By Oliver Backes
On November 12, 2014, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev led the Russian delegation to the East Asia Summit (EAS). While Russia has taken part in this forum since 2011, it has yet to make a commitment to engagement commensurate with its aspirations for a greater role in the Asia Pacific. Vladimir Putin, the true center of power in Russia, has never attended, generally sending the foreign minister in his stead. Was the decision to send Medvedev evidence of a renewed investment in the organization? When considered within the context of present-day Russian politics, Medvedev’s trip is likely even less important than it appears.
On its face, Medvedev’s attendance at this summit signals that Russia is engaged with Asian multilateral institutions. Medvedev is, after all, the prime minister and a former president, making him formally one of Russia’s highest-ranking officials. However, that Medvedev led the delegation points to the fundamental problem of Russia’s engagement with EAS: Vladimir Putin was not there.
Putin is the key decision maker in all aspects of Russian foreign and domestic policy. It is he alone that sits atop the hierarchy and it is his presence, not that of either Medvedev or Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, both of whom have attended EAS in past years, that would signal a genuine Russian investment in the institution. Tellingly, Putin attended both the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bejing and the G-20 summit in Australia on either side of the EAS, which he skipped for the fourth year running (this time to visit the Russian Far East). As one of his top aides, Vyacheslav Volodin, succinctly articulated in late October 2014, “No Putin, no Russia.” The same could be said of Russia’s role, or lack thereof, in EAS.
Does Medvedev’s attendance signal a shift, even merely an incremental one, in Russia’s engagement with EAS? To an extent it does, though not necessarily in an encouraging direction. There is considerable evidence suggesting that Medvedev’s formal standing may be much greater than his practical influence.
Since the final year of his presidency, Putin and other Kremlin elites have consistently undermined Medvedev. Putin announced in September 2011 that the so-called “tandem switch,” in which Putin returned to the presidency while Medvedev was demoted to his previous position, had been decided upon years earlier. In doing so, he retroactively devalued Medvedev’s term in office and any accomplishments achieved therein, painting him a custodial president. A video published in 2012, widely believed to have emanated from figures close to the Kremlin, openly questioned his leadership during the Georgian War of 2008, portraying him as an ineffectual, weak chief executive. When asked about it, Putin did not contradict this version of events.
Medvedev and his political clan also appear to be on the wane, routed by the siloviki (members of the security services) that constitute Putin’s inner circle. The recent house arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, president of the Sistema holding company, on suspicion of financial misdeeds tied to the purchase of the Bashneft oil company is the most serious recent example. Yevtushenkov is reportedly an ally of Medvedev, who, some assert, assisted Yevtushenkov as his company “totally swallowed Bashneft” during Medvedev’s presidency. Reminiscent of the seizure of Yukos in 2003, Yevtushenkov’s detention points to Medvedev’s relative decline as a power player in the Kremlin. Medvedev is almost certainly less influential today than his position as prime minister would suggest.
Putin’s failure to ever attend may indicate that Russia places EAS low on the overall priorities list as Russia pivots to Asia. Putin’s absence could simply be the result of scheduling constraints; however, other leaders have by and large made the schedule work. That such issues would prevent Putin from attending for four consecutive years appears implausible. Thus, Putin’s continued absence from EAS is likely indicative of some larger issue of prioritization within Russia’s engagement with Asian multilateralism.
Putin’s presence at the APEC summit in Beijing days earlier is particularly telling. APEC, which Russia hosted in Vladivostok two years ago, has consistently been prioritized by the Kremlin, and Putin himself, for its value in promoting Russia’s economic integration with Asia. As he stated in his closing remarks at APEC 2012, it is “Russia’s strategic choice” to actively participate in the deepening of regional economic integration in Asia. Furthermore, as my colleague Jeffrey Mankoff wrote two years ago, Russia’s apparent de-emphasis of EAS may reflect concerns about wading into the complex discussions over security in the region, most notably those related to the territorial conflicts between China, a key strategic partner moving forward, and other states in East and Southeast Asia.
Fundamentally Russia’s participation in the EAS will not be fully realized until President Putin commits the time to attend and focuses his energy on the opportunities afforded by it in areas other than economic, trade, and investment ties. This disbalance in Putin’s personal engagement with Asian multilateral institutions likely indicates that Russia’s “Pivot to Asia” is, at present, an incomplete measure, with its focus weighted heavily towards economic engagement (in particular with China). Putin’s absence at EAS diminishes Russian initiatives in the security sphere, such as Medvedev’s call during the summit for the drafting of a “comprehensive legally binding document on security in the Asia-Pacific” by next year, and brings into question its commitment to a holistic pivot to Asia. To be taken seriously as a major player in the Asia-Pacific will require sustained engagement on regional security and the many other issues under discussion at EAS from Putin himself. Anything short of that amounts to, as Medvedev himself said, an effort to “[synchronize] watches” with Russia’s Asian partners and nothing more.
Mr. Oliver Backes is a Research Assistant with the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.
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