Russia Hosting the APEC Summit in Vladivostok: Putin's "Tilt to Asia"

Q1: What does Russia hope to achieve by hosting the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit?

A1: Russia seeks to achieve several goals in hosting APEC this year, some practical and some more symbolic. On the practical side, the Russian government hopes that the meeting will come off smoothly with progress made on the four priority issue areas: liberalizing trade and investment; strengthening food security; establishing reliable supply chains; and fostering innovative growth. As my CSIS colleague Matthew Goodman has written, the Russian government appears to have kept the focus on substance and earnestly worked to bridge from the progress during the U.S. chairmanship in 2011 to the Indonesian chairmanship in 2013. (Please see “APEC: Getting Stuff Done.”)

Russia’s hosting of the APEC summit also marks a major step forward in Moscow’s engagement with multilateral organizations in Asia, a process that goes back to the early 1990s with its participation in the Six-Party Talks over the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. Russian engagement with Southeast Asian multilateral institutions lagged behind that of other major regional powers such as China and Japan; but in 1994, Russia joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), became an ASEAN dialogue partner in 1996, and in 2004 signed the Treaty on Amity and Cooperation. In 2010, Russia—along with China, the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand—participated in the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM). And just last November, Russia, along with the United States, joined the East Asia Summit (EAS).

The multilateral institutional architecture of Asia is in flux, and Russia wants to be an influential voice in its development. But at the moment, much of Asia does not take Russia that seriously as a multilateral player. And last year’s faux pas of sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rather than President Dmitri Medvedev only heightened Asian skepticism of Russia. A successful summit this week in Vladivostok will embellish Russia’s bona fides as an Asia-Pacific country.

Q2: What is the significance of hosting the summit in Vladivostok?

A2: Just as St. Petersburg was built as Russia’s “window on the West,” Vladivostok (literally “ruler of the East”) was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century as Russia’s main outlet to Asia. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad a century ago to its eastern end point in Vladivostok, a rapidly developing port city, enhanced the connectivity of the Russian Far East to European Russia. Unfortunately, for much of the Soviet period, until 1990 just before the collapse, Vladivostok was a closed city as it was home to the Pacific Fleet. Beginning in the middle 1960s after the split with China, under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, the USSR invested billions of dollars in the militarization of Asian Russia. Vladivostok’s status as a closed city symbolized Moscow’s outlook on Asia at the time: defensive and isolated.

Certainly, hosting the summit in Moscow or St. Petersburg would have been a lot easier and less expensive. The Russian government has invested about $20 billion to upgrade the infrastructure of Vladivostok, not only to make it a reasonably comfortable host city for the summit but also with an eye to the future of Vladivostok and the Russian Far East more broadly—to be better positioned to more deeply integrate with its dynamic Asian partners, economically first and foremost, but also politically, socially, and culturally. From the set priorities on the APEC agenda, it is probably the last two, establishing reliable supply chains and fostering innovative growth that are of most interest to the Russian government’s goals for development of the Russian Far East and Siberia. Through modernization of its eastern rail and highway network, Russia may be able to capture more of the rapidly growing transit trade between Asia and Europe, as well as the Middle East and South Asia. Russia also hopes to diversify the composition of its economy away from such heavy reliance on natural commodities to more high technology and manufacturing.

Q3: How much significance does President Vladimir Putin attach to Russia’s Asia policy?

In short, a lot. Certainly, hosting its first G-8 meeting in his home town of St. Petersburg in 2006 was a signature moment in Putin’s leadership of Russia. Hosting the APEC meeting, however, may have greater symbolic significance since Putin has clearly prioritized development of Russia’s Far East and Siberia and Russia’s deeper integration with Asia as what he would like historians to view as his legacy. Putin rightly sees the region’s lack of development and relative isolation as a strategic weakness that, if not urgently addressed, could result in Moscow’s loss of sovereignty over this massive territory rich in natural resources. It is interesting to note that Putin views the North Caucasus as the most vulnerable region of Russia, and this area will be host to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi—another signature moment in his leadership. In retrospect, the fact that the decisions on Sochi and Vladivostok hosting these major international events took place during Putin’s first tenure as president should have been a clue that he would want to return as Russia’s president to play host during these events. Bringing the international spotlight to these previously underdeveloped and relatively isolated areas was a risky and expensive play on Putin’s part.

The other aspect of this is fairly obvious in that Putin sees, just as we all do, what is happening globally, and how the balance of economic power and dynamism in the world is shifting somewhat to the East and South. Given that Russia is geographically located in Asia as well, it is only natural that Russia should devote more attention and resources to its deeper integration into Asia. This is the broader context in which we should regard Russia hosting the APEC meeting this week in Vladivostok.

While making the APEC meeting a success and avoiding embarrassment is important for Putin, the extent to which Russia’s “pivot” to Asia will be successful will require many years of bold and visionary policymaking. Putin’s “pivot” leads with economics and the development of the Asian regions of Russia. Like the rest of Russia, the biggest obstacle to the region’s modernization is its poor investment climate caused by high levels of corruption and bureaucratic interference. Unfortunately after effectively 12 years of his leadership, these factors remain probably the weakest aspects of Putin’s legacy.

Andrew C. Kuchins is senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Andrew C. Kuchins