Asia-Pacific Theater Putin's New Stage

By Alexey Muraviev

Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin scored a clear victory in the first round of presidential elections, securing more than 63 per cent of the Russian vote. This followed a rocky start in parliamentary elections late last year. Putin's United Russia party performed poorly, but managed to keep its majority in the Duma through widespread fraud.

Putin has invested all his political will to return to the top seat in the Kremlin. He's a clever man: his US-style campaign amalgamated the best-selling points of his political opponents including the communists, liberal-democrats and street opposition.

Putin managed to draw under his wing not just traditional conservatives, low-income earners, government employees, the military and security apparatus. He also ignited elements of the growing middle class and younger Russians.

Despite the landslide victory, Putin faces several tough choices. About one-third of the voters supported alternative candidates. That's a clear signal the nation expects swift socioeconomic and political reforms. To move the country forward and restructure its resource-based economy Putin will need to initiate domestic liberal reforms.

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This is likely to be combined with a tougher approach to foreign policy. During the election campaign, Putin outlined his view on how and where Russia will engage with the world. For the first time, the Asia-Pacific was given preference over Europe, the US and even post-Soviet space.

This September, Russia will host the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, which will give Putin a platform to promote his vision of Russia's engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.

After a period of prolonged decline and self-absorption, Moscow has intensified its re-engagement with central Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

The economic driver of Russia's re-engagement is the realisation that the centre of global business activity is shifting into the Indo-Pacific, and that its own economy, including the mighty energy sector, requires market diversification and expansion.

The political driver is a desire to enhance Russia's regional influence by reanimating old Soviet ties and by establishing close links with former political rivals. Relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe remain the prime strategic focus. But the eastern Indo-Pacific direction of Russian foreign policy is gaining importance.

The strategic driver is a heightened threat perception compared with other geopolitical areas of significance for Russia. The vast Asia-Pacific theatre allows Russia a platform to display its restored military power to potential allies and friends, through military exercises and out-of-area deployments.

Putin has made it clear that he will oversee Russia's great power return. Over a decade in power he has managed to rebuild Russia's fallen power by making it once again an independent and, at times, an uncomfortable international player.

Alexey Muraviev is a coordinator of the international relations and national security programs at Curtin University and the author of ASPI's Policy Analysis on Russia as a Pacific Power Prior to APEC 2012.


© The Australian

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