March 1, 2015
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Since early 2014, Russia has been under mounting pressure due to its interference in the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea. The sanctions imposed by the West-US and its European allies hit hard Russia’s ailing economic performance and outlook.
At home, Putin is confronted with increasing domestic challenges. The death of the outspoken opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, who was the main Putin opponent, sent a political shockwave. The assassination may fuel domestic political polarization and destabilize domestic politics. Mr. Nemtsov was due to lead a mass protest on Russia’s economic crisis and the war in Ukraine before he was shot dead last Friday in the center of Moscow, a mere 180 meters away from the Kremlin Wall.
To counter the sanctions from the West, Russia looks to the East by deepening its strategic and economic ties particularly with China and Southeast Asian countries. Energy cooperation with China is the most important strategy. In May 2014, Russia and China reached a $400 billion gas deal, and in November the same year both sides reached a second deal worth slightly less than $400 billion.
Russia and China are natural allies at least for now. They share greater mutual strategic interests in collectively shaping new global order. Economic and military ties have been remarkably enhanced since last year, and joint cooperation in the Artic will be another significant milestone in the bilateral partnership.
Russia became a full dialogue partner of Asean in 1996. In 2011, together with the US, Russia became a member of the East Asia Summit. However, Russia has not shown strong engagement with Asean in comparison with other major powers like the US and China.
Russia’s foreign policy towards Asean has gained new momentum since the Ukraine crisis. Amid the souring relations with the West, Russia has taken a proactive approach towards Asean. One of Russia’s interests is to neutralize Asean’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Russia does not wish to see Asean-led multilateral institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) become the platform attacking or criticizing Russia with regards to the Ukraine conflict.
In early February, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ignor V. Morgulov visited the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta to forge closer ties between Russia and Asean. At the meeting with Asean Secretary General Le Luong Minh, both sides agreed to develop the new plan of action for 2016-2020 to deepen bilateral partnership and annual commitment to the Asean-Russia Dialogue Partnership Financial Fund. Russia also expressed its support to strengthen Asean’s centrality in shaping regional architecture.
Bilateral relations with Asean member countries have also accelerated. Vietnam and Singapore have strong ties with Russia in terms of investment and trade. Now Russia is looking to deepen its bilateral partnership with Cambodia as well.
The new momentum will start after the visit of the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to Russia from March 2 to March 4. Both countries are going to sign four documents: (a) trade, economics, scientific and technical cooperation, (b) tourism cooperation and joint action 2015-2017, (c) the agreement on the promotion and protection of investment, and (d) cooperation on the prevention of illegal unreported and unregulated fishing of living marine resources.
Asean welcomes the active role of Russia in the Asia Pacific. Russia has successfully expanded its strategic and economic space in East Asia, while facing increasing challenges from the West. Yet whether the leadership in Kremlin is able to maintain such momentum and have the resources to implement its pivot to the East remains to be seen.