Are US efforts to isolate Russia faltering?

Are US efforts to isolate Russia faltering?

The leaders of several key U.S. allies have been reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a sign that efforts to isolate the country over its 2014 annexation of Crimea may be faltering. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the midst of a crackdown on suspects in last month’s coup attempt, apologized for the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces and met Putin in St. Petersburg this month in an effort to rebuild relations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will talk with the Russian president on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, which runs Sept. 2-3 in Vladivostok, Russia. New British Prime Minister Theresa May has had a phone conversation with Putin in which the pair “made plans to meet in person in the near future,” according to an Aug. 9 Kremlin statement.

The meetings will cut against U.S. and European efforts to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and fomenting civil war in Ukraine via sanctions, financial restrictions, asset freezes, travel bans for Russian officials and the blacklisting of Russian companies. Abe already met Putin in May at Sochi, Russia, where the pair discussed Russia’s efforts to develop energy-rich Siberian territories in the Far East — a strategy that parallels America’s “Pacific pivot,” a policy that reflects the Obama administration’s view of the region as its highest long-term priority. Last week, Putin fired his chief of staff and appointed Japan expert Anton Vaino to the job, which involves oversight of Russian diplomacy.

There also have been signs of a thaw between Russia and the United Kingdom. During their phone conversation, Putin and May expressed dissatisfaction with their nations’ political, trade and economic cooperation, the Kremlin statement said. May confirmed the UK would help commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first British Arctic convoy in Arkhangelsk, several weeks after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, according to the Kremlin.

“Both leaders agreed to foster dialogue between intelligence agencies dealing with aviation security and made plans to meet in person in the near future,” the statement said.

Park’s meeting with Putin will likely focus on economic development and efforts to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program, said Ko Jae-nam, a Russia specialist at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. Russia wants to build a gas pipeline to the south through North Korea. That’s not likely to happen soon with tensions rising on the peninsula, but there is scope for other cooperation between South Korea and Russia, including development of an Arctic sea route to Europe, he said. South Korea hasn’t recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but it also hasn’t joined the U.S.-backed sanctions, Ko said. “Korea is a divided country. We want Russian cooperation in solving the problem. We want to maintain good relationships with neighbors,” he said. “That is why even though the U.S. wants Korea to join sanctions on Russia, Korea doesn’t join.” 

Abe’s goal in dealing with Putin is the return of four northern Japanese islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks — seized by Russia in the last days of World War II, said James Brown, an international affairs expert at Temple University’s Japan campus. The dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from concluding a peace treaty to formally end wartime hostilities. It’s so important to Abe that he is willing to go against the wishes of American diplomats and meet with Putin, said Brown, author of “Japan, Russia and Their Territorial Dispute.” “Usually Japanese prime ministers follow American advice, but Abe is taking a new approach to Russian relations,” he said, adding that the prime minister is strongly influenced by his father, a former Japanese foreign minister who also sought the islands’ return. “Abe wants to complete that work,” Brown said. However, most Russians would find territorial concessions unthinkable, he said. “[The island territory] is a symbol of their victory in World War II, and giving it back would be seen as a betrayal of the Soviet soldiers who died for it,” Brown said. “Putin is not going to annoy 95 percent of Russians for dubious economic gains from Japan.” There’s also the complication of 17,000 Russians who have colonized the former Japanese lands, he said. Perhaps more importantly, the islands guard straits giving the Russian fleet access to the Pacific and border the Sea of Okhotsk, a bolt-hole for nuclear-armed Russian submarines that could be vulnerable if Japanese or U.S. military forces occupied the disputed islands.

Russia conducted joint naval drills with China in the East China Sea last year and in the South China Sea this year. However, since 2013, Japan has seen Russia as less of a threat and more of a potential security partner, Brown said. “They’re hedging against the U.S. security commitment,” he said. “They don’t want to be left alone in a region with a hostile China and Russia.”

Japan is less worried about a Russian invasion of Hokkaido and more concerned that China may attempt to take territory from it in the south, he said. Abe is expected to invite Putin to visit Japan in December despite U.S. opposition, he said. Abe’s dream of getting the islands back won’t be fulfilled anytime soon, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii. “Putin takes territory,” he said. “He doesn’t give it away.”


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