China's President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 11, 2018. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Anadolu Agency
China's President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 11, 2018. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Anadolu Agency

Russia’s usually sleepy Far East finds itself at the center of global attention today, as the high-profile Eastern Economic Forum gets underway in the port of Vladivostok, while the massive Vostok 2018 war games are ignited across 7,000 km of terrain.

The forum runs through to Sept. 13, while Vostok 2018 rumbles to a halt on Sept. 17.

In the vast, naturally rich, but underpopulated region on Russia’s eastern periphery, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is pressing all “attention” buttons at once. He is making a plea for desperately needed investment in the region, while simultaneously rolling out a staggering display of military might and manpower.

Despite this dual display of ambitions – the Vostok exercises are unprecedented in scale and spread, while the forum hosts such global heavy hitters as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – these are just the latest in a series of Russian foreign policy maneuvers.

Moscow’s global initiatives represent diplomacy on steroids as Putin, engaged in a strategic rivalry with the West, seeks to win friends, lure investors, project power and break traditional strategic fetters across a colossal geography and on three key frontiers.

Outside the Kremlin, Russia's two-headed eagle gazes east and west. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Outside the Kremlin, Russia’s two-headed eagle gazes east and west. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Looking east, west – and south

Russia’s national coat of arms features a two-headed eagle peering east and west. That symbol dates back to the Black Sea and Mediterranean empire of Byzantium, home to Russia’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Geographically, Russia is the world’s largest nation, bestriding the Eurasian landmass. And while today’s developments are focused on the east, a dual strategy is emerging at opposite ends of the country. At the same time, Moscow is planting new strategic footprints to its south, on the old Byzantine turf of the Bosporus and Mediterranean.

Last year’s “Zapad” (“West”) military exercises, and the annual St Petersburg Economic Forum, which first convened in 1997, sought to display deterrent power on Russia’s western borders with NATO, while luring investment to bypass Western sanctions. This year’s Vostok (“East”) drills, combined with the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which first convened in 2015, mirror that western approach.

The 2018 forum presents at an opportune moment for Russia, heavily sanctioned by the West, to seek closer ties with its major trading partner China, given that Beijing is now fighting a tariff war with common enemy Washington. Meanwhile, Vostok indicates that, while there may be no NATO-style alliance aiming at Moscow from the east, Russia is a force to be reckoned with in a region in which it has long held a strategic interest.

The western and eastern strategies are being executed at the same time that Russia occupies new terrain to its south.

The recent “Sea Shield” exercises showed off Moscow’s naval assets, which converged from the Black Sea, Baltic and Russia’s Far North. Now, with bases for air and naval operations in Syria, Moscow has a bridgehead in the Mediterranean – long considered a NATO “lake.” And while Russia woos China and Mongolia, plus Japan and South Korea in Vladivostok, it courts strategically positioned NATO member Turkey in the south.

On all fronts, Russia seeks to break historic geographical bottlenecks.

Its Northern Fleet lacks a warm water port in the winter and its Baltic Fleet is constricted by the Skagerrak strait before it can break out into the Atlantic. Its Black Sea fleet, meanwhile, faces a similar bottleneck at the Bosporous, and even if it bypasses that, would then need to travel through the Straits of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal to reach open seas.

In the Far East, Russia lacks a warm water port, and would also have to run the gauntlet of Japan’s increasingly potent naval and air forces – not to mention US bases in the island nation.

As it seeks to master geostrategic liabilities and overcome pressure from international sanctions, Russia is looking more successful at projecting military force than at luring value-added investment.

Putin to focus on trade

The three-day Far Eastern Economic Forum, hosted by Putin himself, welcomes Northeast Asia’s big hitters: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as Mongolian President Khaltmaagin Battulga and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon.

3186546 09/06/2017 September 6, 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, right, during a joint tour of the exhibition "Street of the Far East" at the Far Eastern Federal University, Russky Island. Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik
President Putin and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, right, pose during a tour of the ‘Street of the Far East’ at the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island. Photo: AFP/ Michael Klimentyev/ Sputnik

The forum is the brainchild of Putin, who established it in 2015. It takes place every year in the port city of Vladivostok, close to the Chinese and North Korean borders, and with good communication links to Japan and South Korea. It aims to strengthen business ties with international players, assess the economic potential of the Russian Far East, improve the region’s competitiveness and showcase investment opportunities.

From the business world, the heads of Lotte, Mazda, Mitsui, the Chinese National Oil and Gas Corporation, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and others are expected, according to TASS newswire. Seminars cover such areas as Russian-South Korean economic cooperation, Sino-Russian railway interaction, energy cooperation in Northeast Asia, port infrastructure development – even the creation of the medical cluster in Vladivostok.

Putin’s agenda at the summit is twofold. Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said that Putin will argue against “politically motivated” trade sanctions and stress the importance of free trade, in compliance with World Trade Organization norms, according to TASS. He will also seek to accelerate the socio-economic development of the Far East and encourage foreign investors.

The strongman president – currently facing public pressure on pension reforms, as Moscow seeks to secure additional funds – will also be blowing his own horn. Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnez wrote on the forum’s official website: “At the upcoming forum, we are ready to present the first results of the work done so far. We want to tell our guests that the policy currently being pursued in the Far East on the instructions of the President of the Russian Federation is bearing fruit.”

One no-show is likely to be North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was invited by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a move more focused on diplomacy than economics. However, given that the core mission of the forum is investment, a resource Kim’s nation is ill-placed to supply, Putin is likely losing little sleep over his absence.

While Siberia and the Russian Far East offer a wealth of natural riches – notably natural gas, which Moscow pipes to Western Europe and to China, and seeks to supply to Japan and South Korea – Putin may be more concerned about the general failure of the forum, thus far, to woo top-tier investors.

In addition to labor shortages, minimal infrastructure and climatic challenges in Russia’s Far East, questions hang over rule of law. Japanese and South Korean blue chips are heavily engaged in fast-growing China, with its massive market and fast-rising middle class, but have been far less aggressive in Russia, with its shrinking populace and pressured economy.

“Getting foreign investment into Russia is difficult; businesspeople are not particularly eager, as they have doubts about the security of their investments and the investment climate is not particularly good,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “And because of sanctions, it is getting even worse. The combination of a bad track record of foreign investment and sanctions make it highly unlikely that people are going to invest in the Russian Far East.”

3262635 12/21/2017 A dance show during the opening of the first Russian Far East's Peugeot car dealership in Vladivostok. Vitaliy Ankov/Sputnik
A dance show at the opening of a car dealership in Vladivostok. Photo: AFP/ Vitaliy Ankov/ Sputnik

Manifest destiny 

Historically, Moscow has had a sense of manifest destiny toward the distant Pacific. But unlike its rivals far across that ocean, Moscow has never managed to populate it.

Much development in Siberia and the Russian Far East was a result of gulag labor. And during the chaotic Yeltsin era, the region’s economy imploded. In recent years, the Kremlin has tried to entice settlers to move to the territory with tax breaks and land grants, but with little success.

“The Russian government has spent the last 30 years trying to get people there, but cannot even halt the gradual reduction of the local population,” Lankov said. “People do not see why they should go to an area which is far away, has poor communications with the main part of Russia, has a pretty bad climate and would require a great deal of hard work.”

He noted that the population in Russia’s Far East had dropped from 10 million in Soviet days to just 6.3 million at present.


However, the other big event – Vostok 2018 – is more within Putin’s comfort zone.

A show of might across 7,000 km of territory, it fields a jaw-dropping 300,000 men – double the number of troops the Allies landed on D-Day in 1944, and 100,000 more than Nazi Germany deployed to storm Stalingrad in 1942. Vostok even dwarfs the size of West European mid-tier military powers like the United Kingdom, which fields a regular army of 81,000 bayonets.

Given Russia’s status as a continental power, the exercises focus on land and air forces, but its maritime components are also ambitious, encompassing Russia’s northern rim, the Sea of Japan, Sea of Otohsk and the Bering Strait.

As well as showcasing weapons – together with natural gas, a critical export sector for Moscow – and pan-Eurasian deployability, the drills show the world (and people at home) that Russia has friends, not just the formidable enemies arrayed against it in the West. Not only are small Chinese and Mongolian contingents taking part, but Moscow reportedly invited Ankara – hardly a Pacific power – to join.

Although Russia is seeking to tighten its strategic ties with China, Russia’s last military confrontations in the region were a series of border skirmishes with its neighbor in the 1960s and ‘70s. So, Putin and Xi may be chummy today, but there has long been bad blood between the two huge countries, notably their communist-era rivalry in East Asia during the Cold War. Zapad 2018 may ease these past strains.

Local Russians’ concerns about a powerhouse economy and massive population that could swamp the region may explain why China has not invested heavily across the border. “There is some suspicion toward China. Generally, people feel uncomfortable about Chinese presence in the region,” said Lankov. “But that is probably not the major region [for lack of investment] – for the Chinese, it is not that attractive.”

Russia has also fought wars against Japan. The Red Army stormed into Manchuria and northern Korea in the last days of World War II, routing Japan’s vaunted army and creating the conditions that led to the region’s longest-running security crisis – on the divided Korean peninsula, as well as seizing the Kuril Islands, which Tokyo today calls the “Northern Territories.”

Historically, the 1945 conquests overcame the humiliation suffered by Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, notably the annihilation of the Czar’s battle fleet under the guns of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Tsushima Straits. That war served notice to the world that a new power had arisen in the east.

That power is today locked in a close military alliance with the United States. While Vostok has barely registered on Japan’s political radar, naval drills will take place in the Sea of Japan, to Japan’s east, and the Sea of Okhotsk, to its north.

Moscow’s sponsorship of today’s ambitious events suggests that great game rivalry in Northeast Asia remains in play. And globally, the Kremlin’s multiple-front maneuvers signal that Putin seeks not merely to overcome Western sanctions, but also to break the traditional geostrategic fetters that have bound Russia for centuries.

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