Since returning to power as Russia’s president three months ago, Vladimir Putin has lived up to his well-honed reputation as the hard, no-nonsense man of East European politics by bullying his way into the internal affairs of neighbors with fearless abandon.
He has served notice that Moscow will challenge the West’s naval dominance of the world’s oceans, moving to shore-up his country’s defenses from the Arctic Circle and its Western flank to its troubled southern borders, breakaway republics and even the South Pacific.
His ubiquitous presence on the diplomatic landscape has been most notable in Syria and Afghanistan where NATO is withdrawing its troops. There has been a pre-emptive strike on Finland where Moscow has launched a campaign of intimidation designed to ensure Helsinki abstains from joining NATO.
Putin has even struck down a punk rock band, the recalcitrant Pussy Riot.
The results are that many countries are feeling an intense Russian heat — torn between maintaining its traditional alliances with Western allies, or, marching forward in step with a revitalized cash-carrying friend, Russia.
Among them are the far-flung island-states in the South Pacific. This collection of nations in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) offering access to ports, resource rich seas and a bloc of 16 votes within the United Nations has caught Moscow’s attention.
The former superpower is turning to financially vulnerable South Pacific nations to promote its expansionist foreign policy agenda. Importantly, by extending its sphere of influence to the Pacific it can leverage support for the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
About 10,000 Russian soldiers are deployed in the two provinces which represent about 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory.
The U.S. and Europe are opposed to recognition and have China on their side.