The Pacific: Russia’s newest playground. Don’t be surprised, Australia!

At the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced the end of the post–Cold War world and Russia’s aim to build a ‘post-West’ world order. That caused a huge outcry, mostly among Western governments. The fact that Russia had indirectly mentioned the idea before went almost unnoticed.

In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on 5 June 2016, Anatoly Antonov, former Russian deputy minister of defence and most likely the next ambassador to the US, highlighted Russia’s interest in the Asia–Pacific. He said Russia was looking for partners in the region to create ‘an equal and indivisible security environment’ serving everyone, and that it wanted to ‘enhanc[e] [its] military ties with the Asia–Pacific countries in order to strengthen peace and stability’.

The link? Simple: following the cooling of Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, and the fading of mutual expectations of prosperous cooperation after the end of the Cold War, Russia has to look—and is looking—for alternatives. That became evident in 2015 when the presidents of China and India, not European or American leaders, sat next to President Vladimir Putin during the victory parade in Moscow commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Western leaders had boycotted the event because of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin’s choice of guests presented a hint at Russia’s future priorities.

The fact that Russia—a European and Asian power—is exploring cooperation options in the Asia–Pacific region isn’t surprising. Both the US and Russia have shown an increasing interest in the region since the mid-2000s. America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia was mainly motivated by China’s rising influence. Russia also initially worked only on its ‘strategic partnership’ with China, which grew to become its main trading partner. Recently, however, international security issues, as well as domestic pressure, have compelled the Kremlin to look east: the region’s economic growth and rapid development have enhanced its global significance.

Three factors are spurring Russia to take a lead role rather than remain an extra in the theatre of the Pacific: the increased demand for natural resources and energy from the region’s growing population; emerging investment possibilities; and increasing military budgets—all of which are creating both new markets and security demands. The security challenges, especially, open up new opportunities, if not needs, for Russia to be more active. North Korea is the main source of instability in the region, and its growing capabilities also affect regional powers beyond China, South Korea and Russia—namely, Japan and Australia.

Moscow and Beijing have been the Kim regime’s main allies, focusing on deterrence against American unilateral actions, and expanding economic relations with Pyongyang. Russia has a vital interest in preventing escalation on the Korean peninsula, and vehemently criticised the regime’s missile launches. But Russia sees an end to US – South Korean manoeuvres as a prerequisite to putting increased pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile development program.

Russia also has an increasing interest in relations with South Korea. The trade potential stemming from the growing demand for natural resources and energy in South Korea also plays into Russia’s motivation for enhancing military ties and developing a regional security framework. Both would accompany intensifying investments and economic progress. One example of Russia’s interest in the peninsula is infrastructure modernisation in North Korea to facilitate trade with South Korea, which would also benefit Russia’s east.

International analysts often overlook pressures on Russia from its internal circumstances. The country’s east is underdeveloped and is experiencing a rural exodus. Investing in infrastructure both at home and abroad could help Russia overcome its trade deficits and improve national development.

To further its goal of being as strong a power as China in the Asia–Pacific, Russia has become more involved in regional associations (such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum). After almost three decades of working towards (and not achieving) power parity with the West in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, Moscow now doesn’t want to miss any opportunities. So the Kremlin will expand its ‘strategic partnerships’ and increase engagement in conflict resolution, as demonstrated in Syria (though the quality of its engagement is certainly questionable). North Korea is potentially next. In addition, the entire Asia–Pacific is, like the rest of the world, facing increasing challenges such as terrorism, extremism, proliferation and trafficking. Cooperation among regional powers is necessary, and needs to involve Russia.

But why is any of this of importance to Australia? Until 2014, trade relations were growing between the two countries, with Australia supplying uranium to Russia for its (peaceful) nuclear energy program. After the annexation of Crimea, Australia imposed sanctions and travel bans on Russia and suspended uranium exports. Russia reacted by banning Australian agricultural products, which mainly affected butter. The downing of flight MH17, which left 38 Australians dead, further iced up the atmosphere between Canberra and Moscow.

Since then, Australia has focused even more on China, which has grown to become Australia’s main trading partner. However, that shouldn’t imply that a focus on Russia is obsolete. For now, Russia seems far away, but its increasing involvement in the Asia–Pacific could eventually cause a regional power struggle. Despite Russia’s current unstable economic situation, the potential expansion of its influence shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly with regard to trade interests in Southeast Asia and the Pacific nations (all potential Russian arms importers). Australia would be wise to prepare.