Siberia, a European issue

A map showing the part of the Eurasian landmass controlled by Russia
In the longer run, control and defence of the eastern part of its huge territory is a bigger challenge for Russia than securing its European flank (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Siberia is a vast expanse of land in northern Asia. It covers more than 13 million square kilometers, stretching from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. Although it represents some 10 percent of the surface of the globe and 77 percent of Russia’s land area, the rough territory has only about 40 million inhabitants. Russia conquered it between the 16th and 19th century. Today, some 80 percent of Russia’s population is living in the comparably small part of the country west of the Urals.

Next to the largely empty Siberia lies a populous, booming China. It has become politically and militarily more assertive in recent decades.

The challenge for Russia to secure its Asian borders and, in this context, to develop Siberia, is very big. In the longer term, control and defense of this part of its territory is a taller task for Russia than securing its European flank.

It is not in Russia’s long-term interest to rely heavily on China – and even less in Europe’s interest

The European Union, the United States and some of their allies have retaliated with an economic war on Russia. As an act of punishment for Russia’s unjustified intervention in Ukraine and its taking over Crimea, they imposed sanctions.

There is also a verbal and propaganda battle in various forms going on. But more importantly, a large deployment of military forces has taken place on both sides of a stretch between Scandinavia through the Balkans all the way to the Black Sea.

There is logic in the assumption that the Baltics states, as well as Central and Southeastern Europe, are vulnerable to Russia, and therefore that it is essential for NATO forces, and those of allies such as Sweden, to show a strong presence in these regions. Deterrence is indispensable to assure peace and it must include a credible threat of retaliation. The Russians, on the other hand, claim that a strong NATO presence in the Baltics and in Central Europe poses a threat to their national security.

The Kremlin is also concerned with what it regards as Western “values-based” interference in Russia’s internal matters. This concern is not unjustified. But by the way, Russia appears to be using a similar strategy toward the West.

Two-pronged strategy

As a consequence of tensions mounting on its western flank, Russia is turning toward its eastern neighbor. The year 2017 is the first when the volume of Russia’s trade with China will exceed that with the European Union. However, for historical reasons, there is lingering distrust between the two powers. It is not in Russia’s long-term interest to rely heavily on China – and even less in Europe’s interest. On the other hand, developing Siberia and securing its borders is in Russia’s vital interest – and it is also important for Europe. (Even though Russia is primarily a European country, here I employ the term “Europe” for its western and central part only.)

As we said, military deterrence, now being mounted by NATO, is necessary and effective. But policies of “punishment” are usually counterproductive in international relations. Sanctions, especially, rarely prove effective.

Europe’s Russian strategy could be two-pronged: continue showing sufficient military strength in the states bordering Russia, to end temptations of Ukraine-like adventures (Europe’s close ties with the U.S. remain crucial here), and at the same time, partner with Russia on the development of Siberia. Europe’s economic and industrial strength makes such a project feasible. A stable Russian-European relationship requires both deterrence and strong economic ties. This could be a foundation for more understanding and mutual noninterference in internal politics.

The project must not, of course, hamper the North Atlantic friendship and ties with the U.S. Europe plays a vital role in the North Atlantic area, and also as part of the Eurasian continent. For the U.S., too, a successful Russia, economically tied to Europe, is more opportune than a Russia closely linked to China.

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