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