Getting Pacific Russia Right
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

Getting Pacific Russia Right

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This article is one of a three-part series on Russia as a Pacific power.

The Russian pivot to Asia has received much attention in the wake of Moscow's hosting of the APEC summit in Vladivostok earlier this month.  

This is good news for the northern giant, and foreign policy analysts are rightly sensing a geopolitical opportunity in the region. But there is also a lot of misguided thinking on Russia.

Getting Pacific Russia right this century may be one of the most undervalued strategic imperatives in the Asian Century. Put simply, Russia is a massive swing state in Asia, either a ferocious enemy or a formidable ally.

Hence, we had better understand that fascinating country, which is too often explained in two-dimensional caricatures, gross generalizations and truly worn-out Churchill quotes.

The worst sin of omission regional analysts commit is to ignore modern and even very recent history, perhaps because it doesn’t gel well with the end-of-Cold War hubris about (*sound of ceremonial trumpets*) the West prevailing in a struggle of good vs. evil.

The worst intellectual shortcut to avoid in trying to understand Russia’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific is a lack of historical knowledge surrounding its regional role.

The Australian’s diplomatic correspondent, for example, called “a bit of a fib” the idea that Russia has long been an intrinsic part of the Asia-Pacific. Adam Gartrell went on to write, “it has until recently had relatively little to do with the region.” This, in fact, is untrue.

The assumption that Russia was never an Asian power is just plain wrong. The policy implication that it is an irrelevant player in the Asia-Pacific is flawed and short-sighted.

Let’s start with the older history. If we are to base policy on only one historical fact, let it be this: Russia always was an Asian power. Indeed, Russia, as a political and geographic entity, was characterized for most of its early, colonial history by a push to the east. Russians first beat back the Mongols, then colonized large swathes of the Asian continent for fur, land and power, in a kind of American rush for the west in reverse.

Without its Asian landmass and Pacific coast, Russia is just a landlocked Muscovy. With its immense land, resources, and military force, Russia is a serious power in Asia.

Once upon a time, the Russian navy ruled the waves in parts of the Pacific, owned Alaska and according to an apocryphal but perhaps revealing urban legend, forced the nascent Commonwealth of Australia to build its capital inland and far away from the reach of the Russian navy’s canons.

Very well, some might say, but that is history. Russia is no longer relevant in Asia.

We learn, in high school history classes, that Russia ceased to be a relevant Asian power when it was knocked out of the ring by Imperial Japan in 1904. That was certainly a major geopolitical shock, and the first time a major European power was beaten by an Asian one. But the story does not end there. Even after the sale of Russian Alaska, the largest country on earth remained one of the most important strategic players in Asia.

As recent historical material suggests, not only was the Soviet Union a pivotal power in defeating Nazi Germany in the Second World War in Europe, but its resistance to Japan in 1939 helped shape the future course of the war in the Pacific.

Very well, some might say, but that is history. Russia is no longer relevant in Asia.

Does anyone still remember the late 1970s and early 1980s?

I can’t claim to have had the pleasure of being alive to know, yet, but very few today seem to appreciate the then-perceived fearsomeness of Soviet power in the Pacific.

The USSR was feared until the late 1980s for its bold force projection into the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Some, such as Richard Herr, openly worried that the U.S. and Australian policy of “strategic denial” vis-à-vis the USSR in the South Pacific had failed, and that regional governments had better acquaint themselves with this new reality.

Canberra and Washington even worried that, in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the Naval Communications “North West Cape” facility would be a tempting first target – either by a nuclear strike or Special Forces raid – to prevent an American retaliation from the nuclear submarines which the base commanded. In fact, the Soviets, according to one among their ranks, carried out some of their training in the deserts of Kazakhstan to mimic the arid conditions of the Australian desert in the event of a future raid.

So, yes, Russia has a long and varied history as a serious strategic player in Asia. It is only recently that it has been completely written off by the end of the Cold War and its attendant beliefs in the end of geopolitics.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, some may still maintain that the USSR belongs to the dustbin of history, and that Russia is no longer relevant in Asia.

Since the 1990s, many have perceived Russia as a feeble giant with clay feet. This soundly demonstrates the current dismissive consensus around Russia’s role in Asia. This default position made sense when Russia was indeed riddled by chronic internal ills, violent conflicts, economic misery, separatism, a public health collapse, and the largest peace-time depopulation in recorded history. But it no longer makes sense today.

If there is one assumption which should now belong to the past, it is the sticky idea we have of Russia as a fallen superpower and an impotent Leviathan. But Russia is now back in town. And it intends to show that it means business. This was the general message which Moscow tried to send from Vladivostok last week, the shining seat of the 2012 APEC summit. There are significant opportunities and risks on the horizon.

Daryl Morini is Deputy Editor of e-International Relations.

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