Commentary Magazine


Plus Ça Change

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.