The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Originally published by  The Diplomat

Is Russia Losing Control of Its Far East?

Why Moscow fears growing Chinese dominance in the east.

This article was co-authored by Andrew S. Bowen and Luke Rodeheffer.


There has been considerable speculation recently about a nascent alliance between China and Russia, especially given the context of America’s “pivot” to Asia. The pivot coincides with increasing anxiety by Russia over its Far East and has led it to increase its political and economic presence in the region. But despite recent military exercises, Xi Jingping’s first foreign visit to Moscow and other signs of growing cooperation between the two countries, the bilateral relationship is a short-term calculation by Russia that while interests coincide for now it is in fact China that poses the greatest threat to Russia’s presence in the East.

Whenever Russia decides to assert its authority in what it considers its sphere of influence or in a particular region, it can be safely assumed that its military will be a key component of its strategy. And Russia’s military has been much more active as of late, from plans to modernize and create a cutting-edge, mobile force that Putin believes Russia merits to an increasing number of drills in areas of strategic importance.

In mid-July, China and Russia staged their largest ever joint naval drills. China dispatched seven warships (from both its North and South Sea fleet), with Russia contributing its Pacific fleet flagship, the Slava class guided missile cruiser Varyag, and a Kilo class submarine, among other assets. In addition to being the largest foreign naval exercises by China, they went beyond counter piracy and terrorism drills to actively work on anti-submarine, surface and air defense warfare, apparently aimed at countering U.S. or its allied navies. They also followed a joint training exercise between the U.S. Navy and Marines with Japanese Self Defense Forces in Southern California, but deputy commander-in-chief of the Chinese navy Vice Admiral Ding Yiping stated that the drills were not targeted at any third parties and were aimed at improving the two states’ anti-piracy cooperation. Still, the exercises were interpreted by many analysts as yet another sign of a convergence by both Russia and China on the need to actively counter the increasing U.S. pivot to the region.

But China and Russia are cooperating on more than just extensive naval drills. The two countries hold an annual anti-terror drill named “Peace Mission,” which this year took place at the Chebarkul training range in Chelyabinsk. The drills are held every year and rotate between Russia and China, exemplifying a growing “military rapprochement.” between the countries. “We maintain successful military-technical and military cooperation,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Chinese State Council member Yang Jiechi, “The exercise, which has ended recently, proves this.”

Nonetheless, despite the glowing appraisals by both Putin and Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev on the quality of relations between the two countries, both history and geopolitical considerations should temper expectations of any growing alliance.

On the heels of their much vaulted naval drills, Russia launched its largest military exercises since the Soviet era, aimed at displaying the status of Russia’s modernizing armed forces and signaling that China is not the only power in the region with significant military strength. The snap drills, the third since January testing the readiness of the military, supposedly numbered some 160,000 troops, 130 planes and 70 ships. (Russia has also conducted other exercises in the region, ostensibly aimed at posturing to China. These exercises, called Vostok, are smaller in scale but are meant to display Russia’s ability to conduct combined arms operations.) As has been written previously, there are significant questions as to whether the drills involved the numbers advertised and whether they went as well as Putin says they did, which was “more than satisfactory.” As Alexander Golts wrote in The Moscow Times, “…out of a desire to impress Putin, the top brass lumped all the units of both the Eastern and Central Military Districts into one wildly inflated figure (despite the fact that) most of those units never deployed anywhere or took part in any maneuvers.”

A key component of Russia’s plan to project its power in the region is its Pacific Fleet. Long the neglected sibling of its other fleets; the Pacific fleet is projected to be equipped with some of Russia’s newest and most impressive additions to its naval arsenal. Currently, the Pacific fleet consists of the Slava Class Guided Missile Cruiser Varyag, four Udaloy class destroyers, a Sovremenny class destroyer and dozens of submarines (including five Delta III class ballistic nuclear submarines). But with Putin’s desire to modernize the military – particularly the Navy – and with its attention turning to the perpetually underinvested Far East, the Pacific fleet is set to receive some of the newest and most technologically advanced ships in the Russian arsenal. In the next several years, the fleet is supposedly to receive one of two newly constructed Mistral Assault Ships, several Stereguschy class destroyers and one of the first of the new Borei class ballistic submarines. The eight Borei class submarines to be built will be equipped with 16 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles and form the core of Russia’s sea based nuclear deterrent.

The genesis for the spate of snap military drills is to show that Russia no longer has the shell of an army that it had in the 1990s and that many of the glaring deficiencies during the 2008 war with Georgia have been addressed. Russia has been determined that it will not be relegated to the role of a cursory player in the Far East or allow the region to be entirely overtaken by Chinese demographic and economic might. That is why the attempts to portray such a large and effective series of military exercises is crucial to portraying Russian power in the region.

Russian concerns about China’s steady encroachment into the Far East have steadily increased since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region’s population has shrunk by 20% since 1991 to just 6.28 million, a number that will fall to 4.7 million by 2025. China’s three northeastern regions, on the other hand, are home to 110 million people. Shortly after taking office in 2000, Vladimir Putin famously warned that unless long-term trends were reversed, “Russians in the border regions will have to speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean within a few decades.” Twelve years later, Putin returned to the subject, labeling the development of the Russian Far East “the most important geopolitical task” facing the Federation.

Nonetheless, news from the Far East this summer continues to demonstrate rapid Chinese demographic and economic penetration of the region. It was announced in mid-August that the Chinese State Development Bank is also considering spending up to $5 billion on various projects in the Far East as part of Russian state programs that focus on the region’s development. This is only the latest in a series of moves on the part of Russia that have given China an increasing role in the development of the region, which the Kremlin has increasingly been resigned to allow since Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedevopenly called for attracting Chinese investment to the region in May 2009. Since then, Medvedev has definitely gotten what he asked for: the Chinese media reported in 2011 that foreign direct investment into the Far East from China totaled $3 billion, while Moscow allocated less than a third of that amount in 2010 for the regions.

Further highlighting China’s increasing role in the region is an article that originally appeared in the Japanese press and was subsequently translated into Russian in August and published under the title “The Sinification of Siberia.” The article focused on how the Chinese population that lives across the border from Russia continues to find new ways to cross the border into the Russian Far East for agricultural work, despite a ban on owning or renting land. A Chinese worker interviewed for the article named Su Shaoyuan had obtained several million dollars in agricultural equipment via loans from Chinese banks, which he has now put to use in the Far East. Within several years he will be able to pay back all of the loans and begin turning a handsome profit. Despite attempts to limit the flow of Chinese workers, Su admits that “I can guarantee 100% that the number of Chinese who, upon seeing my success, will want to invest like me will increase. This land is buried treasure.” The article notes that, despite claims otherwise, the regional governments are so concerned about China’s rapidly expanding influence that they are encouraging Japanese investors to create their own agricultural projects in the Russian Far East to counter China.

In the Jewish Autonomous Region, a small administrative district that was originally created to house the Soviet Union’s Jewish population under Stalin, 40% of arable land is now under the administration of Chinese workers. According to Chinese media, 90% of the vegetables sold in the Far East in 2012 were grown by Chinese workers. Estimates put the number of Chinese guest workers in the Far East at half a million.

These demographic changes are quite worrying to the Russian leadership, as evidenced by a statement by Medvedev in August 2012. Two days after two new nuclear submarines were dispatched to the Pacific Fleet, Medvedev warned that it is vital to protect the Far East from “excessive expansion by bordering states” while noting that it is “important not to allow negative manifestations … including the formation of enclaves made up of foreign citizens.” While the first quote was clearly directed at China, the second comment could just as easily serve as a warning of the potential consequences of Moscow’s own policies aimed at developing the region.

Viktor Ishayev, the official placed in charge of the Far East by Putin, has begun a program to develop the region by attracting 1.1 million new workers to the region in the next decade, including workers from abroad. Between 240,000 and 280,000 guest workers have already arrived in the Far East from the Caucasus and Central Asia, a large number considering the small and declining native population. As Marlene Laurelle notes in a recent policy brief, “If Russia’s Arctic develops economically, it would mean a rapid increase in Russia’s Muslim and Central Asian population, an identity dilemma that Moscow is currently unable to solve.” Given the ethnic clashes that are now erupting with increasing frequency between ethnic Russians and gastarbeiters from former Soviet states, it is likely that this strategy of attracting migrant labor will not only cause ethnic tensions in the region but contribute to the flight of native Russians out of the Far East, who are already leaving the region for a variety of reasons, such as seeking higher wages and escaping the poor state of the infrastructure, and settling not only in European Russia but also, increasingly, in China itself.

Russian politicians have floated another proposal for the development of the Far East: moving the Russian capital from the European side to the Asian side of the country. Despite the absurdity of the idea of relocating hundreds of thousands of officials to another continent, the suggestion that Russia do just that has been made by Defense Secretary Sergey Shoygu, and most recently the mayor of Vladivostok in an interview. More than anything else, the proposal underscores Russia’s increasing desperation that the region will simply fade from its control without close attention. Development efforts have hitherto had very mixed results: Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for Globalization’s Problems, a Moscow-based think tank, blasted the efforts of the Ministry for Far Eastern Development in a recent interview, saying the most that the Ministry had accomplished was the construction of a Kosmodrome. The Chinese domination of the Far East, he added, was “continuing at a vigorous pace.”

And so the shiny new additions to the Russian Pacific Fleet stand not only in contrast to the region’s rapidly decaying infrastructure but to the very forces that will shape the Far East’s future: geopolitical power in the 21st century is determined just as much by foreign direct investment and transnational labor migration as by displays of military hardware. All the might of the Pacific Fleet will do little to keep the region from continuing to slowly drift out of Russia’s sphere of influence.