Vladimir Putin’s Asia-Pacific trip was intended to send a message. Australia should be taking notice

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent trips to North Korea and Vietnam are noteworthy for the timing and focus, not to mention for highlighting his contempt for the rule of law.


  • Peter Tesch

    Visiting Fellow at the ANU Centre for European Studies, Australian National University

Coming hard on the heels of the Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace summit last weekend, Putin’s foray to the Asia-Pacific was intended to show Russia is not without friends after all.

In targeting two of the Kremlin’s historical partners – North Korea and Vietnam – it clearly signalled Russia is not ceding pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific to the United States or, for that matter, China.

Beijing will be keenly aware that Moscow is dealing itself back into two of China’s own key relationships. South Korea and Japan will have taken notice, as well.

Putin’s newfound reliance on North Korea

High-level visits like this are hallmarked by the signing of substantive and symbolic agreements, public flourishes of fealty, and lots of talk about the deepening, strategic and enduringly robust nature of bilateral relations.

But it would be short-sighted to overlook the more corrosive message woven into Putin’s tour. Since Putin unleashed his war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has persistently spun a tale of solidarity with the “Global South” in opposition to the “neo-colonialist” policies of the West, in particular the United States.

That narrative has traction in the region and beyond. In Africa, for instance, there has been scant support for punitive measures against Russia for its illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine. Collectively, Western governments are failing to counter Moscow’s accusation that they selectively absolve themselves of rules and standards they apply to others.

Of course, Moscow’s sanctimony glosses over its own failure to honour its repeated commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and existing borders.

Writing in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper on the eve of his visit, Putin extolled more than seven decades of fraternal bonds between Moscow and Pyongyang, emphasising their common cause in countering US oppression.

The United States is going out of its way to impose on the world what it calls the ‘rules-based order’, which is essentially nothing more than a global neo-colonial dictatorship relying on double standards.

Nations that disagree with such an approach and pursue an independent policy face increasing external pressure. The US leadership views such a natural and legitimate aspiration for self-reliance and independence as a threat to its global dominance.

The hypocrisy here is glaring, if perhaps not surprising.

From 2006 to 2017, Russia supported nine UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions and other measures against North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Yet, in March of this year, Russia – with China’s support – ended the mandate of a UN panel that had been monitoring implementation of these unanimously adopted measures.

In exchange for busting the international sanctions against North Korea, Russia seeks essential military support for its war in Ukraine.

Reinforcing this was the rejuvenation of a Cold War-era defence and security pact between the two countries. It could provide a veneer of legitimacy to more overt and expansive North Korean support for Putin’s war.

That sends an alarming message about the brittleness of the global commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

It also signals to would-be nuclear states that Russia has their backs.

And it falls well short of Russia’s obligations as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an architect and guarantor of the system of international security since 1945.

Meanwhile, China – a similarly privileged Security Council permanent member – is disturbingly and unacceptably mute about Russia’s actions. Beijing is busy pursuing its own rapid and non-transparent military build-up, including the modernisation and expansion of its strategic nuclear arsenal.

Economic de-coupling from the West

Beyond undermining US alliances and security partnerships around the world, Moscow – like Beijing – is intent on breaking up the US dollar-dominated international financial system.

In the same Rodong Sinmun newspaper article, Putin said Russia and North Korea “will develop alternative trade and mutual settlements mechanisms not controlled by the West” and jointly oppose “illegitimate unilateral restrictions”, such as sanctions.

He echoed this economic decoupling theme in Vietnam. In his Hanoi press conference, Putin noted:

Our countries are consistently pursuing the transition to settlements in national currencies and striving to create sustainable channels of cooperation in lending activities and banking.

In contrast to the overtly military focus of his visit to North Korea, Putin’s emphasis in Vietnam was on cultural diplomacy and trade relations, especially in energy, including oil and gas, renewables and nuclear.

This focus on economic cooperation was presumably to accommodate his hosts’ concern not to arouse the ire of the United States, which is one of seven countries with a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Vietnam.

Nonetheless, Putin did ensnare Vietnam in his wider strategic security agenda. In his press conference, he observed:

Russia’s and Vietnam’s respective stances on [current international matters] are largely in accord or closely aligned.

During our discussion on the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, we expressed mutual interest in building a strong and reliable security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region based on the principles of the non-use of force and peaceful settlement of disputes, with no room for closed military-political blocs.

Why this matters

The US and its regional allies, such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, should take heed. Russia is now the chief disruptor of the global system built on the rule of law. As such, it poses challenges for smaller and middle-ranking nations like Australia, which lack the intent or capacity to impose their will on others through economic or military coercion.

It is not a matter of choosing one “bloc” over another. Rather, it is about countries like ours acting together to preserve the international rules that underpin national sovereignty and agency.

To do that effectively, we need to re-invest in “Russia literacy” and competency in our higher education and policymaking communities.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, in Australia, at least, we have failed to take Russia seriously enough. Putin’s latest foray into our region – and the common cause Russia increasingly seeks to make with countries that matter to us – should be a clarion call to action.

The Conversation

Peter Tesch was Australia’s ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2019.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.