Popular political mythology usually thinks of Russia looking east and west, like the double-headed eagle of its state emblem. In reality, Russia has always treated the east and the west very differently. St Petersburg and, later, Moscow have consciously faced Europe and America; Asia, by contrast, has been a backwater and an afterthought. At the beginning of the 21st century, such an attitude is not only unsustainable, but potentially catastrophic.


The principal domestic challenge is the alarming situation of eastern Russia, especially east Siberia and the Russian far east. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these territories have been experiencing a deep crisis of depopulation, deindustrialisation and general degradation.


Before it is too late, Moscow needs to understand that Russia's territorial integrity and unity will not be decided in Chechnya. Instead, they will depend on whether Moscow can find a way to perform the feat of integrating the Russian far east and Siberia (RFES) both with the rest of Russia and with their north-east Asian neighbours.


The principal external challenge is the rise of China. China's gross domestic product dwarfs Russia's by four to one. The gap is likely to continue to widen. As China steadily rises to become Asia's premier power and a global player, Russia has to pay as much attention to China as it does to the US. It should not be talking about a "Chinese threat" to Russia. This does not exist. Rather, Russia needs to come to terms with a China that is much stronger and more dynamic than it is.


Asia also presents an opportunity for Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, to return to the world stage as a heavyweight before the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialised countries in Russia next year.


Russia has assets in Asia that can play a vital role. Most important among them are energy resources. But, while energy diplomacy should be the centrepiece of Russia's efforts in Asia and energy projects are currently the best way to trigger development of the RFES, they must be part of a broader, integrated "grand strategy" that looks forward at least 20 years.


There are six principal elements of this approach. First, it must include an energy strategy that seeks to turn Russia into a big oil and gas supplier to the countries of north-east Asia (China, Japan and the Koreas) and attracts significant Asian investments to help develop the RFES.


Second, the strategy should contain a proactive immigration policy designed to attract labour resources to the RFES of such quantity, quality and ethnic diversity that they would meet Russia's needs without endangering her domestic stability.


Third, a security doctrine aimed at helping to construct a new regional security arrangement for north-east Asia, perhaps on the basis of the current six-nation talks on North Korea, is vital, as is a system of bilateral security relationships between Russia and its principal neighbours, China, Japan and South Korea.


The fourth element is a political strategy with three aims: to establish a stable and friendly relationship with China that would benefit Russia, yet not make it Beijing's vassal; to clear the current obstacles to good relations with Tokyo and help turn Japan into Russia's principal partner in the technological modernisation of the RFES; and to reach out to North Korea and help prepare a soft landing for the Pyongyang regime.


A fifth part of the approach would be a technological innovation strategy designed to exploit to the full Russia's scientific and educational potential.


Finally, the RFES needs a new regional development policy, based on energy exploration and infrastructure development, as well as scientific and technological advancement.


To produce results, the proposed strategy will require a strong implementation mechanism. To ensure maximum effectiveness, this system must be headed by a presidential envoy who would be a viceroy in the region. A person such as Dmitry Kozak, Mr Putin's representative in the north Caucasus, would be ideal. With a foot in Moscow as well as in the region, this official would be assisted by a small but highly qualified staff composed of diplomats with a keen understanding of Asian politics, economists competent in Asian economics and finance, migration specialists, country experts and military and security aides.


Russia is, de facto, run by one person - Mr Putin. On the surface, this may simplify issues but, because of bureaucratic sclerosis, it also means there is vast potential for failure. The approach outlined above would provide the president with both the high-quality professional advice and competent policy implementation to address quickly an issue of paramount national importance.


The writer is director of studies, Carnegie Moscow Centre, and author of The End of Eurasia: Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization.