[Viewpoint] Putin’s eyes on the Far EastAfter a 20-minute westbound ride from the fortified Kremlin to the heart of Moscow is an oval-shaped building with glass windows. The new museum - The Borodino War and History Museum and Reserve - was established in the ancient city to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. It stands on the site that bore stains of what’s known as the largest and bloodiest single-day battle during the Napoleonic wars.
General Mikhail Kutozov led 120,000 Russian soldiers against invading French troops of 150,000. More than 40,000 Russians and 30,000 French died. The bitter and fierce battle made Russia’s victory more dramatic as it triumphantly celebrated in the 1812 Overture composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Kutozov burned down Moscow in his retreating trail, leaving Napoleon’s forces vainly battling a frigid Russian winter and famine.
An unexpected guest arrived at the museum on March 7 - freshly re-elected President Vladimir Putin. He took time looking at the painting reconstructing the great battle. He stood before a painting of the Cossacks, nomadic natives scattered in today’s Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. Cossacks served as guards of the Russian frontiers and were an integral part of the Russian Army that fought at the frontline against the Napoleonic invasion as well as two other global battles. In the 16th century, the Cossacks headed the Russian Army in the Far East campaign to push the frontier in Siberia.
Putin publicly praised the legacy of the Cossacks and their legendary cavalry corps. He passed a bill to allow the minority group to serve in the Russian Army, police and border-guard forces. He even proposed the idea of creating a Cossack military. Putin’s singling out of the Cossacks and visit to the Borodino War Museum were choreographed to send a strong message that the reinstated Russian leader aims to reconstruct the glory of the Russian empire.
A state leader’s determination and character can influence government policies more easily in states with weak democratic systems. The world is watching how the nationalistic strongman will steer policies on the foreign policy front.
An episode underscoring Putin’s characteristics and likely direction on foreign affairs is one that took place in the aftermath of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Russian bureaucrats were replacing portraits of Vladimir Lenin with that of the new leader Boris Yeltsin. Putin, a senior bureaucrat in St. Petersburg, was different. He hung a portrait of his all-time hero, Emperor Peter the Great, who took the Russian Empire out of the dark ages and into modernization.
Putin also wants to morph Russia into a prosperous and strong nation. Peter had his eyes on the West to restore the glory of Russia, while Putin has his on the Far East. In organizing his cabinet, he placed Victor Ishayev, who served as governor of the Khabarovsk region for 18 years and envoy of the Far Eastern Federal District, to head the newly launched Ministry of Development of the Russian Far East.
Since returning to presidency, Putin has reiterated interest in Asian affairs. For Russia, the vast empty space of Siberia is a land of opportunities as well as challenges. The population in the barren bulk of land has been ebbing with people fleeing from poverty. The population of the Far Eastern Federal District peaked at 8.6 million in 1991 and dwindled to 6.5 million by 2010.
One-fourth of the population has evaporated. If left unattended, the region could turn into a wasteland. Moreover, Asia is becoming the central stage of the global economy as an alternative to struggling European and American economies.
Putin’s interests in the Far East do not end with what the land can offer on the surface, but underground as well. His dissertation in 1997 for his Ph.D. in economics was on strategic planning of the reproduction of natural resources. To develop the Far East void of technology and human resources, its rich underground resources are the only means to draw attention and necessary funds.
Siberian lands sit on abundant natural gas deposits. Russia has the world’s largest natural gas reserves of 44.6 trillion cubic square meters. More than one-fifth of the world’s natural gas supply is kept under the Russian Ural mountains. Pipes carry gas supplies to Europe and Russia, and Putin wants to extend them to the East Asia by crossing the Korean Peninsula.
Experts are still pessimistic whether such a meeting or project be built in the near future. Konstantin Khudoley, a professor of international relations at St. Petersburg University, said Russia is still checking out the new generation leadership of Pyongyang. He advised Moscow to start serious talks once it is assured that North Korea’s untested new ruler has gained stable power. Whatever the motive, Russia’s newfound interest adds a twist to the equation on the Korean Peninsula that could pave new ways in strained inter-Korean ties.
*The author is a traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Nam Jeong-ho