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Russia’s Eastern Narrative

medvedjintao090208.jpgSometimes it’s fun to see the Kremlin talking points for the week emerge surreptitiously from the office of Vladislav Surkov, and then spread out through the Russian then international media by a variety of mid- to high-level functionaries until they are finally reproduced by Western surrogates, practically word for word. In case you missed the memo, the narrative for this week is all about Moscow flirting with the idea of ditching the West altogether and substituting relations with Asia. The point is to make the EU think twice before delaying talks for the partnership agreement, because Russia might just decide the dependency is no longer mutual, and that they will send all their business and energy resources over to China. Never mind that it is an empty threat. For example, yesterday and today we see Putin hitting the press circuit boasting Russia’s economic ties with China and his desire to deepen them, Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (a longtime Kremlin friend) warned that Europe should do nothing in response to Russia for fear of sending them into Asia’s arms, while at the same time Russia conspicuously decides to carry out “repairs” on the Yamal pipeline (cutting Europe’s gas as a reminder) and calls for “faster construction” of the terminally delayed East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline to China. Is anybody listening yet?

Meanwhile, following his failure to secure any meaningful backing on the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are making a renewed diplomatic push in Central Asia to win over desperately needed support. I know this, because whenever Russia needs something from a government, it is less about cultivating the pursuit of mutual interests and more about bringing an energy or arms deal to the table. To wit, Putin was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan today to sign a new gas pipeline deal.Russia’s Eastern narrative is much more about perceptions than reality, especially with China (as we have noted in the past). At a moment in which China views itself as an ascendant rival to Russia, especially in terms of locking down resources in emerging markets such as Africa and Latin America, this effort to present the two country’s relations as a deepening romance is especially ill-timed … Beijing is not happy with the recognition of separatist areas in foreign sovereign states, and may well feel that this new Monroe-like Doctrine of renewed spheres of influence may trample on some of their interests (and we all know they bitterly compete with Russia’s influence in Central Asia).Michael H. Cognato at Real Clear World writes in response to Geoff Dwyer’s argument that Russia’s war in Georgia may actually push China into closer relations with the United States:

But there is more room for the US and its allies to try to actively drive the two apart than Dwyer hints at, I think. The two have been an obstructionist duo at the UN for some time, working to rein in the more active impulses of the rest of the world on the Security Council. An active outreach to China that would secure more Chinese interests in return for quiet support for a tougher stance against Russia could go a long way towards bolstering the West’s message and making it politically acceptable for even more states to sign on. Or even just implicitly reward China while increasing and dramatizing the costs of Russia’s aggression. (…)China is working to be a “responsible stakeholder” internationally; Russia is demonstrating open contempt for the concept. There may be plenty of reasons not to move forward with any of the above. But finding more ways to formally include China in institutions and processes from which Russia is excluded might be worth bearing some costs that a few weeks ago made the above steps look too difficult.

Regardless of who is being pushed in what direction, my sense is that there are some prevailing cool heads in the Kremlin that really want things to go back to the good ole permanent tension and distrust of last July. Thrilled with the soft reaction from Brussels (grazie, Mr. Berlusconi!), we can already see an attempt to sow further divisions between Washington and the EU on the war through some classic doublespeak, all while sounding tough and actually withdrawing some troops. For example, practically in the same breath that Putin threatened to escalate in response to NATO warships in the Black Sea, he also commended the EU for their friendly, non-confrontational approach to war: “Thank God, common sense prevailed. We saw no extreme conclusions and proposals, and this is very good,” Putin said in comments shown on NTV television. “We have a basis for continuing dialogue with our European partners.“So which Putin are we meant to listen to? It doesn’t really matter, so long as we continue to disagree amongst ourselves.Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, are seen during their meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008. President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Dushanbe to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security group dominated by China and Russia. (AP: Mikhail Klimentyev)