West

Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Hawaii-based Pacific Forum does not feel Putin's overtures are likely to get a particularly enthusiastic response.

"APEC leaders have welcomed Russia into their fold as a positive post-Cold War gesture but see little that Russia can contribute to Asia economically," he said. "They will listen politely and may cautiously explore opportunities in the Russian Far East, but most likely with little enthusiasm."

Dr Banning Garrett, a specialist in Asian affairs at CSIS, suggested Putin was "trying to make the best of a very weak hand."

Russia's political influence in the Far East was severely limited, Garrett said. Its GDP was some four or five per cent that of America's and perhaps a third of the size of China's.

"The Russian military is rusting away and after the [sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine], Russia's global power projection pretensions are deeply in doubt."

Nonetheless, Putin recognized that Russian's future depends on developing ties with the East as well as the West, said Garrett, who has been a consultant to the U.S. government on Asian affairs for nearly 20 years and has written on Russian strategy towards Asia.

Cossa, a retired USAF Colonel specializing in political-military affairs and national security strategy, concurred.

"Like Mr. [Boris] Yeltsin before him, Mr. Putin likes to stress that the eagle on Russia's crest is two-headed; it looks both east and west. Russia understands that its economic recovery, especially in the depressed Far East, hinges on Japanese and other investment."

The fact Putin was interested in developing eastward links not exclusively by way of China should be welcomed by the U.S. and its regional allies," Garrett argued.

Greater Russian involvement in the region should be welcomed "if it is constructive and focused primarily on economic engagement, political ties, and helping to manage or resolve regional tensions and disputes

"It is in the interest of the United States and its allies for Russia to succeed in developing a stronger economy and greater political stability as well as economic an political integration of Russia into the world economy and political community," he said

"A weak and isolated Russia would be a dangerous and destabilizing international political and strategic factor as well as a negative drag on the world economy."

Cossa, too, believes the U.S. and its Asian allies have nothing to fear from Russia's eastern initiatives.

The U.S. should welcome and encourage Putin's positive gestures, he said, noting that Russia could have a positive influence on the Pyongyang regime.

"Asia is an area where U.S. and Russian interests in stability overlap and it is in U.S. interest especially to see closer Russia-Japan relations."

Limits to Sino-Russian Cooperation

Garrett contended that Sino-Russian cooperation should not unsettle the West.

While the U.S. and its allies did not want to see a Moscow-Beijing relationship built on an anti-U.S. basis and which could polarize or destabilize the region, "good Sino-Russian relations are good for the region which also does not want to see a renewal of the Beijing-Moscow tensions of past decades."

He cited two reasons why he believers Sino-Russian relations will remain limited - the historical mistrust between the two giants and the fact that each realizes it needs good ties with the U.S. and the West.

"Neither Russia nor China can solve the other country's primary problem or challenge, which is economic development. Sino-Russian trade is important to each country, but far less important than their respective economic ties with the West.

"Thus, for Russia and China both, their primary need is to maintain good and peaceful bilateral relations without undermining their economic relations with Japan and Europe, as well as with the United States."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow