“I was deeply touched, when he smiled and looked at us with his blue eyes, my old sweet memories flooded back to me,” a middle-aged Soviet-trained Vietnamese woman told the TV crew. The blue eyes in question belonged not to a movie star, but to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was visiting Hanoi, and the sweet memories in all likelihood related not to some romantic experience of the past but to the decades of lavish aid, pumped by the Kremlin into Vietnam during Cold War years.
Those words “blue eyes” sound awesome. They make sense. Mikhail Gorbachev, during whose tenure relations between Moscow and Hanoi became sour, has brown eyes. Boris Yeltsin, who never realized Vietnam was still there, has eyes of an undetectable shade, their original color completely washed away by excessive consumption of alcohol. Now the Vietnamese seem to be completely won over by the new blue-eyed Russian leader and so are the South Koreans. Putin’s two-country Asian tour was a smashing success.
Putin came to Asia with a very busy agenda, ranging from ambitious joint economic projects to U.S. national missile defense. The punch line of his tour, however, was laconic: Russia the superpower is back in business. Restoring Russia’s global strategic role is Putin’s obsession. It is not quite clear what gives him reason to believe that a poor though vast and heavily armed country can be regarded as a superpower in a world that is chiefly run by economic interests. But nobody will be able to say Putin didn’t try. Quite smartly, he has started by parading himself in front of the former satellites — North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.
All three nations are considering dramatic changes in their foreign policy; all are attempting to catch the eye of Western investors and lawmakers. Vietnam is a terrible flirt, having already lured U.S. President Bill Clinton into visiting the former battleground, and getting quickly integrated into the global economy; North Korea and Cuba still cultivate the air of ideological chastity, but it looks like pretty soon thousands of American tourists will be sunbathing on Cuban beaches again. And as for North Korea, its totalitarianism is going to be corroded by rapprochement with the capitalist South. In this situation Putin has to hurry if he wants to exploit old alliances and allegiances.
Not that his passes go unnoticed. Everybody understands that Russia is no match for the United States, but who said it is still impossible to play the Russian card when dealing with Washington? South Korean President Kim Dae Jung with admirable skill and pose made Washington angry and nervous when he sided with Putin on the issue of national missile defense, and the fact that he later pulled back from Russia on the subject of the missile shield did not eliminate U.S. anxieties. President Tran Duc Luong of Vietnam also made a smart move by letting the two blue-eyed presidents — American and Russian — compete for popularity on a former Cold War battlefield. Putin should feel really good now: His offensive in Asia has raised American concerns about its future role in the area.
The questions, which remain to be clarified, are to what extent Putin’s diplomatic attack is just a bluff, and whether there is any substance to it. Both in Seoul and Hanoi, Putin has been talking oil and gas, suggesting gigantic joint projects to the South Koreans and Vietnamese. South Korea’s interest in Siberian gas is genuine but the readiness to invest there is problematic. Russia is still very unstable politically, its infrastructure, especially in the Asian part, is nightmarish and its hunger for oil and gas can be quenched elsewhere. Vietnam may be a different story, but it already owes Russia $1.5 billion, while $9.5 billion of the total debt had to be waved because Hanoi did not show the slightest intention of paying the money back.
The new “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Hanoi does not amount to much either. Russia will be selling advanced weapons and military equipment to Vietnam — presumably not for cash. This will hardly change anything in the geostrategic landscape of Southeast Asia. Russia wants to extend the lease of naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay — but, enviable as it is, that naval base is of little use to a nation, which, due to the economic crisis, cannot maintain bases on its own territory. The only rational for keeping Cam Ranh is to prevent Americans from leasing it, which, again, has largely symbolic meaning.
Putin may prove to be an important broker on the Korean Peninsula, however. North Korea’s paranoid leader, Kim Jong Il, hasn’t figured out whether China or Russia is going to be his main ally in the future, and allows both nations to court him. His counterpart in the South, President Kim, also appreciates Russian involvement in the area: The fact that Washington perceives North Korea as a “rogue state” contradicts Kim’s “Sunshine policy” toward the North.
In principle, the international controversy over U.S. plans to build a missile shield originates on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs having triggered U.S. security concerns. In this sense, Putin might be taking the area for America’s “soft underbelly.” With a lot of luck (which is not impossible), he may tie together opposition to national missile defense in Asia and in Europe and eventually create considerable diplomatic difficulties for the U.S. Before Putin’s Asian tour, Washington had to deal mainly with objections from just one important ally, France. Now, thanks to Putin’s efforts, South Korea has voiced reservations as well. One must admit that no matter what happens in the future, on the issue of national missile defense, Putin has played his cards well.
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