By Jeff Mankoff
When Asia’s leaders gathered in Phnom Penh for the seventh East Asia Summit (EAS) last month, one figure was notable by his absence: Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Russia, which is struggling to be accepted as a major player in Asia, the absence of its head of state from Asia’s most important annual gathering—for the second year in a row—seems puzzling. Both the decision itself and Moscow’s reluctance to provide a compelling explanation have only strengthened the impression throughout the region that Russia’s aspirations for a more prominent role in Asia cannot be taken seriously.
Along with the United States, Russia spent several years lobbying for inclusion in the EAS, which its diplomats view as the centerpiece of an emerging, more ambitious regional architecture. Yet since its acceptance into the EAS in 2010, Russia’s president has yet to attend, with Moscow instead sending delegations headed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The Russian president’s absence has become a source of annoyance among other EAS participants. In Phnom Penh, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan pointedly noted that Russia’s president has now skipped two EAS meetings in a row despite the fact that ASEAN considers Russia “an important and appreciated partner.”
The Russian press and officials have suggested three possible explanations for Putin’s decision to skip Phnom Penh. The most charitable is the Russian President’s health. Putin is widely reported to have injured his back (though reports vary as to whether the Russian president hurt himself during an early September publicity stunt guiding a flock of cranes from a motorized hang-glider, or merely aggravated an old sports injury). Following the hang-gliding incident, Putin did not travel abroad for nearly two months, and in his public appearances often seemed dazed, as if heavily medicated.
Though Putin clearly appears to be having some kind of health issue, Russian journalists and bloggers have questioned the back injury story, speculating the problem may be more serious. Moscow could have soothed hurt feelings in Asia—not to mention shut down speculation in the blogosphere at home—by issuing an unambiguous and detailed statement to the effect that Putin’s health made it impossible for him to travel. Apparently nervous about the domestic impact of such a statement, the Kremlin demurred.
Domestic politics offers another, less likely explanation for Putin’s absence. Some Russian media have speculated that the president was wary of leaving the country in the midst of a rapidly widening corruption scandal that began with the sacking of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and has now expanded to implicate a series of other high-profile officials. Since Serdyukov was extremely unpopular with the military brass and has little political constituency apart from Putin himself, his dismissal was never likely to be a source of upheaval within the Russian elite.
Meanwhile, the protest movement which took to the streets in the aftermath of last year’s parliamentary elections and Putin’s own re-election in May has dwindled fast. Russia’s long-term stability may be questionable, but in the short-run, there seems little reason Putin’s absence would make things worse.
A third possibility has less to do with Russia itself and more to do with the unsettled situation in and around Asia. As Russia executes its own Asian pivot, it faces the challenge of balancing its “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China against its fear of dependence on Beijing and a desire to bolster relations with countries such as Vietnam (an increasingly important customer for Russian arms and nuclear power plants), India, and other ASEAN members wary of China’s growing clout. The tensions over the South China Sea that boiled over in Phnom Penh leave Moscow in a difficult position, caught between antagonizing China and jeopardizing its growing partnership with Vietnam and ASEAN.
Without top-level representation at the summit, Russia managed to mostly side-step the controversy. Lavrov did not mention the dispute in his remarks at the summit and was notably absent from the sparring that broke out when the host Cambodian government attempted to limit discussion of the South China Sea. If nothing else, Putin’s absence provided Russia an excuse for standing aside; if pressed, Lavrov could simply plead lack of instructions.
Of course, if Russia is serious about its Asian ambitions, it cannot avoid taking a stand on the South China Sea and other divisive issues forever. Many Asian officials and analysts remain reluctant to see Russia as a serious player in the region, notwithstanding its inclusion in the EAS and serving as APEC host this year. Moscow appears to want the recognition and the benefits that come from shaping a new Asian architecture, but reluctant to take on the associated responsibilities, including clarifying how its relationship with China fits with its broader regional ambitions.
Leadership is ultimately about making choices. Choosing not to show up is a choice too, one that the other EAS members have taken as a signal Russia is not ready to take on the mantle of leadership in the Asia-Pacific for which it has been clamoring.