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Asian Opinions

Jonathan Eyal
Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014

Asian Opinions

The 'illogic' behind Russia's Asia strategy

The Straits Times | Jonathan Eyal | Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014

One would have thought that the last thing Russia needs, being embroiled in the biggest confrontation with the West since the end of the Cold War, is to further alienate its neighbours.

Yet that's precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin now appears to have done, by authorising the launch of large-scale military exercises in the disputed Kuril Islands, whose seizure by the Russians in 1945 was never recognised by Japan.

The Japanese are outraged. "This is utterly unacceptable for our country," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose officials also let it be known that last year, Japan's air force scrambled fighter jets against Russian aircraft on 235 separate occasions.

But the truth is that Russia's latest military moves are only accidentally related to Japan as such; they are part of a wider and more intricate Russian game to consolidate a foothold in Asia.

The new Russian strategy tries to copy the "hub-and-spokes" network of bilateral alliances which the United States has created in the region.

But unlike the American alliance system which is designed to maximise US strength, Russia's budding Asia policy is designed to mask the country's current weakness. This is unlikely to succeed, but it could make Russia a potential spoiler in Asia.

Russia has always claimed to be an Asian power: The bulk of the country's territory is in the Asian land mass and, as Russians love to point out, their double- headed eagle national emblem looks both east and west. But just as the double-headed eagle story is a historic myth, so are Russia's Asian credentials.

European outlook

The overwhelming majority of Russia's population live in Europe and all the country's rulers have been Europeans with no understanding or interest in Asian affairs. Unsurprisingly, therefore, every time Russia tried to dabble in Asia, the results were an abject failure.

Russia was the first modern European power to be militarily defeated - roundly - by an Asian nation, in a war with Japan in 1905. The subsequent Soviet leadership fared no better. It grabbed the Kuril Islands from Japan at the end of World War II as an afterthought, and it monumentally bungled links with communist China.

Finally, as Professor Sergey Radchenko, a Russian scholar based in China, recently pointed out in his Unwanted Visionaries, a study of Moscow's more recent diplomatic efforts, Russia continued to fail in its engagement efforts with Asian powers after the fall of the Soviet Union and was relegated to "the sidelines of the Pacific Century".

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