Vladivostok: At the far end of Russia’s vast land mass, the S-56 submarine dominates Vladivostok’s waterfront, red Soviet stars on its torpedo tubes symbols of Moscow’s time as a world superpower.
Now President Vladimir Putin is looking to expand its reach again, declaring the Pacific part of its sphere of influence and proclaiming his country a bridge between Europe and Asia — while also defending its territory more emphatically.
Russia is an “intrinsic part of the Asia Pacific region”, he said at this weekend’s Apec summit, held - unlike most of the year’s Apec meetings — in Vladivostok. Analysts say the choice was an unmistakable gesture.
But such ambitions, they add, may not last and will have to contend with China’s rising economic and political might, plus Washington’s own declared strategic Pacific tilt.
Vladivostok’s very existence is a testament to Russian expansionism - it was founded after China ceded the region to the Tsarist Empire in the 1860 Treaty of Beijing and its name means “Lord of the East”.
Holding the summit there was “symbolic”, said Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, with one of Putin’s reasons being “to force Russia to consider itself as an Asia-Pacific power”.
The Soviet Union had “huge military capability” and “political influence in a whole series of Asian countries” but Russia’s military strength had weakened with the end of the Cold War, he said, while China and India were rising.
“The balance of political and economic power has shifted and Russia has become a peripheral country. Many countries in Asia do not think of Russia as an Asian country.”
Despite a spectacular natural setting amid rolling hills, bays and islands, and the occasional colonnaded building or yacht-packed marina, Vladivostok - once a closed city - retains obvious military aspects.
At one end of the Russky Bridge to the Apec summit’s island venue a gun emplacement looks out to sea, while at the other more than a dozen naval vessels and at least three submarines line a quayside.
Some of the Pacific Fleet’s biggest surface ships are tied up in town.
But Russia’s military adventures in the region have a mixed record - in 1905 the Baltic Fleet was crushed at Tsushima after sailing tens of thousands of kilometres around the world, heralding the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
Nowadays Russia vehemently affirms its sovereignty over the Kuril islands, seized by Soviet forces in the last days of the Second World War and known as the Northern Territories in Japan. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited them earlier this year, provoking fury in Tokyo.
Neighbouring China is also becoming increasingly assertive over territory, arguing bitterly with Japan over disputed islands and insisting on a claim to almost all the South China Sea, raising concerns in Washington.
At the same time Beijing is extending its reach into the Pacific, building up its navy with its first aircraft carrier - a refitted Soviet-era vessel purchased from Ukraine - beginning sea trials last year.
The Obama administration has also made a strategic tilt towards the Pacific, including a deal with Canberra to station Marines in northern Australia.
“There are those in Russia who see China as a prospective threat” despite the two countries’ close relationship, said Olga Oliker, senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation.
“If Russia does find a way to greater prominence in Asia, it is possible that Russia will find its own interests and pursue them, not always in ways that align with China’s needs.”
The US and Russia could also “find they have common goals in some areas”, she added.
Historically Moscow has often marginalised its distant Far East and its engagement may again not last, said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.