The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable “Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Before and After Ukraine” held in Ottawa on 07 May 2015. These roundtable discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule. This summary reflects Analyst Lindsay Coombs‘ perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks Lockheed Martin Canada for its generous sponsorship of the 2015/​16 Roundtable Discussion Series.

As events continue to unfold in Ukraine, scholars and policymakers continue to debate over Russia’s foreign policy intentions and next steps. Some maintain that, having complicated relations with Europe, Russia will inevitably turn eastward to the Asia Pacific. However, skepticism abounds concerning this potential Russian shift, including some expert opinions in Russia itself. Unfortunately, the media discussion about Russia is often simplified by either narrowing it down to the role of one man (i.e. President Putin) or uncritically extrapolating the Cold War realities on today’s international relations. One needs to first comprehend Russian national interests in order to properly analyze both their behaviours and decisions. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated in 1939, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Moreover, it is equally important to include in this analysis the interests of the existing ruling regime. Arguably, Russian national interests revolve around a strategic narrative characterized by genuine geopolitical interests coupled with regime aspirations.

The conflation of the personal ambitions of Russia’s elites with the country’s national interests is encapsulated by the figure of President Vladimir Putin. Putin has effectively created a new iteration of a personality cult by emphasizing the notion that Russia and Putin are intrinsically linked; that you cannot have one without the other. This perception is easy to discern in statements by Russian politicians, like Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin, who declared at a sports event in October 2014 that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin… any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia.”

As a result, ethnic Russians generally prescribe to the view that Putin’s actions are appropriate and infallible. Indeed, Putin appears to have even managed to maintain positive domestic support towards many of actions since 1999. Initially he was compared to previous Russian leaders, like Boris Yeltsin, as younger, healthier, and as a constructive force that would reshape the economy. Today, Putin is widely viewed as the defender of Russia.

Understandably, the theory that Putin is fundamentally linked to Russia’s continued existence is often seen as problematic, with many arguing consequently that the only effective solution to Russian expansionism is regime change. However, removing Putin will do little to address the root causes of Russian expansionism, which go beyond any individual leader.

Furthermore, Russian expansion into Eastern Europe remains a questionable proposition. Simply put, it is debatable whether Russia has any real ambition to invade Poland or the Baltic States. NATO preparations in the region, while serving to reassure allied nations, might therefore not be tactically effective. NATO involvement appears to be little more than a means for the Alliance to compensate for its previous inadequacies in dealing with Ukraine.

In contrast, Russia has made numerous declarations and displays over its expanded role in the Asia-Pacific. With two-thirds of Russian territory spread out into Asia, such talk is not all that surprising.

A good example of such a role is in the (admittedly complicated) Sino-Russian relationship. To China, Russia is perceived as a counterbalance to other global powers, but also as a potential threat. Russia, on the other hand, views China as a lucrative market open for exploitation, but also as a source of threat in the event that Russia ever becomes overly dependent. Ultimately, however, one can identify six primary drivers of Russia’s interest in the Asia-Pacific: (1) maintaining territorial integrity and development of the Russian Far East; (2) the growing economic, political, and military rise of Asia; (3) reinforcement of Russia’s claim as a global power; (4) China’s regional interest in using Russia as a diplomatic counterbalance; (5) increased tension and problems in Europe; (6) Russia’s growing strategic partnership and dependence on China.

The ongoing events in Ukraine have had an impact on Russian relations in the Asia–Pacific, though increased Russian involvement clearly predated the Ukrainian ‘crisis.’ Interestingly, many Asian countries have responded to sanctions against Russia with varying levels of enthusiasm. For example, Japan was reluctant to impose sanctions, in so far as they were interested in having Russia as a counterweight to China. China too has been attempting to cautiously appear neutral on these sanctions. At a broad level, many Asian countries view the sanctions as a continuance of Russian-American rivalry.

Besides further inflaming Russia’s perceived historical grievances, the West’s intervention in Ukraine appears to have cemented a change in Russian threat assessment – in which the U.S. global defence posture is increasingly seen as the sole threat to Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific. As Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov states:

“In general I see no threats from the east except one, US global missile defence, which is being created on US territory, the European continent and in Northeast Asia and just happens to hug the perimeter of Russia’s borders. I repeat, I see no threat from China. On the contrary, the Russian-Chinese partnership has a strategic character and, without exaggerating, is making an important contribution to maintaining some kind of stability in international relations, counteracting further destabilisation.”

The significant deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West over Ukraine is causing Russia to enhance its bilateral relations and multilateral activities in the Asia-Pacific. Moscow has already been able to achieve some tangible results in its post-Ukraine Asian policy, primarily in furthering its strategic partnership with China but also in strengthening its relations with Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Mongolia. By isolating Russia through imposed sanctions, the West is further driving her into China’s grips and increasing the chances of tight Sino-Russian collaboration against the West. While presenting its enhanced partnership with China as an effective response to Western sanctions, Moscow is at the same time concerned about its growing dependence on China and the possibility of eventually becoming its junior partner. It would be in the West’s interests therefore to remain firm in Europe but flexible in Asia by not opposing Russia’s attempts to diversify its Asian relations. This could lessen Moscow’s dependence on China and even lead to more tensions between Moscow and Beijing given China’s problems with several of its neighbors. More, rather than less, US and Canada engagement with Russia in the Asia-Pacific seems to be more practical as well.

It is important that the United States and Canada follow a carefully calibrated approach to Russia by realistically assessing different geopolitical environments and perspectives on the Ukraine crisis in Europe and in Asia. Looking at Russia’s new assertiveness in Asia through one-dimensional prism can only further aggravate international relations and security.

Lindsay Coombs is an analyst at CDA Institute who is currently attending the University of Ottawa where she is working towards the completion of an Honours BA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. Her interests focus strongly on international conflict and relations, defence policy, as well as military history.

(Image courtesy of RIA Novosti/Michael Klimentyev)

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