Great Power Competition In Siberia – OpEd


The other side of the war in Ukraine is the continuation of the battle between Russia and the US for retaining or capturing Siberia. Washington is cognizant of the fact that Siberia and its resources can guarantee the leadership of the United States in the world for the next hundred years. Russia is also trying to guarantee its existence in Siberia by destroying transatlantic relations through the Ukraine war. Putin is aware that he can think of a great empire only when he dominates this strategic location and its abundant resources which are not threatened by any land, air, or sea power. Over the past hundred years, Russia has been able to become one of the largest regional powers and has the best defensive position by only relying on the resources of Siberia.

By expanding NATO and providing unwavering support to Ukraine, NATO member countries were able to tighten the blockade of Russia and keep themselves closer to the Eurasian region, whose domination is equivalent to world domination. With NATO threatening its security perimeter, Russia had to seize Crimea to strengthen its defense lines. Then, by attacking Ukraine and occupying Kherson, Russia tried to cut off Europe and NATO’s access to the Black Sea. In this way, Russia moved its strategic depth into Europe with nuclear threats against effective NATO countries.

Putin’s goal of the war in Ukraine was to cut the US and its allies’ access to the resources of Siberia. For Kremlin strategists, the geopolitics of Eurasia and Ukraine and its connection with the Mediterranean and the Baltic have always been of strategic importance. They consider this connection as a strong fortress for Moscow and a watergate to the world. Putin even established his complete supremacy over the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in eastern Crimea by capturing Mariupol and holding referendums in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

This strategic strait ensured maritime transit from the Black Sea to Moscow and St. Petersburg and could connect the Black Sea to the main waterways of Russia, including the Volga-Don, through the Sea of Azov. On the other hand, the Volga River connected the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea and also the route to the North Sea through the Volga-Baltic waterway.

Thus, Russia was trying to control an integrated system of waterways in the Black Sea and decided to connect the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through the 101 km Volga-Don Canal and through the Volga to the Baltic and the North Sea route. This would give Russia control of a 4800 km long shipping line and connect its maritime presence from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In fact, in the Ukraine war, Putin sought to secure a vital space for Russia with the aim of controlling Eurasia and the Siberian region. But Western advanced equipment has been a game changer and has pushed Russians back from strategic points in Kherson. If Moscow cannot defend its national borders, NATO will take another step toward Siberia. 

Due to climate change and the rapid melting of polar ice, energy sources in the two important regions of the Arctic and Siberia are more accessible. If Moscow cannot control the heartland of Eurasia, preserving Siberia will be more difficult. Siberia extends from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk and Japan in the east, and from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China in the south to the Arctic Ocean. Even during the time of the former Soviet Union, this region covered more than half of the size of that country, which is 63% larger than the US.

It is estimated that the Arctic holds 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Next to that is Russia’s Siberia which is more than 13 million square kilometers and has been a part of Russia since the end of the 16th century. 

Russia’s attention turned to this region during Stalin’s time. He started the plan to expand the construction of the Siberian region by creating forced labor camps called “Gulak” in order to exploit the difficult regions of Siberia. The heavy cost of investments in this sector led to Moscow inviting the West and Japan to Siberian projects. During the Second World War, 322 key factories were moved from the European part to the Ural Mountains to keep them away from the German forces.

During Stalin’s era, the communist economic strategists tried to speed up the discoveries in different sectors to gain self-sufficiency in strategic resources. By conceptualizing Siberia as an impenetrable nuclear site, military strategists turned this region into a nuclear fortress and built cities along it for the permanent settlement of people. Thus, Siberia and the Far East of Russia developed more than anywhere else. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the development process of this region slowed down especially due to the costs of wars in Crimea and Ukraine and the western sanctions that followed them. Also, many Western companies, especially in the energy sector, have suspended their business in the area and reverse migration has increased.

In case of defeat in the Ukraine war, Russia with more than 140 nationalities located in 11 time zones, may experience another collapse. In case of collapse, Siberia plays a very important role as US and Europe may try to separate this vital region from Russia forever. 

According to a Norway-sponsored report by CSIS, three scenarios have been considered for the future of Russia. One is to maintain the status quo. The second is the process of risk reduction and relative normalization of relations between the West and Russia which was canceled with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The third scenario was to accept a higher degree of risk and enter a confrontation with Russia. The current situation shows that the third scenario has been chosen.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some Western institutions have been working on the collapse of Russia and its division into several newly independent countries. Even some Western research centers are working on how to control Russia’s nuclear weapons. In this regard, various maps about the future of Russia have been published under the title “Dissolution of Russia” and are now being discussed more publicly.

In a report in June 2022, the EU Observer website also predicted separations in the south, east, and center of Russia. Regarding the south, there is the issue of Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan with a population of 5.2 million people. Following the fierce conflicts and the second Chechen war in March 2000, their actions continued by carrying out various terrorist activities until December 2013. In the east of Russia Yakutia, and in the south of Russia, Tatarstan and Bashkiristan with a population of 8 million are unstable. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatarstan agreed with the Kremlin on territorial integrity by holding a referendum. When Abkhazia and North Ossetia declared independence in August 2008, Tatarstan also declared independence and asked the United Nations to recognize it, which was rejected in both cases.

Even China, despite its desire to develop its territory in Russia, may accept the scenario of collapse and under some circumstances, make the Siberian region economically dependent on itself. For example, the two big cities in the Far East of Russia, namely, Veli Vostok and Khabarovsk, are more dependent on China and South Korea than on the European part of Russia.

Russia has unresolved tensions with China and is deeply worried about them. Only about 10 million Russians live on the other side of the Urals, in comparison, the number of Chinese along the border with Russia is very significant. Most of Russia’s natural resources are located in eastern Siberia and are very close to China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and from the summer of 1992 following an agreement between Russia and China, many Chinese were employed in Russian territory. 

Due to the work discipline of the Chinese, their presence in the region increased legally and illegally, and in a short time, about one million Chinese settled on the borders. This situation is referred to as a non-conflict occupation of southern Siberia by the Chinese. Of course, due to the fear of NATO expansion, Russia inevitably pursues the development of relations with China.

The Chinese have benefited a lot from the expansion of their relations with Russia in various ways. In the past decade, China has turned its attention to the Arctic region, and cooperation with Russia in Arctic resources and shipping lines can increase China’s role and influence in the region and make this country a legitimate partner in the Arctic. 

The only conclusion that can be drawn from the current situation is that if a solution is not reached about the war in Ukraine, the world will have to experience a full-scale nuclear war between the great powers before the collapse of Russia.

Greg Pence

Greg Pence is an international studies graduate of University of San Francisco.

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