Siberia: Russia’s Alternative Vector


The current crisis between Russia and the West is formed from so many fundamental (geopolitical) differences, both in the former Soviet space and elsewhere, that there are indications the relations will remain stalled for long into the future unless one of the sides makes large concessions.

This quite naturally leads many to think how this state of affairs will impact the Russian foreign policy. One thing is clear: the direct Russian geopolitical influence around its borders has diminished over the past 25 years or so. Although the break-up of the Soviet Union was indeed catastrophic to what the Russian rulers had been building for centuries, a more fundamental diminishing of the Russian influence has been taking place since 1991.

Successful western expansion into what was always considered as the “Russian backyard,” in some sense isolated Russia’s projection of power and diminished the country into the north of Eurasia – between the fast-developing China, Japan and other Asian countries and the technologically modern European landmass.

Many foreigners believe that the European advances in the former Soviet space go against Russian state interests, so do the Russians in the Kremlin. True, Ukraine is important, and losing its market to the EU hurt the Russian Eurasian Economic Union. But it often happens in the formation of foreign policy that popular notions take hold over pure state interests. Russia before the World War 1 believed that its state interests lay in its control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. They also believed that the Slavs in the Balkans were Russia’s primary allies in the name of Slavic unity.

The Russians also believed that the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were a threat to Russia and entangled themselves in the alliance with France and Great Britain. The truth is that Russia fought the war for France’s revanchist goals of reuniting Alsace and Lorraine, and for Great Britain’s interests of securing domination over the seas.

The Russians were always afraid of invasions from the European continent, but the truth is that most wars fought by them did not directly correspond to Russian state interests.

Even today, Russia claims that the country’s western borders are vulnerable because NATO and the EU are marching East. In fact, Russia has far more vulnerable territories, such as the North Caucasus and the porous Central Asia.

In some respect, the Russians are simply spending too much of their national energies on problems with the West. Costly military modernization and the support for various separatist regimes in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia weighs much on the Russian budget.

Some Russians could rightly question as to why their country is spending so much on the former Soviet space when Russia’s current borders are more in Asia. Why is their country spending so much on unsuccessfully derailing the Western influences on small lands of Georgia and other parts of the former Soviet space? It is doubly true when one looks at the map of Russia with its large Siberian lands uncultivated and free of population masses.

Siberia is an untapped territory of resources and the Russians have always been curious why their governments have not worked to develop those lands.

Today, when Europe is a source of technological progress as Japan and China are, never in Russian history has there been such opportunity to develop Siberia and transform itself into a powerbase of the world economy.

Russia’s geographic position is indeed unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia historical possibilities to become a potential sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Far East of Russia, and European resources in the West of Russia, will transform the country into a land of opportunity.

The battle with Europe might not be the best foreign policy option for Russia, as was the case in the pre-WWI period. Internal economic development is by far the biggest opportunity to exert influence abroad and the Russians still have this chance.

By Emil Avdaliani

10 May 2018 19:14