In the Tradition of Witte, Russia Launches Siberian Development Initiative

Speaking at the 8th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Sept. 12 , Vladimir Putin made it crystal clear that Russia is launching an all-out mobilization to develop the tremendous economic and natural resources existing in the vast Siberian territory. “One thing is clear,” he said, “the Far East is Russia’s strategic priority for the entire 21st century, and we will stick to this.”

With the West exerting great pressure to “decouple” Russia from the rest of Europe, Moscow has decided to turn eastward to the Asia-Pacific, where the opportunities are greatest. In doing so, the country is returning to those policies that have been its strength throughout history, given that Siberia and the Far East are perhaps the greatest source of natural and mineral resources possessed by any nation.

From the 17th century, when Gottfried Leibniz encouraged Tsar Peter the Great to begin to probe the vast expanses of Siberia up to Sergei Witte’s 19th century project of linking the continent with a cordon of steel — the Transsiberian Railroad (following the example of Lincoln’s Transcontinental Railroad in the United States) — the wealth of Siberia and the Far East has always existed as a hidden treasure waiting to be exploited. And while the oil and gas of the region has already served the Russian economy in good stead, the entirety of Russian scientist Dimitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of elements lies hidden under the taiga and tundra of this enormous eastern region.

This policy was formally announced at the recent Eastern Economic Forum, but the basis for the thrust has been laid over the last decade and more. Russia’s decision to build its latest cosmodrome in Vostochny, in the Far East, indicated the understanding that this is where its economic future lay. New cities are being built in what were formerly small harbor towns on the northern Pacific coast and along the Northern Sea Route, as well as along the Chinese border, where trade with populous China has been steadily on the increase. Various incentives have been created to encourage people to emigrate to the region, where the climate is often difficult.

The two major east-west railroads, the Transsiberian and the Baikal-Amur Railroad (BAM) will be refurbished and modernized. And the warming of the climate in the Siberian Arctic is nature’s way of providing a third corridor of east-west transport via the Northern Sea Route.

This policy is already being viewed as beneficial by China, whose economic development is fueled in part by the oil and gas resources of Siberia. Just a few days before the Economic Forum, President Xi Jinping visited China’s northeastern province of Heilongjiang, on the border with Russia, where he encouraged high-end development of that province. Heilongjiang, a “black Earth” region of China’s agricultural geography, had also served during the first half of the last century as one of the major industrial production areas of China.

In short, the great resources of the Siberian plateau will provide the basis for Russia’s revitalization in spite of the Western sanctions, and will provide the promise of unlimited expansion in the Asia Pacific region.

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