Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

How to deal with a new, self-assertive Russia?
KAWATO Akio / Former Japanese Ambassador to Uzbekistan

March 15, 2007
Lately Russia and the US started to exchange bitter words, reminding us of Cold War days. Russia, benefiting from high oil prices, has again become self-assertive. With Presidential elections in the offing in both the US and Russia, will this quarrel become a vicious cycle, creating a serious confrontation between both countries?

Hardly. Many factors tell against it.

First of all the Russian economy is still fragile, depending largely upon oil and gas exports. Imported goods constitute fifty percent of all retail trades in the country. It is true that President Putin and newly appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov are determined to develop manufacturing industry, but their policy may well fail mainly because of excessive bureaucracy. Gorbachev’s ‘acceleration’ policy, for example, was bogged down by the bureaucrats.

They still possess 4,000 nuclear warheads and their MIRV (Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicle) device will allow them to penetrate any missile defense system. The Russian nuclear missiles, however, are rotting fast and are not sufficiently replaced by new ones. Bulava, the new submarine-launched ballistic missile has failed in its experiment three times out of four, and one Russian general pointed to the loss of manufacturing skills during 15 years of economic hardship. The size of their army has been reduced to one million, which is hardly sufficient to defend their long borders. The population of the Russians is still dwindling and the youngsters dodge the military service by all means.

Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, has undergone two fundamental changes: internal and external. Russians today are fully tasting the charm of the mass-consumption society. Fifty percent of the Russian GDP is comprised of consumption, a stark contrast from the Soviet days when the whole economy was geared to the war. The masses today do not feel a serious threat from outside and will not support a return to a military economy.

Russia today is deeply incorporated in the global economy. They have to export oil and gas for their existence, they want to export their steel and other items, and they desperately need foreign investments to produce world-class consumer goods. That is why Russia still aspires for the membership in the WTO, and that is why they back off each time when a confrontation with the US becomes too serious. Measures against Russia will easily disrupt economic and accordingly political stability in Russia, and this is what they want to avoid most in the election year.

In sum Russia may look defiant from time to time, but it is for saving their face and for keeping their internal ruling structure intact. They have to balance their defiance with the reality that their well-being depends upon their good relations with the West. An excessive anti-Americanism would isolate Russia. China and the ‘Old Europe’ will not go along with her in such a play.

However, the West should keep in mind that most Russians even do not notice that they live in an authoritarian society. Opinion polls show that they prefer "order" to democracy. If the West pushes the Russian government too much in favor of democracy, they will antagonize the large segment of the Russian society.

I worked in Moscow many times, talking to the Russians. Toward the end of the Soviet era students and young intellectuals had become liberal. They admired America, in particular, their freedom and wealth. Today those people are very sullen, cynical and apathetic. They feel that Russia did not get sufficient help from the West, when they dumped the Soviet system to accept democracy and liberty. The West, they allege, gave them a slap in the face when they held out the hand of friendship. (They mean the attack on Yugoslavia, enlargement of NATO, stationing of missile defense systems in Chech and Poland and many many others)

They do not understand why the West does not consider Russia a true friend. They think that the West discriminate them ‘because they have become strong again’, and do not realize that we keep distance from them because the Russians still live with a different set of values, ignoring the laws, jumping the queue and concealing the real financial status of their companies. Today we do not need an all-out confrontation with Russia, but we certainly need to prevent any spill-over of their bad habits into our own societies, not to speak of any subversive activities by their intelligence apparatus abroad.

Prime Minister Fradkov has just visited Japan with a huge delegation of Russian businesspeople. After Toyota decided to build a factory in St. Petersburg, Japanese companies started a rush into the Russian market. Gigantic Sakhalin oil and gas projects are just starting up, in which Japan invests 10 billion dollars. (Much touted East Siberian oil pipeline issue, however, is a matter of future in fact. First of all Japan would need a precise information about the size of the reserves.)

On the other hand the long-time issue of the belonging of the four islands offshore Hokkaido, Japan, remains unsolved. As the elections are approaching in Russia, it is not a good time for Japan to tackle this problem. However, after the Presidential election this issue should be dealt with in earnest. It will serve the interest of not only Japan, but also Russia for whom the stability in the Far East is so vital.

The writer is the General Manager of Japan-World Trends, an opinion blog in several languages.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

河東哲夫 / 元駐ウズベキスタン大使

2007年 3月 15日









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(筆者は数ヶ国語によるオピニオン・ブログJapan-World Trends代表である)
一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > How to deal with a new, self-assertive Russia?