Putin's pivot to Asia
Russia is anxious about China too, and this could offer the U.S. an opportunity.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok September 9, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Putin knows he can’t pull off a purely economic pivot, so it's safe to assume he has larger strategic concerns in mind.

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  • Mr. Putin knows that absent an aggressive policy, China will play a dominant role in Russia's Far East

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  • No doubt, the US faces a difficult choice, yet it has to acknowledge that Mr. Putin's pivot offers some opportunity.

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Vladimir Putin put up a brave face during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held last week in Vladivostok. Writing in these pages last week, the Russian President outlined an Asia-Pacific "growth agenda" but really ended up betraying his fears that Moscow was losing control of its resource-rich Pacific territory. These fears may change Russia's role in Asia and could come to Washington's advantage.

Mr. Putin's so-called agenda for the Asia-Pacific region, which he presented both in his newspaper op-ed and the actual APEC summit, is bold but unrealistic. It includes ill-defined calls for food security and vague declarations of sustainable growth rates on one hand, and ambitious logistical integration plans and high-minded educational exchange proposals on the other.

So this APEC annual summit, like the 23 before it, will have little actual impact on the world economy, but what's interesting this time is Mr. Putin's bravado. He used the Vladivostok meeting as a pretext for shoring up Russian influence in its own Far East, and more broadly in Asia. Consider why.

On the surface, Mr. Putin is driven to the east because the deepening euro-zone crisis and the long-term slowdown in European growth are driving him away from the West. Just as David Cameron and Angela Merkel have reached out to Asian economies, so Mr. Putin has jumped on the European "pivot" to Asia. Exports of raw materials such as timber, minerals and fish to China, India and Southeast Asia could prove vital to an economy that so far has focused on energy production for Europe.

The problem is Mr. Putin's record does not inspire confidence. Nearly a decade of economic neglect has led the Far East to become one of Russia's poorest regions. Moscow should have unleashed entrepreneurial energies in this area by freeing up Russia's economy in general, but that would require some commitment to democracy and the protection of rights, which Mr. Putin isn't interested in. The recently announced multibillion-dollar upgrade of Vladivostok's port is too little too late, while the APEC summit also proved anodyne.

Mr. Putin surely knows he won't be able to pull off a purely economic pivot, so it's safe to assume he has larger strategic concerns in mind. Russia's population in the Far East has shrunk even more quickly than the rest of the country. The Far Eastern Federal District, which Mr. Putin established in 2000, comprises just over a third of Russia's total land mass, approximately 6.2 million square kilometers, yet has a population of just under 6.3 million people, or one person per square kilometer. It is bordered primarily by Heilongjiang province in China, which has 38 million people.

While there is little chance that he thinks Russia should return to its 19th century policy of being an Asian great power, Mr. Putin knows that absent an aggressive policy, China will play a dominant role in Russia's Far East as it eyes fresh water, fuel and minerals. With so few Russians, Moscow could wind up ceding de facto control to Beijing, despite keeping legal sovereignty over its territory. This factor, above all, is driving Mr. Putin toward Asia.

Mr. Putin's means to this end is offering Russian territory as a transshipment route between Europe and Asia. The roads, rails and ports needed to fulfill such a role would anyway more tightly link Russia's Far East to its European core, but it would also make Moscow's infrastructure integral to economic operations in Asia. Further, as the Arctic waterways continue to open up over the next decades, Vladivostok is perfectly located to become a major transshipment point to Europe by sea.

Mr. Putin would next use this as an excuse to step up security in the region, such as the stationing of more police, customs and military forces along the thousands of miles of transport arteries. Upon reaching the Sea of Okhotsk and Sea of Japan, expanded ports will need a modernized coast guard and the resurrection of Russia's Pacific Fleet. This could give Russia a commanding role on both land and the ocean.

Whether or not this strategic expansion works for Moscow, as far as Washington is concerned, the prospect of authoritarian Russia increasing its dominance in another part of the world is concerning. Mr. Putin's disregard for rights and democracy reflects the broader strain in Russo-U.S. relations.

No doubt, the United States faces a difficult choice, yet it has to acknowledge that Mr. Putin's pivot offers some opportunity. Washington and Moscow have mutual anxieties in Asia, and this could lead to realistic, though not warm, cooperation between them on maritime security and free trade. With Washington in the lead, it might also thaw the ice between Japan and Russia, who feel the same geopolitical squeeze from China.

The Obama administration tried an overall "reset" with Russia on big matters such as disarmament, but failed. If it wants to try again, it has to understand and exploit the limited common ground that exists.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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