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Why Russian Policy is Failing in Asia

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | April 1997

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Russia historically has been a major power in Asia. Yet increasingly it is being marginalized in Asian security issues, especially by the United States. For example, the new U.S. peace program for Korea omits any Russian participation. Thus Russia faces the threat of a steady erosion of its Asiatic position. The reasons for this process have much to do with the Russian state's structural incapacity for conducting a coherent Asian strategy, and the manifestations of this incapacity threaten to continue the decline of Russia's position in Asia.

The Yeltsin administration has not succeeded in creating a coherent policy process that is coordinated by regular and legalized policymaking institutions. Nor does it speak with one voice. President Boris Yeltsin has consistently championed a system of government that has disorganized institutions, prevented coherence in policymaking, deliberately fostered institutional discord among his officials, and undermined prospects for effective democratic control of the armed forces. He has also allowed a process whereby private sectors, interest groups, and factions have been able to take over state assets or policy processes and make policy on their own and exclusively for their own interests, without any consideration of Russian interests.

Due to these processes of "deinstitutionalization" and privatization of the state, Russia's Asian policies are essentially the subject of a free-for-all where rival factions contend among each other for preference and access. It is not surprising that in such an environment it proved impossible to arrive at normalization with Japan in 1992, since the armed forces and conservative forces could and did successfully coalesce and publicly oppose the government's policy with impunity. Thus the inability of the state to overcome the devolution of power to regional interest groups who can unite with the armed forces perpetuates an anti-Western orientation in Russian politics, preserves the economic poverty of the Far East, and leads to a joint anti-Western strategy with China. This anti-Western strategy also perpetuates the state's structural weaknesses.

These weaknesses not only undermine the center's ability to govern, formulate, and implement policy, they also erode the foundations of control over regional governments. While central governmental policy is adamantly pro-Chinese, in the Russian Far East the government has fallen into the hands of a regional gang--not too strong a word--that successfully conducts a loud and xenophobic anti-China policy against Moscow's express wishes. The erosion of control over obstreperous provinces is a sign both of weak central authority and of a failure to secure the economic revival of these areas. Central policy discriminates against Russia's Asian provinces, but no less telling is the failure to maximize these provinces' potential for joining the booming Asia-Pacific economy. As Asian economies grow, these regions could be pushed into their sphere of economic influence because Moscow has shown it cannot aid or govern them. This process could, in turn, trigger a wholesale retrenchment of effective (as opposed to nominal) Russian power in Asia where large swathes of Russian territory come under the effective economic, if not political, control of states like China.

At the same time, Russia's arms producers are carrying out their own policy of selling arms and technology to China and presumably elsewhere. Arms sellers are desperate to sell because Russia's armed forces cannot buy their production and would go under without arms sales. They constitute a formidable lobby, enjoying broad governmental support and access to foreign currency. Thus they and other individuals with access either to technology or weapons have been able to sell either weapons or technologies abroad on their own and force the state to make peace with these faits accomplis. They are selling weapons to China, South Korea, India, Malaysia, and anyone else who would buy them. Arms sellers are also pushing these sales regardless of the fact that large sectors of the military view China as Russia's main military rival, or that the other recipients of these weapons could easily become China's enemies, forcing Russia into a choice between them.

The ability of arms sellers to get their way also has allowed China to get its way in the military aspects of the relationship with Russia, turning Russia into the demandeur who needs China more than China needs it, and must therefore pay China for its support. Thus the danger in Russia's growing friendship with China, which is approaching the nature of an alliance and where that word has already figured in public and military discussions of the relationship, is that the entente with China becomes a way for China to exploit Russia for its benefit. Russia would then be the ultimate loser in this relationship, not the beneficiary of an enhanced strategic potential. Russia and China are following an openly anti-American course of action and policy; they agree on all main issues in Asia (as Russian diplomats tell us); and Moscow supports Beijing in Southeast Asia. Accordingly, the failure to devise a coherent policy process and state control threatens Russia with being reduced to following China's strategic interests to the detriment of its own national interests. But since Russia is alienating Japan and South Korea by its wayward economic policies and strange security policies, like trying to cozy up to both Pyongyang and Seoul, it lacks any alternative source of political support or capital in Asia.

In this connection, it is obvious that the Russian Federation lacks any clear concept of international economic policy to develop its own Asian provinces, or the means to implement one. Thus those regions are falling into crisis and are kept in a state of colonial dependence on Moscow while external possibilities for support are minimized. This policy can onlybreed more local political disaffection and further undermine Moscow's ability to bring those areas into a modern economy integrated with the heartland of Russia.

Finally, Russia's military strategy for the area has also failed to come to terms with reality. Military planners are demanding forces far in excess of Russia's capabilities and are still wedded to anti-American and anti-Japanese scenarios that fall too quickly into either oceanic or global conventional and nuclear war scenarios. Yet at the same time as they advocate such postures and look warily at China, they cannot modernize their forces, both for financial reasons and because China would look askance. The failure to harmonize interests or goals with means leads to the continuing degradation of all of Russia's Asian military forces. Russia cannot afford either to maintain or withdraw its current Asian based forces. And in the absence of a coherent economic policy, the weakening of military power means that Russia is losing its ability to influence regional economic, political, and military trends in Asia.

It may not be wise on our part to marginalize Russia as an Asian state, but it must be admitted that Russia is doing it to herself and that the causes are largely internal. Only Moscow can overcome this debilitating process, but there are few signs that this is happening or will happen, and few signs that we are sensitive to the tremendous implications of collapsing Russian power in Asia.


Russia was busy in Asia throughout 1996. In April 1996 President Boris Yeltsin concluded a highly successful summit with China. Earlier in 1996 Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov held important talks with the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers, and former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev held important talks with Japan's Minister of Defense immediately after the summit in Beijing. These meetings indicate that Russia still attaches great importance to its position in Asia.

Nevertheless, that position is in serious danger of erosion, and Russia is already being marginalized on major Asian security issues. This situation is closely related to trends in Russian domestic and foreign policy which, if unchecked, could further undermine Russia's standing in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia's weakness is most evident on the Korean peninsula. When U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam announced a new four-power plan to initiate negotiations for a Korean peace treaty in April 1996, they conspicuously omitted Russia from their plan. Since then, Seoul and Washington have likewise ignored Moscow's vigorous protests.1 Nor have Japan, China, and North Korea publicly supported Russia. Indeed, North Korea's ambassador to Russia said his government saw no need for Russian participation in peace talks. Instead, Pyongyang preferred talking only to Washington.2 This rebuff came despite Russia's recent initiative to upgrade its ties with North Korea and to demonstrate a more even-handed approach to Korean issues.3 But Russia's failed initiatives toward Pyongyang led to Seoul's open unhappiness with Russian policy.4 Thus, while it is unclear what Russia has gained in Pyongyang, Moscow has jeopardized its sizable and growing economic relationship with South Korea.

Earlier in 1994, Russian diplomats conceded that the resolution of North Korea's nuclear gambit highlighted Russia's "passivity" in the North Korean-U.S. talks and in Korean affairs in general.5 Experts and diplomats share the general perception of Russia's passivity, and this perception reflects their common fear that Russia is increasingly marginal to Asia and that Russia's economic-political crisis could have dangerous implications.6

Though this notion of Russia's marginality to Asia offends Moscow, it illuminates Russia's absence from Asia's economic-political transformation. As other states create trade blocs and deeply integrated linkages, Russia stands relatively aloof or is still excluded from them.7 Only recently has Russia joined the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and applied to join the Asia-Pacific EconomicCooperation (APEC) . But those steps cannot compensate for missing Asia's economic revolution. In 1994, Russia's Asian trade was only 1 percent of Asia's international trade, and the volume of Sino-Russian trade fell 30 percent.8 While the latter figure has rebounded, compared to its potential, Russia still plays only a minor role in Asia. For example, Russia was not invited to the 1996 Euro-Asian economic summit in Bangkok, a sure sign of the real state of affairs.9

Continuing aloofness from Asia excludes Russia from Asian and global roles commensurate with its size and potential. The main explanation for Russia's marginalization lies in the domestic basis for Russian policymaking. For Russia to succeed in Asia, it must develop long-term, coherent, and coordinated policies to maximize its regional, political, and economic presence. Russia also must move beyond exporting raw materials and military goods in order to play a greater part in Asia's increasingly competitive civilian high-tech production.

Secure, stable polities and stable economies in Asia are linked. These two factors are crucial in enhancing a state's standing and competitiveness. Many attribute Asian economic success to strong states whose policies provide a stable framework for growth and believe this is the most advantageous way for states to develop.10 China, too, offers Russia the ideological attraction of a reformed economy combined with a seemingly strong state and an anti-Western security policy.11 This combination particularly appeals to nationalists and supporters of the strong state in Russian policy since this model would seem to show the possibilities for success of their policy at home.

To become a major regional economic power, Russia must first develop a coherent state and policy process--establishing a legitimate, law-abiding, hopefully democratic, and, most of all, stable state with relatively predictable policies.12 Otherwise, Russia's relative economic backwardness will increase, and its fading military power will decline further, making it an unattractive partner for Asian states. Russia's failure to subdue Chechnya and its general military deterioration shows the fate of military establishments that lose their economic-political foundations.

Geopolitics offers another compelling reason for Russia to reorganize itself for serious competition in Asia. The future directions of China's and North Korea's policies are so unpredictable that states who cannot keep pace with their economic-political transformation, and the strategic consequences thereof, risk exclusion from Asia's security agenda. They also risk becoming the object of other states' policies in Northeast Asia. In that case Russia, for example, would be obliged to accept decisions affecting its vital interests with little or no participation in the process of making those decisions. The U.S.- ROK initiative drives this point home.

Failure to keep up with the economic and strategic transformations of both Korean states, Japan, and China could lead to a major disaster for Russia. This danger first emerged in 1994 when the United States negotiated unilaterally with North Korea about nuclear proliferation. U.S. treaty partners supported its position only with great difficulty. In effect, every interested party sought to promote its own policy. But Russia failed spectacularly to get anything out of this process, thereby displaying its weakness and isolation. Russia acted alone to the extent that Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev denied that Pyongyang had a usable atomic device, a stance that logically meant there was no crisis to worry about.13

This episode revealed many things about current trends in Asia, including the erosion of the cold war system, the weakening of the U.S.-built bilateral treaty and security structure, and the lack of a new system for the region. It also underscored the nature of the emerging Asian security system. Not only is North Korea unstable, the old Asian security system that checked it is buckling and cannot really check anyone else. As the Taiwan-China crisis of March-April 1996 also made clear, only the United States was ready, willing, or able to stand up to China's threats to Taiwan. Yet discussions over a new Asian security system remain tentative and exploratory. Inasmuch as Washington admittedly finds it difficult to define how it could play a leading role in Asia and devise meaningful concepts for multilateral security mechanisms, the risks for Russia are still greater.14 For Russia, which lacks a coherent state or strategy for Asia, and is plagued by its own deep weaknesses, the risks of being economically isolated and aloof from any functioning Asian security system in a disorganized Asian state system are immense. In this regard, Russia's marginality to the Korean peace process risks more exclusion--or worse.

Russia's failure in Asia derives from its failures in institutional stabilization and economic development. Until these situations change, Russia's role will continue to diminish. For this reason, before sorting out its overall East Asian strategy and specific bilateral policies, Russia must stabilize its policy process to produce a true strategy and coherent policies. Accordingly, the following analysis focuses on the institutional dimension of Russian policy and the implications of Russia's militarization of thinking and policy for Russian security in East Asia.

Unfortunately, few U.S. observers understand how Russia's underdeveloped state structure fosters a cycle of growing Russo-U.S. tensions and furthers Russian marginalization in Asia. For example, Russia's weakness consistently has led U.S. policymakers to exclude or minimize Russia's role in Asia generally, and specifically from the Korean denuclearization and peace processes. These actions mean disregarding major Russian security interests. As Washington implements its policy, it creates friction with Moscow. Meanwhile, diplomats and journalists inMoscow reported that, Washington has failed to understand that it cannot push Russia on such a broad front all at once--Iran, NATO, I.M.F. compliance and START II [ it is noteworthy that this author omits Korea, itself a sign of Russia's marginality to Asia in American eyes-SB] --because bureaucratically the Kremlin does not have the qualified people to manage so many issues, so the system is easily gridlocked, and because politically the system cannot swallow so much at once.15

State incapacity or underdevelopment directly marginalizes Russia, showing the risks of failing to develop an effective state. These risks are also to be found in Russia's attempts to escape from this condition. For instance, U.S. attempts to marginalize Russia led Moscow to embrace an openly anti-American rapprochement with China, to support Chinese claims in Southeast Asia, and to proclaim a new national security doctrine where close ties to China precede partnership with the United States.16 Even more recently, officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proclaimed that they had virtually identical views with China on all aspects of Asian security issues. Indeed, Russian presidential advisor Andranik Migranyan told a Washington conference that it was better for Russia to be Beijing's rather than Washington's junior brother.17 This posture would negate any hope of Russia's continuing partnership with Washington on Asian security issues or its ability to pursue its own national interests without Chinese encumbrances. Russia remains isolated or dependent on either China or the United States, hence its strategic position in Asia continues to be a tenuous one that is exacerbated by the intimate connection that exists between Russia's domestic crises and its strategy/ies in Asia.


Yeltsin has not used the 5 years of his first term successfully or sagely insofar as defining a stable role for Russia in Asia is concerned. Instead, his own policies have made a bad situation worse. He has deliberately cultivated a style that fragments political authority and all but precludes the formulation of coherent policy. As a result, too much of Asiapolicy (if not policy in general) is in the hands of sectoral or factional lobbies who invoke the precepts of "old thinking" to pursue private gain, e.g., unrestricted arms sales with no thought for Russian interests, or the mindless pursuit of chauvinistic aims even where they antagonize key actors like Japan. As a result, in Northeast Asia the United States takes no heed of Russian interests. South Korea is losing interest in Russia and does not take it as seriously as in the past. North Korea, too, remains dubious about Moscow. Japan, for its part, is frozen in a wary stance toward Russia and remains unwilling to lead the Asian economy into massive involvement in the Russian Far East. Due to these factors, Russia is slouching toward an excessive dependence on Chinese policies and leadership in areas where Beijing could easily provoke serious crises that Russia would then be unable to avoid. Russia could, for example, end up involved in areas such as the Spratly Islands or Taiwan where vital Russian interests are not engaged. Not only is policymaking crippled and Russia's regional standing impaired, the instruments of policy, too, are not being improved. Despite massive economic change, Asiatic Russia remains more backward than it should be and less connected to world or Asian trade than it could be. Consequently, conventional and nuclear force modernization is impossible for reasons of fiscal stringency and because Russia is excessively wedded to China. Conventional force modernization has also stagnated due to bad policy regarding the defense industry and the failure to devise effective military reform. That failure, in itself, owes much to the failure to control the military and build a coherent state structure and policy process. In the end it is the Russian state's ability to create a viable and legitimate order that ensures a prominent place in Asia. At present, Asia knows that and Russia does not. Asia is outpacing Russia for the first time in history and no longer needs Russian tutelage, examples, or leadership. In short, while Russia needs Asia more than ever to climb out of its crises, Asia needs Russia less than ever. Unless Russia can draw the appropriate consequences from this state of affairs, its crisis and marginality in Asia will continue with profoundly disruptive consequences for everyone.


1. See Seoul, The Internet, The Digital Choson Ilbo, World Wide Web, in English, May 9, 1996, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, East Asia (henceforth FBIS-EAS)-96-092, May 10, 1996, pp. 33-34; and Seoul, SISA Journal, in Korean, May 30, 1996, FBIS-EAS-96-103, May 28, 1996, pp. 62-64.

2. "In Expectation of Meat Soup and Silk Clothing," Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, (henceforth CDPP), Vol. XLVIII, No. 16, May 15, 1996, p. 24.

3. For examples of Russia's efforts to improve relations with both Koreas, see Open Media Research Institute, Daily Digest, (henceforth OMRI), April 15, 1996; and James Brooke, "In Big Shift, Now Russia Is Courting South Korea," The New York Times, July 3, 1996, p. A7; Shim Jae Hoon, "Both Sides Now," Far Eastern Economic Review, (henceforth FEER), November 30, 1995, pp. 28-29.

4. Northeast Asian Peace and Security Network, (henceforth NAPSNET), from The Korea Herald, May 10, 1996; "Partnership Seoul-Style," CDPP, Vol. XLVIII, No. 22, June 26, 1996, pp. 22- 23.

5. Seoul, SISA Journal, in Korean, June 15, 1995, FBIS-EAS­95-112, June 12, 1995, pp. 50-52; Robert Legvold, "Russia and the Strategic Quadrangle," Michael Mandlebaum, ed., The Strategic Quadrangle: Russia, China, Japan, and the United States in East Asia, New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1995, pp. 19-20; Thomas L. Wilborn, International Politics in Northeast Asia: The China-Japan-United States Strategic Triangle, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1996, observes, on p. 52, "In spite of its geographic position, Russia is not considered a Northeast Asian nation because northeast Asian elites do not consider Russia an Asian nation. Neither do Russian elites, for that matter."; "Summit in Bangkok: Only Russia Can Have Cause for Distress," CDPP, Vol. XLVII, No. 9, March 27, 1996, p. 23.

6. Ibid.; Moscow, Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Ekonomicheskiy Soyuz Supplement), in Russian, November 25, 1995, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, (henceforth FBIS-SOV)-95- 242-S, December 18, 1995, pp. 1-4; Martin Walker, "Leaving Russia Out in the Cold on Free Trade," The Moscow Times, December 18, 1994, p. 37.

7. Ibid.

8. Stephen Blank, "Russia Looks at China," forthcoming in Stephen Blank and Alvin Z. Rubinstein, eds., Imperial Decline: Russia's Changing Position in Asia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

9. "Summit in Bangkok," p. 23.

10. For example, Kishore Mahbubani, "The Pacific Way", Foreign Affairs, Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, January-February 1995 pp. 100-111.

11. Eugene Bazhanov, "Russian Policy Toward China," in Peter Shearman, ed., Russian Foreign Policy Since 1990, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995, p. 166; Moscow, Pravda, in Russian, June 8, 1995, FBIS-SOV-95-116-S, June 16, 1995, pp. 16-17.

12. Shalendra D. Sharma, "Neo-Classical Political Economy and the Lessons From East Asia," International Studies Notes of the International Studies Association, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 22-27, demonstrates that the effective state is a sine qua non of development in Asia and probably for states like Russia as well.

13. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Daily Report, June 2, 1994.

14. Shanghai, Jiefang Ribao, in Chinese, April 29, 1995, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, China (henceforth FBISCHI), 95-094, May 16, 1995, pp. 4-5.

15. Thomas L. Friedman, "Eyes on the Prize," The New York Times, May 10, 1995, p. A24; Stephen Blank, "Russian Policy and the Changing Korean Question," Asian Survey, August 1995, pp. 711-725.

16.OMRI, Daily Digest, May 13, 1996; Moscow, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in Russian, June 14, 1996, FBIS-SOV-96-116, June 14, 1996, pp. 23-25; Moscow, Interfax, in English, June 26, 1996, FBIS-SOV-96-125, June 27, 1996, pp. 19-22; Beijing, Xinhua Domestic Service, in Chinese, April 25, 1996, FBIS-CHI-96-081, April 25, 1996, pp. 14-16.

17. Migranyan made these remarks at the CATO Institute and Russian University of America's joint conference on Russo-American partnership, Washington, DC, September 19, 1996. For the MFA's statements see also ITAR-TASS, in English, June 25, 1996, FBIS-SOV-96-124, June 26, 1996, p. 23.