Now It's Putin Ready To Pivot To Asia

Despite Kremlin denials, Western sanctions are hitting Russia hard, and prompting its president to look elsewhere for new alliances and opportunities.

Putin during at the Vladivostok summit in September, between the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea .
Putin during at the Vladivostok summit in September, between the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea .
Benjamin Quénelle


VLADIVOSTOK — Donald Trump, Moon Jae-In, and now ... Vladimir Putin? After his summits with the American and South Korean presidents, North Korea's Kim Jong-un is finally preparing to meet his Kremlin counterpart. A new stage of the detente at play in the Korean peninsula, this event would also be, for Moscow, yet another way to showcase its "shift to the east."

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, four years of tensions with the West have pushed Russia to strengthen its ties with Asia. Between politics and economics, Putin stacks up trips and deal signings, in particular with Beijing and New Delhi. Appearing alongside the Chinese and Indian leaders, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, the Russian president always seemed on the best of terms. He's also trying to get closer to Tokyo and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

There is, however, one picture still missing in the album: Vladimir Putin has never shaken hands with North Korea's Kim Jong-un. The Kremlin regularly announces an imminent meeting. In June, he hailed the Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Trump with a certain jealousy.

Putin hasn't lost hope and, once again, has been making discreet invitations.

A few days later, at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Moscow, Vladimir Putin found a place in his dressing room at the Luzhniki Stadium for the president of the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly, a certain Kim Yong-nam. That day, the emissary was received under the auspices of the Kremlin for an official invitation: It was agreed then that three months later, Kim Jong-un would be welcomed as a guest of honor at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

For the past four years, the vibrant capital of the Russian Far East and Moscow's window on Asia has been hosting this forum, launched by the Kremlin in the midst of its crisis with the West, and often described as the "Davos of the East." This year, a few men from Pyongyang were spotted in the corridors, recognizable by their black uniforms and their extreme silence. But there was no Kim Jong-un. The North Korean leader sent his apologies instead: too busy, his schedule didn't allow him to come. Since then, Putin hasn't lost hope and, once again, has been making discreet invitations.

Staying the course?

Beyond a hypothetical breakthrough on that front, what the Russian head of state wants above all is to showcase his role as a leader who speaks to everyone — in Asia as well as in Syria — and thus prove the effectiveness of his Eastern pivot. Behind the scenes of the Vladivostok forum, Russian and Chinese players and observers insisted on the irreversibility of this turning point.

"There will be no turning back," warns Fyodor Lukyanov, a geopolitical expert close to the Kremlin. "Europe and the United States show no sign of relaxing their sanctions against Moscow, which has, therefore, put an end to its obsession with the West. The rapprochement with Asia has certainly not had much success yet. But the momentum is picking up."

A view from Vladovostok — Photo: Russki-Brucke

Xiang Lanxin, director of the Centre of One Belt and One Road Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, says something similar. "Cornered by Western sanctions that, despite official statements, are hurting it, Russia has little choice. Western think tanks believe that its rapprochement with China is temporary. They are mistaken: If this new cold war with the West continues, Moscow will build a multipolar system with Beijing."

In Vladivostok, some among the strongest defenders of this new Russia-Asia axis didn't hesitate to get tangled up in almost fanatical impulses, even going as far as to call on the forum's hotels to ban the purchase of French soap and Polish shampoo ... "The east wind brings the full vitality of spring," Xi Jinping said at the forum, smiling, determined, and showing his complicity with Vladimir Putin by sharing pancakes and glasses of vodka. China is already the first foreign investor in the Kremlin's major project: the development of the vast regions of the Russian Far East, long forgotten by Moscow. Mines, hydrocarbons, forests and empty spaces are attracting Chinese investors.

Japanese investment

This Moscow-Beijing rapprochement is orchestrated from the top-down despite old mistrust among Russian businessmen who, in private, explain that they culturally prefer to negotiate in the West. "We are Europeans who are forced to make long business trips to Asia," says one of them, ironically.

Major state agreements have been signed, notably for Gazprom's gas supply to the Chinese economy. And private contracts are beginning to take over. The heavyweights of the new economy of both countries have just created a new Internet joint venture: Chinese online giant Alibaba has joined forces with MegaFon and, Russian leaders in telecoms and the internet.

This Moscow-Beijing rapprochement is orchestrated from the top-down.

This pivot to Asia has other limitations too, especially as far as the rapprochement between Moscow and Tokyo is concerned. In recent years, Putin and Abe have met 22 times, always promising cooperation. But, in the absence of a real boom in Japanese investment in Russia, Moscow's frustrations are becoming palpable. "The Japanese talk a lot but do little!" says a source close to the Kremlin.

Critics say Tokyo lacks the courage to settle the dispute inherited from World War II over the Kuril Islands archipelago, taken by the Red Army and claimed by Japan. Because of this old dispute, a historical aberration, the two countries have not signed a peace treaty since 1945. A cloud, indeed, on the horizon for Moscow's much desired pivot.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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