Russia and Russian Far East: Transnational Security

and Regional Cooperation

(2-4 December 2003)*





On 2-4 December 2003 the APCSS held its first conference devoted to Russia and the Russian Far East.  The conference reflected the growing interest in the Asia-Pacific region in assessing the integrative potential of the Russian Far East, trends in its external relations, and priorities in its domestic development.  The duality of the Russian Far East—an area blessed with vast natural resources and plagued by serious security challenges—has been attracting the interest of both benign and nefarious regional actors.


The conference brought together senior diplomats, defense officials, businessmen, journalists and leading academics from Moscow, the Russian Far East, Northeast Asia (China, Japan, Mongolia, Republic of Korea), and the United States.  The conference examined Russia’s strategic interests and multilateral diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific, bilateral relations with China, Japan, Mongolia, DPRK and ROK, the role of the Russian Far East in Russia’s external activities as well as domestic priorities, and U.S.- Russian relations in the Asia-Pacific, including military cooperation and confidence building.


Among the major conclusions of this conference:


Russia is increasingly interested in multilateral mechanisms for security and economic integration in the Asia-Pacific.  As the country goes through a reform process and transition to a market economy, it favors prolonged regional peace and stability.  Thorough and systematic economic modernization requires secure borders with Asian neighbors, growth of Russia’s exports to the region, particularly of the rich mineral resources, and increased inflow of foreign investment in the Russian Far East.  The Russian Far East’s welfare is Russia’s main security preoccupation in the Asia-Pacific.  The external environment is considered to be generally benign with the exception of tension on the Korean Peninsula.


Russia under President Putin prefers a policy of equi-proximity between the United States and China but on East Asian affairs Beijing seems to be more willing than Washington to engage Moscow.  In a new global context, relations between the United States, Russia, and China need not be adversarial as the three countries search for areas of cooperation in economic and security areas.  Russia’s strategic relations with the United States and with China will remain complementary and non-antagonistic as long as all three share common security agendas and engage in multilateralism and regionalism.


Russia’s progressing integration with the Asia-Pacific has been largely facilitated by improved relations with China.   Moscow and Beijing have been able to reach major agreements on border issues, expand bilateral trade (with heavy emphasis on Russia’s arms sales), enter into promising large-scale energy cooperation, develop close understanding on Korean developments and, finally, form a multilateral security organization—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  At the same time, part of Russia’s political elite, as well as a considerable part of the population, especially in the Russian Far East, view China as a proximate threat.  China’s fast military modernization and the migration of Chinese to the Russian Far East seem to be the most serious sources of concern on the Russian side.


Despite the dramatic improvement in recent years of international relations in Northeast Asia, Russia’s relations with Japan remain incomplete and inadequate.   Although the territorial dispute over the Kuriles/Northern Territories remains the main obstacle, bilateral relations suffer more from lack of mutual interests and absence of regional compulsions.  This means that while there may be no hostility between Moscow and Tokyo, relations between the two are likely to lag behind their ties with other Northeast Asian nations.


Russia’s interests in the Korean peninsula include the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear threat, prevention of a use of force by the United States against Pyongyang, and linking South Korea to Siberia via rail.  Russian nuclear policy is motivated not only by environmental and safety concerns but a desire to prevent the evolution of strategic dynamic that might prompt Japan and possibly other states (e.g. South Korea) to “go nuclear” in response to clear evidence of a North Korean bomb.


While policy makers in Moscow address the big picture of Russia’s relations with great powers in Asia, regional officials in the Russian Far East contend with the day-to-day realities of cross-border interactions and transnational threats.  Moscow and the Russian Far East not only differ in regional perspectives but also continue to view each other with suspicion.  The Putin administration’s consistent effort to strengthen the “vertical of power” has stabilized the situation but has not completed the process of transforming the governors from the bosses of personal fiefdoms into leaders of regions.  At the horizontal level, competition, and not cooperation, rules relations between different regions of the Russian Far East.  Rather than develop solid ties with one another, regional leaders have focused on their ties with Moscow.


The economic security of the Russian Far East has not improved but rather deteriorated in the last decade despite some promising developments, such as the Sakhalin Energy Project.  The general recovery of the economic situation in Russia has not been matched in the Far East.  The level of economic interaction between the Russian Far East and Northeast Asia as well as the rest of Russia has considerably declined.  The region’s overall contribution to Russian industrial productivity has diminished too.





The Russian Far East is facing significant demographic change and an acute labor shortage.  The population is aging as fertility rates decline. The burden of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic plus tuberculosis and diphtheria divert resources from productive investment.  Social problems such as substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, and homicide are on the rise.  Migration from China to the Russian Far East is particularly problematic.  Most independent experts agree the Chinese influx is relatively small.  Local political interests often play up the “threat” making the problem on a regional level much more important than actual migrant numbers might suggest to outside observers.

The Russian Far East has become an important international transshipment node for transnational trafficking in narcotics, women, migrants, timber, and fish due to the proximity of international borders; convergence of road, rail, air and maritime transport corridors; lack of enforcement capacity; corruption; and the presence of criminal networks.  The routes, actors, and effects of these activities are converging.  The sex trade and heroin use meanwhile exacerbate the growing AIDS epidemic.  Illicit movement corridors that run from Central Asia and Middle East could be exploited by terrorist organizations to move people, guns, and money via the Russian Far East.  Cooperation between criminal organizations is more advanced than that between governments. 

The Russian Far East faces environmental problems with significant security dimensions.  Deteriorating military and civilian nuclear facilities (and waste disposal) are well-known problems but non-nuclear military hazards (insufficient control, maintenance and disposal of conventional arsenals, and hazardous chemicals) have received less attention but pose even greater risks.  Illegal fishing and logging bankroll organized crime, deprives government of needed tax revenues, and may threaten the long-term sustainability of the Russian Far East economy.  The Russian Far East is a major storehouse of biological diversity whose destruction could have significant local and global economic and ecological consequences. 


Although national and strategic level concern over “non-traditional” threats is growing there is still insufficient high-level political will.   The Russian Navy’s 2003 strategic exercise in the Russian Far East focused on combating non-traditional/transnational threats such as: counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, Exclusive Economic Zone enforcement, mass refugee/migration handling, and environmental disaster response.  However, much of the effort against transnational threats has come from the local or sub-regional level involving non-governmental organizations, local police forces, and businesses.  A unique opportunity thus exists for integrating and networking non-state/local government actors into wider national and international efforts to counter non-state transnational threats and promote the development of civil society.


Recommendations for the U.S. policy makers:


The strategic partnership between Russia and China should not be viewed as directed against the Unites States.  The Russo-Chinese cooperation is primarily internally driven.  Moscow is not likely to forge an alliance with Beijing if other regional countries, including the United States, are supportive in practical terms of Russia’s economic and security engagement in the region.


The United States should offer a stronger support for a positive outcome in the Russo-Japanese dialogue.  The unfolding multilateral approach to the Korean problem could lead to a long-term strategy for Northeast Asia that would suggest the utility of addressing bilateral relations within the region.  Against this backdrop, U.S. support for improved Russo-Japanese relations should be a clear and consistent theme in a new strategy for Northeast Asia. 


The United States could benefit from a greater inclusion of the Russian Far East in dealing with North Korea, but it must be willing to allow regional actors to play more significant roles than they do currently in negotiations and in eventual implementation of a settlement.  This will require a change in thinking in Washington and the relinquishment of some control over the eventual outcome.  However, the possible stabilizing role of regional actors—particularly in the economic and security realms—may provide not only a face-saving means of “walking down” the crisis, but also a more lasting framework for peace and nonproliferation.


Transnational and ecological security challenges facing the Russian Far East offer the U.S. numerous opportunities to engage in bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The U.S. has implemented several innovative programs in areas such as military medical cooperation, non-governmental organization assistance and civil society development, Coast Guard-Border Guard anti-poaching cooperation, and nuclear submarine decommissioning.  These efforts however are inadequate and should be viewed as stepping stones to future initiatives.  Potential areas for cooperation include: training and assisting Russian Federation Pacific Fleet in preparing for participation in regional anti-piracy efforts, dismantling of general purpose submarines, maritime patrol and Exclusive Economic Zone enforcement, and development of civil society.


These types of activities bolster U.S. security in three ways.  First, they could help reduce organized crime and trafficking.  Second, deny use of the Russian Far East as a transit area for terrorist operations.  Third, cooperation on transnational/ecological threats creates confidence building measures that could facilitate cooperation on some of the traditional regional security issues of concern to the U.S. discussed earlier.



 *Prepared by Rouben Azizian and Christopher Jasparro, APCSS.