Russian security is threatened in the east as well as in the south and west (through NATO expansion). In an interview in Moscow’s elite-oriented Nezavisimaya Gazeta on April 25, Prof. Vilya Gelbras of Moscow State University’s Asia and Africa Institute called Russia’s East Siberia and Far East regions the “weakest link” in the “system” of Russian “state security.”
That’s quite a claim for a country fighting a bloody war with Muslim “holy warriors” in Chechnya. In fact, Moscow is threatened with the expansion of Islamic radicalism all along its southern border, from Central Asia to Georgia. Nevertheless, Gelbras claims that the ongoing depopulation of Russia (about a million people per year), especially in Siberia and the Far East, combined with the burgeoning population of a dynamic, aggressive China, represents the chief long-term threat to Russian security.
The region is simply being overrun by illegal Chinese immigrants, a reflection of the huge population disparity in the Russian-Chinese border regions and of the market for cheap consumer goods in the poverty-stricken Russian hinterlands. (Most Chinese illegals are traders or work in small-scale production, often owned and operated by their fellow countrymen, according to Russian media sources.) China, with over one billion people, has a population of 106 million in the lengthy, largely unguarded Russian border region, while Russian demographers report a sparse seven to eight million Russians in the same area. On top of that, Gelbras maintains that the total number of unemployed and partially employed people in China “exceeds the entire [population] of Russia.”
Unlike Russia, which, according to Gelbras, lacks a long-term strategy for developing the area in question, Beijing has plans for the vast Siberia/Far East region, which is rich in mineral resources, oil, and gas. Gelbras sees China using “economic means” (making the region dependent on Chinese labor and trade) and mass migration to absorb it. Thus, the region, which lacks an integrated transportation system and remains remote from European Russia, will gradually become “detached” from the Russian Federation.
This should sound familiar to Americans and Europeans. The same economic and demographic forces threaten the long-term security of both, with Muslim and Latin American states adopting tactics similar to those of the Chinese: Shift unemployed, growing populations to the North, make El Norte dependent on cheap labor and trade ties to the South, and gradually absorb them into the South’s sphere of influence. “Direct threats,” as Professor Gelbras noted, are not needed.
Meanwhile, Russia has become a transit point for illegal migration from Africa and Asia to Europe, with Russian border authorities hampered by a lack of funding and rampant corruption. (Does this ring a bell with those familiar with the situation in the U.S. Border Patrol?)
Russia is attached to the West not only by its Christian heritage and shared cultural attributes but by the very fact of its status as a “developed” nation—one whose defining core population (Russians and other Eastern Slavs) is declining and whose industrial base is disappearing, even as migrants from vastly different nations and cultures fill in the black hole left by the country’s dissolution. The only difference is that the Russians have the excuse of being poor—Western states have the means, but not the will, apparently, to defend their own borders.
Can the West, especially Washington, stop treating Moscow as an enemy long enough to develop some system for cooperating against the common problems we both face? Can Russian elites stop looting their country long enough to develop a credible mechanism for cooperation? That, regrettably, remains an open question.