At the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin proposed building a massive bridge from Russia’s Pacific Ocean island of Sakhalin to Japan’s Hokkaido. The idea is typical of Russia’s Asian Pivot. It is a grand plan that will never come to pass. It makes little sense economically. It presumes that long-standing political conflicts (Japan claims the Kuril Islands, which Russia controls) can be papered-over. And it was accompanied by a generous helping of empty rhetoric, with Putin declaring, “These are things of an absolutely global nature that could lead to significant changes in infrastructure, energy, and high technology.” Whatever that means.
The high-flown but empty rhetoric of the Vladisvostok Forum tells us something important about Putin’s Asia Pivot: It isn’t going very well. And Russia’s own policy on North Korea bears much of the blame.
The goal of the pivot is to broaden the base of Asian engagement so that Russia is not too reliant on China. This requires better ties with other Asian powers, above all Japan and South Korea. But Russia’s stance on North Korea—being equally critical of Washington and Pyongyang, protesting Japanese and South Korean efforts to boost missile defense capabilities, and declining to impose additional sanctions on North Korea—are precisely the opposite of what Seoul and Tokyo think is needed to deal with an existential threat.