Southeast Asia | Russia seeks detente with the West, tones down Asia-Pacific agenda

Russia seeks detente with the West, tones down Asia-Pacific agenda

November 17, 2015 12:11 AM (UTC+8)

 

MOSCOW –The Kremlin is keen to develop the thaw with the West that has emerged following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris even as the Russian authorities appeared to de-emphasize Asia-Pacific agenda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and US President Barack Obama (L) discussed Syria on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Turkey
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and US President Barack Obama (L) discussed Syria on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Turkey

During a series of high-profile meetings at the Group of Twenty (G-20) summit in Belek, Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to prioritize diplomatic revival with the West. After these meetings, Putin said Russia’s relations with the Western nations became less strained than it was the case a year ago.

Putin and US President Barack Obama had some 20 minutes of private chat at the G-20 summit to discuss Syria and Ukraine. They reportedly agreed on the need for UN-negotiated Syria talks. Obama urged Putin to collaborate in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).

But differences remained between Russia and the US on Syria and Ukraine. It would be unrealistic to expect that Putin and Obama could achieve a breakthrough during a 20-minute meeting as differences remained, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.

After this meeting, the Kremlin offered some reconciliatory gestures. Putin said Russia offered pro-Western and pro-US Ukrainian authorities better debt terms to restructure $3 billion debt that Ukraine owes Moscow.

In the wake of Paris terrorist attacks, the Kremlin has been keen to emphasize Russia’s anti-terrorism credentials. Putin said he has shared Russian intelligence data on Islamic State financing with his G20 counterparts. The Russian data indicated the terrorists were financed from 40 countries, including G20 member-states.

The Kremlin has also insisted that Russia was never isolated, citing BRICS and other partnerships. But at BRICS meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Putin apparently prioritized economic and anti-terrorism agenda. Putin urged joint efforts to deal with the terrorist threat and coping with the problem of refugee inflows.

Putin and Xi Jinping of China also met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. The two demonstrated solidarity in anti-terror efforts, the official TASS news agency commented. Incidentally, Putin described talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a meeting with “reliable friends.”

Few days ahead of the G-20 summit, Russia was sending far less pleasant signals to less “reliable” partners. On November 10, the Russian state-run TV channels “accidentally” leaked secret plans for a Russian giant nuclear torpedo, called “Status-6.” The long-range doomsday torpedo leaked on television was designed to inflict “unacceptable damage.” On November 14, submerged Russian strategic nuclear submarine, the Vladimir Monomakh, test-fired 2 ballistic Bulava missiles.

However, as terrorist attacks in Paris appeared to entail measured thaw between Russia and the West, the Kremlin discontinued saber-rattling rhetoric and gestures.

At the G-20 summit, the Russian authorities availed themselves of the opportunity to tackle some East Asian issues. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly agreed that 2016 was the most appropriate timing for the Russian president’s visit to Japan. Previously expected in 2015, the visit was supposed to boost efforts to improve ties between Russia and Japan.

Yet ahead of the G20 summit, Russia was understood to de-prioritize the Asia-Pacific agenda. On November 12, the Kremlin announced that Putin decided not to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila. As Putin decided to miss APEC summit on November 18-19, he sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a replacement. Officially, Putin was skipping the APEC summit due to what the Kremlin described as “optimization of schedules.”

Little more than three years ago, in September 2012, Russia hosted APEC summit meeting in Vladivostok. The Kremlin spent billions of dollars in government funding to build a resort area on Russky Island, off the Pacific port of Vladivostok, to host the APEC summit. The Zolotoy Rog bridge over the Zolotoy Rog bay in the downtown Vladivostok, linking the Russky Island and the mainland, became the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world.

The country’s top officials hailed large-scale projects in Vladivostok as a manifestation of the Kremlin’s new emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. These showcase projects were supposed to demonstrate the Kremlin’s economic ambitions in Asia. As Putin was skipping the APEC summit this week, the earlier ambitions were seemingly toned down.

Three years ago, Russia, awash in petrodollars, was able to afford more pro-active policies in Asia-Pacific. As times, and Russia’s economic fortunes, have changed, earlier ambitions were replaced by “optimization of priorities.”

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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