Talha Mansoor comments on the
limitations faced by the Russian leader
Vladimir Putin’s Ambitions deeply feel the pinch of international pressure in addition to the tough conflict he faces in Ukraine. The latest sign of his discomfiture is the cold-shouldering in respect of his pivot of Asia policy that he experienced. When he met Chinese and Indian leaders at a recent conference. Both China and India have distanced themselves from Putin due to the growing chances of Western backlash. Putin’s ambitions earlier expressed his resolve about decoupling the Russian economy from European states that have imposed hefty sanctions on Russia.
The same European nations have been trying to disentangle. Their energy policies from Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine in February instead bolster ties with Asia. Russia’s newly-updated naval doctrine also aims to boost its military presence in the East. It is hidden from no one that the Russian economy has been badly hit by international sanctions imposed earlier this year, even though the government reckons it will only contract by 3% in 2022. Some analysts point out that it is both a geopolitical necessity and a genuine desire to position Russia as a source of energy, resources, defense equipment, and, in some cases, nuclear technologies for the growing Asian economies.
They have suggested that Putin’s latest pivot will be just as unsuccessful as his earlier tilt toward Asia. That was launched in 2012, dubbed Moscow’s “Turn to the East” policy. They mention that this attempt is also going to fail as Russia does not have a lot to offer the region strategically or economically. The Indian position that Moscow needs to move onto a path of peace was stated after the Indian PM met with Putin in Uzbekistan while Putin publicly acknowledged that Chinese President Xi Jinping had questions and concerns about the war. Observers mention that Moscow has made itself an even more junior partner of Beijing since its invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s Ambitions Frustrated
Even earlier Putin’s ambitions Asia pivot has boasted few achievements since 2012. Bilateral trade with Japan peaked at $33.2 billion in 2013 but dwindled to just $20.8 billion in 2021. With South Korea, it rose to $27.3 billion last year, yet Russia accounts for just a little over 2% of South Korea’s total trade. And both Western-leaning Asian states have aggressively committed to Western sanctions, denting their trade with Russia this year. Singapore imposed its own unilateral sanctions on Russia because of the Ukraine invasion, the only Southeast Asian country to do so.
Under the first pivot, ASEAN upgraded its ties with Russia to a strategic partnership in 2018, four years after Russia annexed Crimea, part of Ukraine. Yet ASEAN-Russia trade grew to only around $20 billion in 2021 — up from $18.2 billion in 2012. That pales in comparison to ASEAN’s trade with China at $878 billion and the US at $441.7 billion last year. ASEAN’s trade with Taiwan is worth almost four times as much as with Russia.
It is becoming increasingly clear that while most Southeast Asian countries have tried to remain neutral over the Ukraine war, even Russia’s traditional friends have become standoffish. Since 1990, Russia has been the main provider of military equipment to the region. But in August, the Philippines canceled a contract to purchase 16 Russian military helicopters, purportedly over US pressure.
Vietnam — which bought four-fifths of its military equipment from Russia between 1995 and 2021 is concerned it could fall foul of America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which threatens sanctions against any country buying weapons from Russia. However, major Asian importers of Russian military goods were already turning away before the Ukraine war. Russian arms exports to India and Vietnam fell by 47% and 71%, respectively, between the 2012-16 and 2017-21 periods.
However, one area where Russia could win some friends is in energy cooperation as many Asian countries are debating whether to pursue nuclear-power generation, at the same time as an investment in their renewable energy sectors is booming. In this context, Indonesia’s government said it was mulling a Russian offer to develop a nuclear power plant.
The same month, NovaWind — a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Rosatom — signed a deal with Vietnam to develop a 128MW wind farm, its first overseas project. Asian imports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) have increased since the Ukraine war began. Japan’s imports grew by 211% in August, compared to the same month last year, for instance. The government of Indonesia, not a usual importer of Russian gas, said this week it is considering imports to offset soaring energy costs.
Despite such developments, analysts doubt whether this is a long-term strategy for Russia since many Asian countries have only increased their imports of Russia’s gas because of its historically-low price due to Western sanctions. Those rates might not remain so low for long, though. Because of spiraling inflation, fears of food insecurity, and higher costs of living, Asian governments are anxious for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war.