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On April 20, 2021, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Korea Foundation (KF) launched a joint project “2021 Next Generation Policy Experts Network” aiming to bring Russian and Korean foreign policy experts together to discuss issues of mutual concern and improve academic ties as well as mutual understanding between Russia and the Republic of Korea.

Gleb Ivashentsov, RIAC Vice President, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, and Geun Lee, KF President, delivered opening remarks. They outlined possible areas for enhancing Moscow and Seoul’s collaboration in the post-pandemic world.

The project started with an online round table “Strategic Situation in the Asia Pacific: Threats and Opportunities for Russia and the Republic of Korea”, placing the bilateral relations into a broader regional context.

On April 20, 2021, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Korea Foundation (KF) launched a joint project “2021 Next Generation Policy Experts Network” aiming to bring Russian and Korean foreign policy experts together to discuss issues of mutual concern and improve academic ties as well as mutual understanding between Russia and the Republic of Korea.

Gleb Ivashentsov, RIAC Vice President, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, and Geun Lee, KF President, delivered opening remarks. They outlined possible areas for enhancing Moscow and Seoul’s collaboration in the post-pandemic world.

The project started with an online round table “Strategic Situation in the Asia Pacific: Threats and Opportunities for Russia and the Republic of Korea”, placing the bilateral relations into a broader regional context. During the main session Ekaterina Koldunova, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies and Acting Director of the ASEAN Centre, MGIMO University, and Anastasia Pyatachkova, Deputy Head of the Asia-Pacific Department at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Higher School of Economics, spoke from the Russian side. The Korean side was represented by Beom Shik Shin, Director of the Center for Eurasian & Central Asian Studies, Seoul National University, and Sangtu Ko, Professor at the Yonsei University. The presenters focused on three major issues: the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific amidst global pandemic, repercussions of the U.S.—China confrontation for the regional dynamics, and opportunities for regional cooperation between Russia and the Republic of Korea. Ksenia Kuzmina, RIAC Program Manager, moderated the discussion.

Summary of the Discussion

Gleb Ivashentsov

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the normal course of life, exacerbated a lot of problems in international relations thereby challenging the existing world order. The EU, NATO, BRICS, and SCO all showed little capacity to resolve the crisis. The United Nations as the main global governance venue and its Security Council, in particular, have done nothing to organize the collective struggle against the pandemic, proving themselves ineffective. This will inevitably lead to changes in the world order. 

  • In the first place, the upcoming changes will be connected with the aggravation of the previously existing problems and in particular—the growing US—China confrontation. The US showed outright selfishness towards its allies, failed to cope with the pandemic at home, and is now losing its appeal and positions worldwide. China, on the contrary, has effectively managed the domestic crisis and gained credibility internationally. 

  • The parallel is usually drawn between the current US—China confrontation and the USSR—US clash during the Cold War, but there is a profound difference as there are no ideologically opposing systems these days. China has risen thanks to the existing global system and is not interested in destroying it, rather in bargaining a suitable niche for itself. Therefore, a nonpolar world is a more likely outcome of their rivalry.

  • The Asia Pacific needs a new leader, and a new, unallied architecture as well, ensuring the balance between various centers of political, economic and military power. The initiative of President Putin to form the Great Eurasian Partnership serves to promote such an agenda.

  • The Republic of Korea is an important and promising partner for the Russian Federation in the region. There are strong ties and intensive collaboration bearing fruit. Russia is making every effort to peacefully resolve the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and facilitate denuclearization. Moscow sees no alternative to the negotiation process and believes it should be resumed as soon as possible. 

  • Moscow has high hopes for the implementation of the so-called “Nine Bridges” as agreed with the Republic of Korea.

Geun Lee

  • The Republic of Korea—Russia bilateral relations have encompassed 30 years of friendship that has survived the pandemic. Bilateral trade has been continuously growing over the years and is now around $25 bn. Russia is one of the top-10 exporters to the Republic of Korea. Russia is also an important partner in maintaining security in the region. However, there is still room to grow both in bilateral relations and in collaboration on Korean Peninsula issues.

  • President Moon Jae-in announced his New Northern Policy. Russia and Korea have been working together in line with this initiative, including joint construction of an industrial complex and expanding connectivity between the inter-Korean Railway and the Trans-Siberian Railway.

  • Another venue for collaboration is people-to-people communication: here academic exchanges, active intellectual networks, peer research, solidarity, common vision and coordinated efforts are key components.

Ekaterina Koldunova

  • Now, more than a year into the pandemic, it is evident that COVID-19 has not exactly proved to be a total game-changer. Still, in global and regional context three types of its outcomes arise. The first group reflects previously existing processes, more explicitly articulated during the pandemic, the second—new challenges coming out of the pandemic per se, and the third—various security threats. 

  • Among the previously existing problems, there are three distinct categories as well. The first category encompasses geopolitical issues. They are military, strategic and technological aspects of the US—China confrontation, which are now embodied in the proliferation of the Indo-Pacific project and the QUAD format as well as the anti-Chinese vaccine diplomacy agenda. 

  • The second sphere is political economy, and here China’s rise resulted in the Belt and Road Initiative, which is now being actively reassessed domestically and internationally. The future of regional integration seems less prosperous, including for ASEAN. The possibility of decoupling between China and the US, and, more remarkably, the EU, as well as Russia and the EU fits in this category too.

  • The third area deals with socio-economic problems, connected with such well-known phenomena as poverty, digital divide, limited sources of economic growth and imperfect production chains. 

  • As for new challenges, the most evident of them is the lack of proper global governance in the cyber domain and ICT. This is not a direct result of the pandemic, but COVID-19 put it in the spotlight. 

  • Regarding security threats, there is a view that a new Cold War is coming. However, it seems more plausible that the world will be comprised of multiple hegemonies rather than a new bipolarity. What speaks in favor of this configuration is the existing interdependence between China and the US, preventing the complete decoupling between the two. There will be definite negative repercussions for the Asia Pacific as the countries of the region would prefer not to choose between Washington and Beijing, and there will be ambivalent repercussions for Russia as well, given its visible decoupling from the EU and the US, facing a risk of over-reliance on China. China, in its turn, is improving its fight-back mechanisms through developing its own sanctions politics.

  • The Korean peninsula as a problem is becoming increasingly secondary for China and the US amidst their confrontation, which cannot but influence the prospects of its resolution negatively.

  • As for Russia—the Republic of Korea bilateral relations, there is still a good window of opportunity for economic cooperation; we can discuss how to sustain the Peninsula problem resolution process, engage more actively on data security and other issues that remain relevant, but to certain extend neglected.

Beom Shik Shin

  • The US, China and Russia form a strategic triangle in the region, which has natural implications for the Republic of Korea—Russia bilateral relations. 

  • The US’s leadership across the world has weakened, and the conceptual change, championed by the new Biden administration, aiming to renew American leadership, uphold its ideological value and democracy standards, may not be successfully promoted internationally. 

  • The US—China competition will continue to grow, so regional countries are now facing a choice between the poles. However, unlike the first Cold War, they can remain active agents of change in the regional dynamics, that are not as susceptible to great power confrontation, and try to form and promote their values.

  • Russia needs to make sure that its zone of strategic interests is preserved against the backdrop of the competition for hegemony. Russia’s and the US’s involvement in resolving international issues worldwide creates prospects for the improvement of their relations. The New START Treaty has already been prolonged, President Putin has also stated he is ready for cooperation with his American counterpart, and according to the recent news the Russia—US summit is under discussion. The two countries also share an interest in Middle East regional issues, Iran's nuclear program issues. At the same time, their positions diverge on human rights, cybersecurity issues, alleged suppression of freedom in Russia, etc. Apart from this, Western sanctions create a feeling of economic fatigue in Russia.

  • If the US’s approach to Russia remains as it is now, Russia is expected to emphasize alternative values, build on its strategic partnership with China and continue to support authoritarian countries in its neighborhood. Russia’s so-called “New Eastern Policy” can be understood as multi-purpose, aiming at strengthening regional ties, improving relations with the US and ties with China at the same time. However, Russia also seems to aim to restore its position as a regional broker in the context of the US—China competition.

  • To achieve strategic stability all parties to the strategic triangle will have to form strategic alliances with middle powers. Russia can become a strategic cooperative partner for South Korea in the wake of China’s rise as Moscow makes an extraordinary effort to balance it as well as to strengthen its economic reach. Russia, South Korea and Japan can also develop cooperation to secure space for autonomy and regional stability against the US—China strategic competition. 

  • As for the situation on the Korean Peninsula, it is of vital importance for Moscow and Seoul to avoid the trap of North Korean reductionism in their relations and focus on bilateral issues as well. If North Korea is drawn into the equation, the structural pressure from the US—China strategic competition, strategic communication channels and strategic solidarity between middle-ground powers should be revitalized. 

Anastasia Pyatachkova

  • South Korea is one of the most successful examples of economic growth, which Russia can use. However, in the current circumstances, the economic consequences of the pandemic may well lead to economic and internal instability in many countries in the Asia Pacific. At the same time, China has managed to sustain its economic growth and South Korean losses are not as high as one could imagine, so Asia remains one of the most promising regions of the world.

  • Still, it should be kept in mind that economic pressure, created by the pandemic, can hardly be combined with the increasing military budget of many countries worldwide and in the region in particular, as they are trying to protect themselves amidst the US—China confrontation. 

  • Apart from traditional security threats, it is important not to overlook non-traditional ones. The Asia Pacific is exposed to natural disasters; it systemically experiences problems with water security and food security. Russia has a lot of experience in dealing with natural disasters, which creates room for collaboration with South Korea in this field.

  • As regards the US—China relations, experts often touch upon the dilemma between decoupling and interdependence in their interaction. The latter is still very important to this day, which presents a great counterargument to the whole bipolarity narrative. However, we do see decoupling trends as well and it would be simplistic to say that only the pandemic and elections in the US influenced those. 

  • In this context, it is important to remember that the US remains the main initiator of sanctions worldwide and in 2020 it initiated 449 episodes whereas China only 20. Figures speak against any speculations about the so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy of Beijing.

  • Russia—Korea relations have room for improvement. As for investment, they could focus more on regional cooperation, for example, on the Far East and the Arctic, especially since Russia is chairing the Arctic Council this year. Although the deepening of Russia—China relations has ambiguous consequences, the Arctic is interesting for China too and can be a place for constructive engagement of all sides. 

  • Education, culture and other soft power-related spheres are currently gaining momentum on the bilateral agenda. Korean pop culture has successfully spread in Russia, so Seoul might help Moscow with promoting Russian culture in Korea.

Sangtu Ko

  • The history of the Asia Pacific shows that any war can happen in the region and the contemporary security environment presents a test for strategic consent between the parties. Japan is trying to enhance its military capabilities, China has long been pursuing military build-up combined with economic development. All this raises concerns about stability in the region. Possible conflicts may have a “maritime vs continental powers” dimension. In this situation, South Korea could become a bridge between these two groups.

  • The “Nine Bridges” project of the Korean government confirms its preparedness to play an intermediary role in the region.

  • The South Korean government is interested in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, so the dialogue and compromise on behalf of North Korea are important here as well. 

  • China is advocating socialism and North Korea may join it in this camp, whereas the US is keen on promoting its liberal values, supported by Europe, Japan and Australia, which likens the current rivalry to that of the Cold War. If China and the US are engaged in the competition mode of relations, Russia and South Korea could build a peace coalition to mitigate the outcomes of such competition due to their proximity to one of the poles, yet strategic reasoning. 

  • Two flashpoints of the current situation—the nuclearization of North Korea and the division of the Korean Peninsula—impede progress and prevent prosperity in the region. Solving the nuclear problem will spare South Korea and Japan from the need to engage in an arms race to protect themselves, and Russia—from the radiation risks associated with North Korean nuclear tests. 

The Outcome

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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