“The history of Russia is the history of a nation that is colonizing itself. The space of colonization spread at the same time as the territory of the state.” – Vasili Klyuchevski
The history of Russia is dominated by one recurrent theme: a perpetual fear of encirclement, invasion, and dismemberment. To understand Russia is to understand this indelible fact. It explains many of their actions and beliefs throughout world history. In order to prevent this from occurring, various Russian leaders throughout history have sought to protect Moscow and the “core” of Russia by extending Russia’s defensive perimeters as far away from the country’s center as possible.
This drive to prevent foreign encirclement and invasion is why Russia is the largest country in the world.
The Russians were so dedicated to extending their defensive perimeter away from Moscow, they were so committed to colonizing the people surrounding their lands, that they built an empire which spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. As you will see, Russian intentions are predicated on reasserting the old Russian imperial borders.
However, unlike Russian actions in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Russia is relying less on brinksmanship and more on peaceable methods for securing their eastern flank. While many in recent years have focused exclusively on the rise of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current autocratic president, and Russian actions in its “Near-Abroad” (Eastern Europe and Central Asia) and the Middle East, this article will assess Russian intentions in the Pacific.
In so doing, this article will prove that Mr. Putin and his cadre of siloviki (or, those former KGB officers who now favor stronger ties with Asia) are firm believers of the conservative-nationalist-imperial ideology known as Neo-Eurasianism. By predicting Russia’s actions in Asia as a means of proving the Putin Regime’s commitment to Neo-Eurasianism, American policymakers will be able to craft more coherent policies toward Russia, as those policymakers will better understand Russian intentions on the world stage.
Neo-Eurasianism: Russia’s New (Old) Dangerous Ideology
Following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component parts, Russian statesmen looked for meaning. Traditionally an empire convinced of its own infallibility and obsessed with its insecurity, the Russians have valued autocratic rule coupled with an expansive foreign policy. This has become known as the rule of the silnaya ruka, or the rule of the “strong hand.”
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded the rise of democrats in Russia. Throughout the 1990s, under the leadership of the colorful President Boris Yeltsin (most famous for firing his ministers in a drunken rage, waking up the following morning, and then rehiring them), Russia liberalized its economy and its political system. Real democratic and capitalistic reforms became the new normal in the former lands of the Tsars and the Soviets.
Yet, this democratic experiment was short-lived. As if proving that the illiberalism of previous Russian regimes to be the correct course, Russia’s flirtation with democracy and capitalism yielded increases in disunity and poverty.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
A former Soviet KGB operative-turned-city administrator in post-Soviet Russia, Mr. Putin was a bit of an enigma. His past curried favor with the group of ex-Soviets who had acquired massive amounts of power and money following Communism’s fall, yet, his actions and rhetoric throughout the 1990s indicated that he was sympathetic toward the liberal reformers in Russia.
However, his selection as Mr. Yeltsin’s successor shocked much of the world. As a frankly unimpressive mid-level politician in post-Soviet Russia (and an even lower ranking KGB officer before that), Putin seemed to appear from nowhere. He seemed to play his cards well: reformers liked him because of his pro-democratic and pro-Western rhetoric; the old Soviet guys appreciated him because of his past associations with the KGB (no KGB officer could truly be pro-Western, after all); Boris Yeltsin favored him because Mr. Putin most-likely promised to protect the Yeltsin Family’s ill-gotten wealth, particularly its real estate acquisitions–which were most assuredly the result of corrupt dealings when Mr. Yeltsin was president–making Putin everything to everyone.
Once in power, however, it did not take long for Mr. Putin to begin asserting his true nature. As president, he sought to destroy any liberal reformers as well as any of those capitalists–the so-called “oligarchs”–who he believed destroyed Russia during the economic downturn in the 1990s. He then redistributed the oligarchs’ holdings and wealth to his preferred political cronies (most of them being former comrades from President Putin’s KGB days). After solidifying his shocking grip on power, Mr. Putin next turned his attention to the so-called breakaway republics, primarily Chechnya.
Chechnya was a Russian territory that was predominantly Muslim. The populace there loathed being under Russian dominion and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had longed for independence. While countless states that comprised the Soviet Union were given their independence at the end of the Cold War, Chechnya was not. Once it was not given its independence through peaceful means, the Chechnyans turned toward the most-violent, Islamic extremist sections of their population, and began agitating for independence, by waging a brutal guerrilla campaign against the “occupying” Russians. This problem plagued the Yeltsin era. However, this problem was bloodily squelched in the Putin era.
Even as former U.S. President George W. Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, Mr. Putin engaged in a ceaseless campaign of dissimulation and subversion directed against the American-led world order. This began in perpetuity in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, as deep divisions within the transatlantic alliance–particularly between the U.S., France, and Germany–were exposed for the world to see. Mr. Putin, ever the opportunist, took advantage of this divide and is widely believed to have quietly stoked the proverbial fire against Washington in Berlin and Paris.
From there, Russia would go on to support anti-Western political movements in its Near-Abroad, in places like Ukraine and Georgia, even as those countries demanded to be made parts of the Western alliance system, by seeking membership into the EU and NATO. When the pro-democratic Orange Revolution broke out in Ukraine in 2004, Mr. Putin became convinced that the West was seeking to encircle Russia by expanding NATO and the EU, thereby rendering Russia a defunct state, leading to its ultimate dismemberment.
The 11 centuries-old Russian fear of encirclement, invasion, and dismemberment was at play once more. As such, the Russian government became committed to shoring up pro-Russian elements in its former satellite states, increasing Russian influence there, expanding its military footprint abroad, and attempting to use its natural gas and oil supplies as a political weapon against Europe and the U.S.
Where did these views emanate from? How did Russia go from flirting with political liberalization and capitalism to where it is today, a revisionist strongman autocracy with visions of imperial grandeur? The answer lies in an eccentric Russian intellectual named Alexander Dugin. Once described in Foreign Affairs as “Putin’s Brain,” Dugin has written extensively on Russian foreign policy. Indeed, beginning in the 1980s, he became the unofficial leader of a political ideology now known as Neo-Eurasianism.
Neo-Eurasianism is an updated version of an old Tsarist principle known as Eurasianism. This belief was shared by many Russian White émigrés who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and found themselves in Europe. It essentially viewed Russia as standing upon the crossroads of European and Asian civilizations; Russia, according to this view, is neither European nor Asian, rather, it is a perfect synthesis of the two.
Eurasianism adopts the view of preeminent twentieth century British geostrategist, Sir Halford Mackinder, that Eurasia is the “world island,” and Russia rests upon the “pivot of history,” as it is the geographical and political center of that world-island. According to Mackinder (and the Neo-Eurasianists today), he who can control Eurasia–with its vast land and incredible panoply of natural resources and wealth–can control the world. The Eurasianist viewpoint was thought to have died out in the mid-twentieth century, when the last proponents of this worldview died in exile in the West. Yet, the tenets of this ideology remained in a handful of intellectual redoubts throughout the world.
By the 1980s, the iniquities of the Soviet system were becoming apparent to everyone–including those within the Soviet Union. Hence, Alexander Dugin, assumed the mantle of Eurasianism but updated it. Taking the original tenets of Eurasianism (especially its view that there is a unique Russo-Eurasian civilization and that it is superior to all others), incorporating certain Marxist dialectical critiques of the Western financial system, embracing the illiberal and undemocratic nature of both the Tsars and Communists, and strangely, wedding these beliefs to radical right-wing political philosophy and intense antisemitism, Dugin birthed Neo-Eurasianism. While few are certain of Dugin’s early influence on Vladimir Putin, it is known that Dugin’s works were required reading at various Russian military academies and several key advisers within the Putin Regime were students of Dugin and firm believers in Neo-Eurasianism.
The Neo-Eurasianist worldview also, disturbingly, looked at the world in stark terms. It claims that the land-based, illiberal powers of the world–mostly located in Eurasia–are in a ceaseless conflict with the liberal seafaring powers of the world (as represented by the U.S.), which it calls the Atlanticists. The practitioners of Neo-Eurasianism fundamentally believe that in order to secure this uniquely dominant Russo-Eurasian civilization from continual interference from the totalitarian liberalism of the Atlanticists, the EU and NATO must be busted apart, the former European members of these organization must be brought into the Russian fold, Russia must reassert itself in its former satellite states, Russia must create a peaceful dynamic with its Asian neighbors to its East.
As such, President Putin has embraced several of the Neo-Eurasianists’ policy prescriptions. He has sowed discord among America’s European allies. He has attempted to expand Russian influence into its Near-Abroad by creating the Eurasian Economic Union–and has brought to heel obstinate potential members, like Ukraine, by invading and annexing key areas of their countries. Mr. Putin has also attempted to prevent disunity within Russia by squelching Chechnya. President Putin has further hamstrung America in the Middle East through his continued support of Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria.
Many in the West have come to doubt the accuracy of the claim that Mr. Putin is a Neo-Eurasianist. They question this reality because they have bought into the notion that, for a leader to be possessed of an ideology, that political leader must be puritanical follows of the tenets of that ideology. Yet, this is not so. Whenever a political leader has been possessed of radical notion, no matter what form of government they lead, that leader has been constrained by reality.
In the case of Hitler (and this is not to make the sloppy comparison between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once did), for example, in order to secure his flank, he entered into a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. If Hitler were a Nazi purist, he would have never done this, due to the fact that on top of being antisemitic and nationalistic, Nazism was rabidly anticommunist. Yet, he did so out of practical necessity. Did this nonaggression pact mean that Hitler was not still the rabid Nazi we knew him to be? No. It meant that he was a politician and all politicians–even autocrats–have to make compromises (however temporary) at times, in order to implement their wider agenda.
Vladimir Putin is no different. While he may eschew the Neo-Eurasianist label, while he may not follow through fully on the preferred Ne0-Eurasianist foreign policy (as is the case with Mr. Putin’s Ukraine policy), this does not negate the fact that he has embraced this strange and radical ideology. Critics of this view would claim that I am wrong. They would use the recent example of Mr. Putin having effectively ousted Alexander Dugin from his prestigious position at Moscow State University, after Dugin led a surprisingly public effort to persuade President Putin to push Russian forces farther into Ukraine from Crimea. Yet, this should not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention.
Firstly, Mr. Putin is an autocrat. What autocrat likes having his methods and decisions challenged openly? Secondly, Mr. Putin is first-and-foremost a politician who has come to view Russia’s national interest as being inextricably linked to his personal interest of staying power. This means that, Mr. Putin, like all politicians, still likes to keep his options open. By not formally embracing the Neo-Eurasianist label and even dispatching the movement’s lead thinker from public view, Mr. Putin is essentially having his cake and eating it too.
Unless American policymakers can be made to understand Neo-Eurasianism and its influence on Russian foreign policy, the U.S. will continue to be embarrassed by the Russians. I would like to spend the rest of this article proving that Mr. Putin is most assuredly following the Neo-Eurasianist foreign policy by focusing on the oft-ignored and little understood Russian policy for its Far East and Pacific holdings. As succeeding sections will illustrate, I believe that by following the Neo-Eurasianist model of conciliation and accommodation with Russia’s Asia’s neighbors–namely China and Japan–we can accurately predict not only what Mr. Putin’s next big moves will be, but also prove that he is, indeed, a functional Neo-Eurasianist.
Russia’s Asia Pivot
The Russian landmass is massive. Crossing eleven different time zones and spanning the entire Eurasian (Europe and Asia) landmass, Russia has consistently been ranked throughout history as the largest (land-wise) country in existence. Yet, its core–particularly Moscow–rests in the western portion of Russia. This western portion is well-developed and its cities are relatively advanced, industrial, and interconnected. This part of Russia sits very near the European border as well.
Yet, when the Muscovy Principate overthrew its Mongol conquerors in the 15th century, its first expansion was to its east and south (this probably had to do with the fact that the Mongols had invaded from the east and the surviving shards of Mongolian rule, known as the Tartar khanates, were to Russia’s south). Indeed, the first significant gains for Russian expansion were to its east.
The eastern portion of Russia would end at the Bering Strait, separating the Kamchatka peninsula and Alaska, as well as the Pacific Ocean. It would ultimately border northern Korea and China. Beginning with the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, Russia would slowly start to pull the eastern territories away from China’s control and into Russia. From that point onward, the Russians and Chinese would enter into a series of treaties–albeit contested–that solidified the Russian acquisition of these territories.
This is most evident in the Treaties of Aigun and Peking, signed in 1858 and 1860, respectively. Despite the inexorable Russian colonization of these lands, and tepid Chinese acceptance of Russian claims, several conflicts between Russia and China erupted throughout the centuries over this vast expanse of territory. Indeed, in 1969, even as they were purportedly aligned in the Communist bloc against the U.S. during the Cold War, Russia and China fought a bitter border skirmish along the disputed Amur River.
By the 1990s, after a decade of negotiation, most of the outstanding disagreements had been resolved in Russia’s favor. In 2001, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighborliness, which officially resolved all border disputes between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.
The 2001 Treaty on Friendship and Good Neighborliness was designed to be the start of a new era in Sino-Russian cooperation. It was intended by Vladimir Putin to be the first major building blocks in a new world order that diminished American hegemony and helped usher in a multipolar world order.
Yet, the Chinese inserted a sunset clause for the year 2021. This twenty year agreement makes sense: the Russian Far East is vast, its resource potential is great, yet its population density is abysmal (there are less than six Russians per square mile in Russia’s Far East), and the infrastructure linking Russia’s Far Eastern territories is antiquated and severely lacking.
On the other side of the border, however, rests China’s Heilongjiang Province, boasting nearly thirty-five times the population density of Russia’s Far East. Since 2001, China has encouraged mass migration from its territory into Russia’s Far East and has invested upwards of $3 billion in development deals for Russia’s Far East. This, at a time, when a vast majority of Russia’s resource wealth–particularly its natural gas and oil reserves–are located in the sparsely populated, dangerously undefended, and poorly developed Russian Far East.
The Russian government has announced its intentions to fully develop and link the disparate Russian Far Eastern territories with the Moscow “core” in western Russia. As such, in 2009, Russia announced a three-stage plan for developing Russia’s Far East, in order to increase regional productivity and political interconnectedness with the western portion of Russia by 2025. This is but the first step in Russia’s drive to solidify and reassert its control over its Far Eastern territories.
The rise of China in Russia’s Far East presents a strategic quandary that Vladimir Putin recognized in 2001, when he warned the denizens of Blagoveshchensk, a city bordering China on the Amur River, that unless they took serious steps to shore up Russian integrity in the Far East, they’d all be speaking Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in twenty years. Building off of this concept, and unlike its foreign policy toward Eastern Europe, Russian foreign policy toward Asia seems to be predicated less on bellicosity, and more on diplomatic peace building.
You see, at the same time that Mr. Putin and his regime fears the impending demographic bomb exploding in Russia’s Far East, the Putin Regime depends on (mostly) Chinese investment in developing the plentiful natural resources in this far-flung region of Russia. Also, the dearth of Russian population in this region coupled with poor infrastructure connecting the Far East with Russia’s western core, means that the Russian military’s ability to defend these regions from a sustained invasion is limited.
This penchant for stability and nonviolence in Russia’s Far East policy should not be surprising, despite Russian actions along its western flank (i.e. Europe). Unlike the former Soviet bloc states in either Eastern Europe or Central Asia that border Russia, the fact is that Asia is home to some of the most dynamic and powerful states in the world.
China alone has proven its ability to impose its will on what it deems to be its sphere of influence. What’s more, the sheer size of China’s economy and its military might, coupled with the fact that China seems to be opposed to the American-led world order, makes a partnership with China very appealing to the Putin Regime, which is desperately seeking allies against the U.S. and its Western partners.
In fact, it should be noted, that since 2000, official Russian policy has been to side with the People’s Republic of China against Taiwan, should war ever break out between the U.S. and PRC over Taiwan. By 2004, it had been proven that the Russian declaration in 2000 was more than rhetorical. Indeed, Russia had provided the Chinese military with highly advanced weaponry that would aid China in its quest to reclaim its supposed “lost province” of Taiwan. Since the early 2000s, Sino-Russian military cooperation has only increased.
Indeed, both are founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is believed to be an attempted counterweight to NATO. Furthermore, the two parties have intensified their economic ties and have recently entered into highly lucrative nuclear energy development deals.
Russian behavior today is a far cry from what it was during the 1970s, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev openly referred to the Chinese as “dogs,” and when Mao Tse-tung of China claimed that he was willing to engage in nuclear warfare against the Soviets over the disputed Sakhalin Islands. This Sino-Soviet split was a key reason why Nixon’s detente with China and Russia was so effective: the two major Communist powers of the time were more interested in fighting each other than fighting the U.S. The reason for this new Sino-Russia cordiale may have less to do with any real affinity toward the Chinese on the part of the Russians.
It is likely that the Russians are making a pragmatic policy choice: they seek to retain their hold over the resource rich Far Eastern territories, but neither have the population density nor the military might in that region to assure their dominance. Therefore, the Russians have calculated that they can work alongside China long enough in order to enrich themselves by developing the resources jointly, giving them time to increase the connectivity between the Far Eastern territories and the Russian core in the west.
As this occurs, the Russians would increase their overall population density, theoretically, by increasing its hold over the former Soviet states along its periphery. This increase in population from its former satellite states, coupled with the increases in infrastructure linking the Far East with Russia’s western core, as well as the promise of economic opportunity, due to the development deals between the Russians and Chinese, Putin hopes, would lead to a Russian revival in the Far East.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are more than happy to work with the Russians in the near-term because it is the path of least resistance. Such a temporary arrangement increases China’s wealth, alleviates China’s population problem by relocating high numbers of migrants into Russia (and away from the already overpopulated Chinese cities along the coast), and allows the Chinese government to focus on countering American influence in the Pacific.
A Cure for the Kurils
By 1945, the Allies had soundly defeated the Italians and Nazis in Europe, and were beginning to enact their vision for a postwar Europe and Middle East. However, the Pacific Theater of the war raged on. The U.S.-led Allied force in the Pacific had spent the better part of four years island-hopping, taking key bits of the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere piece-by-piece. The Japanese fought hard and many died. Yet, ultimately, the U.S. persevered in the fight. The Americans had all but surrounded mainland Japan by 1945 and sought a resolution to the war. Realizing that a mainland invasion of Japan would be costly in terms of lives, resources, and treasure, the U.S. leadership looked to its newfangled atomic bomb arsenal (all two of them) that the secretive Manhattan Project had developed throughout the war.
Shortly after the two nuclear detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and right before the official Japanese surrender, the Soviet Union decided to declare war upon the Japanese. With little resistance left in its Asian holdings, the Japanese colonizers fell to the mass of Russian soldiers that came pouring across the Russian Siberian borders into places like northern China and Korea. The Russians were poised to lay claim to a part of Japan, but Stalin’s designs for capturing at least part of Japan were ended when the Japanese unconditionally surrendered to the U.S. However, the Soviets did acquire a small collection of Japanese islands–known as the Kuril Islands–at the end of the war. Yet, the Japanese have never recognized Russian claims on the islands. For seventy years, the two sides have disputed four islands within the island chain linking northern Japan with eastern Russia.
When Vladimir Putin stepped down in 2008 to become the Russian Prime Minister and his lackey, Dmitri Medvedev, was elevated to the Russian presidency, the Russians began taking a new approach vís-a-vís its relationship with Japan over the Kuril Islands. In 2012, Mr. Medvedev made an official state visit to Russia’s holdings on the Kuril Islands–the first of its kind since the reign of Soviet leader Josef Stalin–he followed that on with the installation of new radar defense systems, called for increased Russian investment for development of the island (it sits atop a highly prized part of the ocean containing lucrative fishing areas and a vast reservoir of untapped natural gas), and increased the size and duration of Russian military units deployed to the island. However, former President Medvedev simultaneously signaled that Russia might be interested in opening negotiations with the Japanese government, in order to resolve the issue with finality.
After an initial meeting, the negotiations went nowhere. Japan dug in, claiming that the islands were an irrevocable part of Japan’s territory–a vital defensive perimeter for the country’s northern region–and the Russians remained intractable on the issue, despite having allowed the island to fall into neglect over the decades. It seemed as though the issue would remain unresolved. Indeed, since the negotiations collapsed, the Russians have spent the last several years intensifying their military operations on the island and increasing economic development of the region, in order to solidify their seven-decades-long claim on the Kuril Islands.
Even still, for several years thereafter, the Kuril Island question remained a thorny but unimportant issue for either party. Yet, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the Japanese government’s denunciation of Russian actions, the reinstalled President Vladimir Putin engaged in a little brinksmanship with his Japanese neighbors.
There have been several incidents between Russian military units operating from the Kuril Islands and American forces conducting routine patrols in the northern Pacific. More importantly, there have been a handful of tense run-ins between Russian MiG fighters and Japanese air defense patrols in the northern portion of Japan.
Indeed, following Japan’s denunciation of Russian revanchism in Ukraine, it seemed as though the Russians would seek to further antagonize the Japanese in retribution for the Japanese position. This seemed especially so, as Russian rhetoric toward Japan following the denunciation seemed to indicate that Russia did not take Japan seriously, for it viewed the Japanese position as the result not of any real belief, but rather, as the result of Japan’s dependency on the U.S. for its survival.
Following this, in recent months, the Russians have installed their dreaded BAL missile defense system which, supposedly, can be used to destroy stealth fighter planes, on the Kuril Islands. They have deployed a team to determine whether or not a deepwater port can be constructed on the Kuril Islands from whence the Russian Pacific Fleet (currently based out of the Russian Far Eastern city of Irkutsk) can operate from, they have increased the size of their air force contingent on the island, and they have committed a sizable amount of money and resources into rebuilding their dilapidated (though once-mighty) Pacific Fleet.
Yet, even as they did this, the Russians have announced their desire to reach a negotiated settlement with the Japanese government. It would seem that this is a completely antithetical position for the Russians to take, considering how they’ve sought to resolve territorial disputes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, respectively). However, this is precisely the course of action that Putin has dedicated himself to.
It is for the same reason that Mr. Putin seeks to align Russia with China in its Far East, even at the risk of becoming a junior partner to the Chinese: in its present condition Russia does not have the capabilities to fully impose its will across its Far Eastern and Pacific holdings. So, rather than risk losing them outright by intensifying its belligerence, thereby risking an escalation that it likely would be unable to counter in these far off regions, the Russians seek to make themselves appear more conspicuous than they are–but to a point. They seek to be heard, but not felt. Theirs is a diplomatic holding action. They will make deals with their Asian neighbors to further divide the American alliance network and allow time for them to build up their own capabilities.
However, Mr. Putin does not want to risk antagonizing his strong Asian neighbors, for he does not view them as a direct threat to his interests. Vladimir Putin seeks to curry favor with his Asian neighbors so that he may continue to tussle with his real threat: the U.S. and its global network of alliances.
In recent days, the Russians and Japanese have met to discuss a normalizing of their relations over the Kuril Island dispute. While the recent meeting officially yielded no results, one way or the other, unofficially, the meeting highlighted the positive relationship between Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While they are by no means BFFs, there are reports surfacing that Mr. Abe has an affinity for Mr. Putin.
Indeed, the two men share a similar conservative worldview: they are both nationalists at heart. Both men, I believe, have surmised that the American global position is untenable and that there are already irreparable cracks forming in the American global alliance system. Putin cannot exert direct pressure upon his Asian neighbors, yet, Mr. Abe cannot resolve the situation with force nor can he truly rely on the United States to assist him in maintaining the Japanese stance on the Kuril Island dispute.
After all, despite its stringent vows of solidarity with the Japanese over the Senkaku Islands, does anyone really think that the U.S. will war with the Chinese over a handful of rocks? Likewise, it must strain credulity for Mr. Abe and his government to seriously believe that his position on the Kuril Islands is tenable, for American willingness to commit resources to defending the Japanese claim on the islands is nonexistent.
Furthermore, even when the Americans have promised increased support for the existing U.S.-backed Asian order, as was the case in President Obama’s much-ballyhooed “Asian Pivot,” the result has been tepid and downright embarrassing. Such an abysmal display of (or, rather lack of) commitment to upholding its diplomatic and military promises on the part of the U.S. has forced American allies to reassess their strategic position.
The Japanese government is looking to direct its limited martial energies into mustering a viable defense of what it views as its traditional territory from an increasingly belligerent and revanchist China all the meanwhile attempting to secure Japan from the ongoing scourge of North Korea. The Japanese government is increasingly questioning America’s commitment to its defense. The last thing that Mr. Abe wants to do is to incur the wrath of the Russians–even if he assesses that the Russians are a paper tiger in the Pacific. The point is, Japan is overstretched as it is. Inciting Mr. Putin would only harm Japanese long-term interests.
Therefore, I believe that we will be witnessing the slow entente between Tokyo and Moscow. I believe that, over the next year or so, both Russia and Japan will negotiate an amicable settlement over the Kuril Islands that ends in Russia’s favor. This will, in turn, secure Japan’s northern borders, foster amity with the Russian behemoth to the north, and potentially assist in the downgrading of tensions with both China and North Korea, the former being a nominal ally of Russia’s and the latter being a nominal client state of both Russia’s and China’s. Such an event will not only be history-making, but it will also seriously enhance Russia’s prestige in the world. It will also create a potential for a serious (but small) diplomatic opportunity for Russia’s relationship with a dynamic economy like Japan, while at the same time shoring up Russia’s economic interests by fully opening up the Kuril Island chain’s immense natural resources.
Vladimir Putin is intent on securing Russia’s old imperial borders. He is committed to reasserting Russian primacy in its former empire. Therefore, to the west, Russia must sow discord with potentially anti-Russian alliances, such as the European Union and NATO, to its south, it must dominate its former client states by threatening or cajoling them to return to Russia’s imperial orbit, farther away, it must illustrate discontent with America’s military might in the Middle East through its continued support of the Assad Regime in Syria, as well as the Iranian regime, and to its east, Russia must engage in a robust diplomatic effort to secure–however temporary and however nominally–the alliances of China and Japan.
If Russia can secure its eastern flank, it can then rededicate itself to fully developing the vast economic resources of that region whilst concentrating all of its military and diplomatic efforts at ensuring that the U.S. remains over-the-horizon long enough for Russia to build its fanciful Eurasian Union…with Moscow at the seat of such a union. Russia’s Far East policies are oft-ignored and little understood.
Yet, they are a vital snapshot illustrating the strategic thought behind Russia’s current foreign policy. Mr. Putin is a neo-Eurasianist. If American analysts can grasp this concept fully and relate it to U.S. policymakers, then the U.S. can craft far more sensible policies regarding Russia. As it stands, the U.S. acts as though it is completely unaware of what Mr. Putin will do next. This is a terrible paradigm, as it feeds into the myth of Russian implacability. It also gives Mr. Putin the initiative in global affairs, thereby giving him far more diplomatic capital to push his agenda of revising the current American-led world order.
Throughout the capitals of the world–including even in Washington, D.C.–a pervasive belief has taken root that the U.S. in decline. The American leadership’s inability to accurately identify the trends and patterns within Russian foreign policy does the U.S. a great disservice and empowers its enemies abroad. At the same time Mr. Putin is antagonizing what he perceives as his U.S.-backed enemies to his west, he is accommodating his neighbors in Asia, namely China and Japan. The next U.S. president must be aware of this and must make ready plans to rollback Mr. Putin’s gains.