June 5, 2012
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his address at a parenting awards ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin June 2, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
(Reuters) - When Russia opens a "billion-dollar bridge" on its Pacific coast this summer, Vladimir Putin can expect an enthusiastic audience among the 5,000 islanders whom it will connect to the mainland, at an eye-popping cost per head.
But the president will be looking, too, for attention from a few miles further off, in China, whose rise as a trading and diplomatic partner but also as a potential rival for control of thinly populated Siberia's resources has brought a new focus in Moscow on both business and military investment in the far east.
Putin, who meets Chinese leaders in Beijing on Tuesday as he settles back into his role in the Kremlin, has poured money into the Vladivostok area since it was chosen five years ago to host this September's Asia-Pacific APEC summit.
The bridge, which with a central span of 1.l km (1,200 yards) can claim to be the longest of its type in the world, is a sweeping statement of intent. It connects Russia's main Pacific port to Russky Island, where just 20 years ago, as Soviet Communism collapsed, soldiers starved to death for want of rations being dispatched to this remotest of outposts.
Today, though some question the efficacy of bureaucrats pouring taxpayers' roubles into the region, it shows a will in the Kremlin to engage in the east, where Putin must balance the opportunities and risks presented by the rapid growth of China.
"If Peter the Great were alive today he would relocate the capital to Vladivostok not St Petersburg," said Dmitry Trenin of the think-tank Carnegie Moscow Center, referring to the 18th-century tsar's drive to push Russians into the heart of Europe.
"The Pacific is the equivalent of the Baltic Sea in the 18th century. It's where the action is," Trenin said. "But Russia needs to divert far more attention to the Far East than it has been devoting recently ... It will remain a challenge."