Russia Can Pivot to the Pacific, Too
How will President Putin respond to Russia’s greatest geopolitical challenge rising in the East?
- Vladivostok is within 60 to 90 minutes flying time of several key capitals: Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei are within easy reach.
- Anyone who has ever spent enough time in Vladivostok gets to understand the essence of openness, dynamism and competition.
- Moscow wants to retain its strategic independence and not to wind up as a junior partner to either Washington or Beijing.
- Russia's hosting of the APEC summit has suddenly reminded quite a few people in the region that Russia has two-thirds of its territory in Asia.
If Peter the Great — who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725 and is known as one of the country’s greatest modernizers — were alive today, he would almost certainly leave behind the old Russian capital, Moscow, to establish himself somewhere else.
He would not repeat the choice he made 300 years ago, when he opted to head north to the Baltic shore and set up the splendid city of St. Petersburg. Rather, Peter would take a big leap eastward, toward the Pacific coast.
This is, after all, where much of the action is. The Pacific has turned into the epicenter of the global economy. This is where most of the great powers of the 21st century converge — led by the two superpowers, the United States and China.
This is also where Russia is at its most vulnerable. Out there, the country is endowed with a huge territory and access to vast resources and potentially immeasurable wealth. But it also has to contend with a dwindling population, dilapidated infrastructure and overall decrepit economy, which make realizing those material riches much harder.
If Peter the Great were alive today, he would not have to re-found a new capital on the Pacific. He would simply pack up and move his court and his administration to an already-built city, Vladivostok.
The city has been around for over a century and a half, since its founding in 1860 as an outpost for the Russian military. Like “St. Pete” up north, “Vlad” out east is a port city. Tantalizingly, it is within 60 to 90 minutes flying time of several key capitals: Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. And places like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei are also within easy reach.
Out there in Russia’s Far East, even the United States is a neighbor, if across a long stretch of water. Indeed, San Francisco — and its proximity to Silicon Valley — has long served as a model for how things could turn out in Vladivostok.
Anyone who has ever spent enough time in Vladivostok understands the essence of openness, dynamism and competition. These are exactly the qualities Russia will need to acquire if it is to succeed in the century that has just started.
President Vladimir Putin, of course, is no Peter. He is not about to make Vladivostok Russia’s new capital. Instead, he is building a New Moscow right next to the existing one, adding a huge chunk of countryside to the city to accommodate new government offices. As if that were what Russia needed in order to modernize.
To his credit, Putin insisted that the 2012 APEC summit, which Russia is hosting this weekend (September 8/9, 2012), be held in Vladivostok — not in St. Petersburg or (Old) Moscow.
Putin is also making sure, lest the Chinese laugh at him, that the infrastructure that had to be constructed — from the conference facilities on Russky Island, to the bridge connecting the island to the mainland to the sewage system in Vladivostok itself — are completed in time.
Of course, the real test for Putin will not be the APEC summit itself, but rather what follows it. What will be Putin’s strategic response to the greatest geopolitical challenge rising in the east?
In theory, Russia is extremely well-positioned. Its underdeveloped but resource-rich Far Eastern territory physically abuts the world’s most economically dynamic region. What could possibly go wrong with such a synergetic set-up?
At the core of that debate ought to be not just the “usual” categories of Russian thinking (i.e., oil and gas). Resource exploitation is the old game. It may be a solid way to finance Russia’s bridge into the future, but it is no panacea or cure-all, as Russian leaders have long believed.
The concerns Russia ought to be having regarding its pivot to the East are questions such as:
What is the best model for Russia’s development — and what roles will the state, businesses and citizens play in that development?
How should the Far East and Siberia be integrated into a single market with the rest of the country?
Similarly, how should Russia integrate itself — through its Pacific seaboard — with the rest of Asia-Pacific region?
In foreign policy terms, how will Russia navigate between the two major powers in the Pacific, the United States and China?
Moscow wants to retain its strategic independence and not to wind up as a junior partner to either Washington or Beijing. But it has not yet learned to sail in the Pacific’s ever more turbulent waters.
Will the Kremlin appreciate the U.S. role as a balancer in the region? Will it find a formula that would guarantee relations with China are always kept on an even keel?
Will it find the will and the courage to transform relations with Tokyo and turn Japan into a partner, as it has done with Germany, another World War II-era foe?
Russia’s hosting of the APEC summit has suddenly reminded quite a few people in the region that Russia has two-thirds of its territory in Asia, as well as a very long coastline along the North Pacific. This is a useful reminder.
Hillary Clinton’s famous Asian pivot article in Foreign Policy last November mentioned a wide range of countries, but it omitted Russia. Discussions of U.S.-China strategy are now routinely held in Washington and elsewhere without any reference to China’s northern neighbor.
President Obama will be absent from the APEC summit, supposedly owing to the pressures of his re-election campaign. In Russia, it is believed that Putin paid him back in kind by skipping the G8 summit at Camp David last May (a decision made just days after it was announced Obama would be a no-show in Vladivostok).
This is an indication of just how much Russia has become discounted internationally in the two decades following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Should Moscow’s pivot to the Pacific be more than a transient phenomenon, the regional balance — and the U.S. and various other countries’ calculus — will need to change.
Nevertheless, there are signs that Moscow might forget about Vladivostok immediately after the APEC jamboree is over. The temptation is simply to move on to the next big thing: the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the World Cup in 2018, or indeed the construction of New Moscow.
Yet, when assessing potential future strategies and outcomes, nothing concentrates minds in Moscow as much as the thought of Russia becoming a raw materials appendage to China. That specter rattles Russian national pride to no end — and it raises very direct concerns about national security.
For Russia to discover its path to a more balanced and prosperous future, Vladivostok need not become Russia’s new formal capital. However, in an increasingly complex global environment, it could serve the purpose of helping Russia modernize itself.
Vladivostok, founded as a frontier city in the age of imperial expansion (its name literally means “rule the east”), can now become Russia’s premier point of contact with the vast Pacific neighborhood, a region where Russia has yet to settle in.
For that to happen, much has to change. In its appearance, the composition of its population, and in its population’s mentality, the Vladivostok of today is East European. Only its harbor connects it with Asia.
The stakes are large. What makes Russia special strategically is the expanses and riches of Siberia and the wide access it has to the Pacific. The Russia of today has exploited those advantages rather poorly, if at all. But it must to find a pathway to a dynamic future. It must pivot from West to East.
In contrast, if things continue as they are, then Russia essentially ends at the Urals. And that would make it nothing more than a second Ukraine, just another part of Europe’s farther borderland area.