Modernization of the Russian Far East: “Fortress Russia” scenario?
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Ivan N. Timofeev

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Department of Political Theory
Associate Professor;
Russian International Affairs Council
Director General;
Valdai Discussion Club
Program Director


SPIN-RSCI: 3517-3084
ORCID: 0000-0003-1676-2221
ResearcherID (WoS): ABF-5625-2021
Scopus AuthorID: 35293701300


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: 76 Vernadskogo Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

The military component will become a top priority and a driving force of Russia’s policy on the Far East. Most efforts of economic integration to the region may mostly remain incomplete. The military sphere will be a priority both in terms of modernization of the Far East as well as Russia’s diplomacy in the region. This drift is determined by the features of Russian governmental institutions and by the tendencies of regional powers’ development. “Fortress Russia” is likely to be a scenario of the Russian future on the Far East.

In the foreseeable future Russia faces a number of challenges and dilemmas, which will affect her Asia-Pacific policy and relations with the neighboring powers. I would stress at least several of them.

Firstly, the challenge of development i.e. the modernization of Russian Far East regions. The key feature of this challenge is that Russian authorities will have to modernize industrial and infrastructure assets and at the same time to increase the efficiency of the regional governmental institutions. The latter is an essential pre-requisite of successful modernization. It is hardly possible to promote any modernization just increasing financial investments to the regions. Money itself is not able to promote qualitative changes. It will be misused or the effect of investments will be poor. However, smart governance is a problem of Russia in general. The existing model of governance is likely to stay unchanged. It will affect not only the success, but also the profile of modernization of the Far East. The existing institutional structure is hardly capable to promote the “market-oriented” modernization. However, it is quite suitable to run military modernization and to promote several grand projects in infrastructure and energy.

Secondly, the challenge of balancing the regional military powers. Russia still has enough defensive capabilities on the strategic level. Both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons reduce sharply the probability of high-scale military aggression by any regional power. However, Russia will be increasingly vulnerable in local disputes, where nuclear factor can hardly be utilized and conventional arms plays most important role. By now, a considerable part of local disputes are not involving Russia, however, Russia’s declining potential in terms of conventional forces and growing vulnerability in this regard is a matter of concern of the authorities.

Thirdly, the challenge of an effective coalition game. Russia will have to find its place in the regional powers’ coalitions, which exist or emerge nowadays. These coalitions are most likely to develop around the US-China security dilemma. It is not rational for Russia to join any coalition: Russia’s unclear coalition status provides her with wider maneuverability. However, Russia will not be able to utilize fully the capabilities of her possible allies. The choice between coalition independence on the one hand and coalition interdependence on the other is and will be a challenge for Russia’s diplomacy in the region.

Fourthly, the challenge of Russia’s integration into a regional economic system. Current tendencies will inevitably conserve Russia’s peripheral role in the regional economy. This role will be mostly reduced to the supply of energy resources. What is more dangerous for Russia is that even this peripheral status may be severely undermined in the future due to shell-gas and shell-oil revolution. The choice of the future is, therefore, not about peripheral or central role in the regional economy. The choice is about the very existence of Russia as an economic player in the region of NWA and APR in general. It will take efforts to stay at least on the periphery of regional economy.

Fifthly, the challenge of territorial integrity of the Russian Far East. The problem is about a real link between the economies of the Far East regions and the country in general. Growing dependence of these regions on the neighboring countries (most of all China) may fuel political concerns of the center and the tensions between regional and central authorities.

These challenges need to be clarified by a number of tendencies inside Russia and its foreign policy. Russia relies on centralized methods of government and this tendency is likely to stay unchanged. The state or large ventures controlled entirely or partly by the state are the key agents of modernization. This will affect the profile of modernization on the Far East.

Russia’s turn to Asia-Pacific slowed down sharply after the end of APEC summit in Vladivostok. The significance of Far East in the public discourse gas reduced significantly since September 2012. At the same time Russia is drifting slowly from the Euro-Atlantic structures. EU-Russia relations face stagnation, while interaction with NATO seems to resemble a zero-sum game more and more. Russian media and statesmen refer with a growing frequency to the hostility of the outside world. Paradoxically, it is the West, which is perceived as a principle challenge.

In global affairs Russia strives to balance between the global powers – US and EU on the one hand and China on the other. The desire to maintain this freedom of maneuver is another factor, which keeps Russia away from Euro-Atlantic security structures as well as from closer ties with China. Being supportive to Chinese foreign policy, it is in Russian interest to promote multi-polarity in the Asia-Pacific region and avoid tensions with the US, Japan and ROK.

Military reform is one of the top priorities of the Russian government. The military dimension traditionally has been a driving force of Russian modernization and this pattern is likely to reproduce itself. The reform has fueled by the growing perception of outside threat in Russian political discourse.

Moreover, economic asymmetry with the neighboring countries is increasing. Economic asymmetry may be compensated for though the military weight of Russia in the region. There is no other comparable way to maintain Russia’s regional role in the mid-term or even long-term perspective.

The combination of these challenges and tendencies makes the “Fortress Russia” scenario most rational to address them. This scenario implies the investments to military capabilities in the region, modernization of the Pacific Fleet, creation of mobile, flexible and well armed ground forces and modernization of military infrastructure: ports, sheep-yards, airfields, supply chains, etc. This modernization may also have a civil dimension, specially related to railroads and roads, satellites’ use, etc. Creation of job-places, as well as modernization of border-control mechanisms, is also at stake.

It is important to note, however, that this modernization will hardly make Russia a leading military power in the region, comparable to the Soviet Union. Rather it will provide necessary defensive capabilities and the ability to have at least some attractiveness as a coalition player. The modernization will be rather defensive, than offensive.

This scenario does not contradict to the long-term governmental stake on energy projects. Russia’s relations with the EU will stimulate her for further search for energy markets in Asia. However, the problems of Russia’s companies in terms of oil and specially gas prices’ bargaining are well known, while shell-oil and shell-gas revolution will make the case even more complicated.

The same can be stated about Russia’s transition potential. Railroad transit capabilities are severely limited and are not enough for Russian companies themselves. It is hard to count on any visible gain for Russia, specially taking into account alternative transit corridors via China and Central Asia.

In sum, neither energy, nor transit, is likely to become weighty components of Russia’s capabilities in the region. They are important for internal needs, though will hardly make Russia a visible player in the region. In contrast, military modernization is able to retain Russia’s ability to participate on regional coalition games as a more or less equal partner.

Military drift will allow Russian government to address several challenges at once, such as maintaining defensive capabilities, taking into account towering military capabilities of the regional powers, remaining a regional player though in a limited dimension, reduced to military affairs, modernizing at least partly regional infrastructure without any significant change of institutions, keeping centralized influence over the Far Eastern regions.

At the same time, this scenario itself implies a number of challenges for Russian Far East policy. The success of military modernization combined with energy and infrastructure projects depends on internal financial resources, which in turn depend on global energy prices. Any problem with global energy conjuncture will affect negatively military, infrastructure and energy projects.

“Fortress Russia” mode will hardly create regional sources of long-term economic growth with the exception of the energy sector, for which long-term prospects are unclear as I mentioned before. It will be hard to convert military capabilities to economic gain. Geo-policy and economy may stay orthogonal. Existing institutional framework will be frozen and economic asymmetry with the neighboring countries in terms of economy and development is likely to grow up, whether Russia remains a regional military power or not.

Is there any alternative for this course? Military modernization, infrastructure and energy projects are important. However, they should be accompanied by gradual improvement of federal and local institutions as well as economic regimes.

In order to achieve that the development of electronic government boosted, including creation of mechanisms of civil control over local governments via Internet resources. Furthermore, judicial system and legal climate in the region and should be improved. Domestic and foreign business should be protected, and corruption of local authorities should be reduced. Special economic zone projects for the Russian Far East should be restored and special conditions for small and medium business should be improved.

The key target of these measures is the emergence, development and modernization agents on the grass-root level. It is this level, which should provide diverse and decentralized sources of economic growth and development. Without the presence of the grass root level the state will be left alone with all the regional problems and challenges.