Similarly, close Russian links with South Korea and Japan not only attract much-needed investments into the Russian economy, but are also designed to act as a reminder to Beijing that Russia has many other Asian options.

But just in case South Korea or Japan may, in turn, be tempted to take Russia for granted, Moscow is ready to play the North Korea card against Seoul, or the Kurile Islands card against Japan - the latest military exercises in the Kuriles are staged as a warning to Japan not to join in US-led economic sanctions against Russia.

As a serious player in Asia

Western analysts long accustomed to similarly intricate Russian diplomatic games in Europe tend to dismiss their current appearance in Asia as an irrelevant curiosity. After all, the Russians have none of the economic heft or the long-term military capabilities to make themselves serious players in Asia. And even their oil and gas, which are in high demand, will require many years of heavy investment in hitherto non-existent pipelines before they become strategically relevant in the Asian context.

Still, Russia's current games can complicate Asia's security arrangements.

The Japanese government appears to have persuaded itself that it could use Russia to counter-balance China; it is now shocked to find out otherwise. And, as North Korean officials told me recently, they set great store in Russia's "return" to Asia.

All illusory, but the kind of illusions that add a further layer of unpredictability in Asia.

But ultimately, the biggest loser from this game will be Russia itself. For although its Asian diplomacy is resourceful and often imaginative, it cannot produce what it wants most - a return to the status of a great power.

Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's longest-serving prime minister, once tried to explain why he and other politicians failed to halt their country's decline. "We tried our best," he said, "but matters turned out as always."

The same will apply to Russia's latest push into Asia: It will conclude as all of Moscow's previous Asian forays have done.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on Aug 18, 2014.
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