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.
A handful of PIF countries recognize Taiwan and while Beijing and Taipei have agreed to end a bidding war over their own recognition issues, it should be remembered their history of attempting to outbid each other in checkbook diplomacy set the precedent for current diplomatic plays.
Russia holds great influence over the two Georgian enclaves and their continued independence extends Moscow’s political and military might in the region. Writing a check to encourage a poor Pacific nation to recognize these faraway places is therefore seen by the Kremlin as a wise investment.
For tiny Nauru, establishing diplomatic relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia earned them a U.S. $50 million assistance package in 2009 with additional help for a local airline, port construction and healthcare. In return, effectively, a nation of about 9,300 people granted sovereign recognition to the separatist provinces. Very few, if any, countries give aid altruistically.
The money also flowed to Tuvalu from 2011, including shipments of fresh water, when the world’s third least populated nation also formally recognized Russia’s troubled neighbors. In fact, Tuvalu Prime Minister Willy Telavi only established diplomatic links with Russia at the U.N., only two days after agreeing to a recognition pact with the separatist territories.
Whether that recognition still stands has been subjected to a separate heated debate.
Also last year, Russia’s foreign minister visited Pacific Island leaders for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Diplomats and long-term observers believe this type of influence buying will only escalate as Putin’s third term as President gets underway in earnest.
He previously served two terms from 2000 to 2008 when the Russian constitution, which mandates fixed presidential terms, forced him to stand aside and take on the lesser role of Prime Minister while Dmitry Medvedev filled his shoes.
In his absence – some say he never really left – Russia endured a significant economic slowdown following the Global Financial Crisis. Oil and gas prices peaked and are now contributing much less to the Kremlin’s coffers.
In short, Putin has inherited back a nation far less sure of itself, fiscally and diplomatically, than the one he handed over more than four years ago when the world economy was just beginning its breath taking descent.
Moscow’s interference in the foreign policy of other countries could be seen as a response to Washington, which is determined to construct a missile defense system along Russia’s border in Eastern Europe and has also announced it is rebalancing its force towards the Asia-Pacific.
And Russia’s Pacific push comes after the U.S. reportedly thwarted its bid to win over more countries in Latin America in addition to Nicaragua and Venezuela. Venezuela reportedly received U.S. $2.0 billion worth of investments and improved military ties after recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But it doesn’t always go Moscow’s way. At the recent PIF summit in the Cook Islands, Russia – a country that holds no status within the grouping – tried to get itself invited to the annual meet of leaders.
Sources at the PIF summit said Moscow had been in touch at the last minute through their foreign ministry and had demanded the invitation.
They said the Russians would have been welcomed but they would have been lumped under the “attending” category alongside Taiwan and Cuba while the likes of the United States, the United Kingdom and even China enjoyed full status as “dialogue partners”.
“They didn’t like that and they didn’t come,” one PIF source told The Diplomat.
Although genuine aid dollars are welcome, unsustainable Russian-sponsored packages can impact on governance and stability. South Pacific countries know they are pawns in a larger game and have shown a willingness to switch support behind the highest bidder in order to extract maximum dollars.
Vanuatu did this throughout 2011, with the country’s leadership changing five times and the government either flipping for or against recognition with each change.
And increasingly these small Russian satellites are acting on their own by offering their own gifts. Georgia gave Fiji 200 computers in an attempt to counter Russian generosity. That said Abkhazia says it expects more declarations of support from the Pacific.
Among smaller members of the Pacific, checkbook diplomacy corrupts good governance and democracy where it has barely had a chance to gain traction by auctioning off sovereign U.N. votes — and a nation’s foreign policy — to the highest bidder.
The arrival of Russia in recent years with few interests beyond securing a vote for an obscure cause of little relevance to South Pacific countries is also divisive and thwarts the PIF’s ability to act as a unified voice for its own interests on major issues such as climate change or trans-national crime.
But if South Pacific countries continue to sell their moral high ground on issues of little relevance they might find trouble with their traditional allies – like the U.S., Europe and in some respects China — and that the initial clout they shared at a regional level would be somewhat diminished.