Putin’s Plans For Russian North And Arctic Transit Crumble – Analysis

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has claimed another victim, this time far from the frontlines. His plan to develop the Northern Sea Route and expand the extraction of natural resources in the Russian North has fallen by the wayside. Putin originally planned to use these to project Russian power across the Arctic.

The Kremlin leader’s diplomatic failures in the region—most notably being sidelined from the Arctic Council and China’s decision to avoid the Northern Sea Route since the expanded invasion of Ukraine began—have attracted a great deal of attention (The Barent Observer, August 23, 2022). The cutbacks on icebreaker construction that Moscow needs to keep the Northern Sea Route operational and delays in the formation of the naval presence necessary to support Putin’s plans have further hampered the Kremlin’s Arctic plans (Window on Eurasia, January 19, 2022; Kommersant, October 21, 2023; The Barents Observer, October 13, 2023).

Moscow’s inability to develop the land-based infrastructure needed to support the Northern Sea Route and the Russian fleet stationed in the Arctic as well as to extract resources from Siberia and the Far East have received much less attention. The Northern Sea Route cannot operate without land-based facilities and Moscow cannot support the fleet in the Arctic without numerous on-shore bases.

Additionally, shipments of coal extracted from Siberia and the Russian Far East have fallen over the past three years. (For background on these problems, see Window on Eurasia, October 17, 2022; see EDM, December 6, 2018, November 14, 2023). Now, as Russia enters the third year of its war against Ukraine, Moscow’s difficulties in the Far North are becoming even worse, a trend that will affect Russia’s long-term goals and may very well make it more difficult for Moscow to continue carrying out the war effort at current levels for an extended period.

The Kremlin has long faced infrastructure problems in the Arctic, which have worsened over the past two years. The melting of the permafrost layer has undermined buildings and transportation networks, forcing officials to prioritize repairs over investments in new infrastructure (Window on Eurasia, September 26, 2023; The Moscow Times, January 26). The Russian population’s flight from the region to the bigger cities of the south, an exodus that some Russian experts say has become “a catastrophe” since the war began, means that Moscow no longer has workers to build new projects (The Barent Observer, December 19, 2023).

Similar problems surround Moscow’s plans to build what some call the “Northern Trans-Siberian,” a railway formally known as the Northern Broad Gauge Route. The railway was intended to link the northern portions of European Russia with Siberia and the Far East as well as carry raw materials from domestic mines and finished products between Europe and Asia. This rail line would pass through some of the most isolated regions of Russia and across numerous rivers, requiring expensive bridges.

Development of this route has long been the dream of Russian governments. Tsarist officials discussed its creation. Stalin used Gulag slave labor for the project, but it was discontinued after his death. Brezhnev started the project up again and then suspended it. And, in 2021, Putin characterized its completion as a top priority. After invading Ukraine, however, he cut the project’s funding, forcing officials to delay the start of construction and push back the planned completion date. Despite bold words from some officials, expert observers are expressing doubts that this line will ever be built (Kommersant, June 19, 2023; Interfax, February 21; Akcenty, March 4).

Moscow’s focus on the Northern Broad Gauge Route typifies yet another Russian problem with infrastructure. The Kremlin invariably seeks to build giant mainline routes and superhighways but does little to construct the branch lines or secondary roads that feed into them. As a result, Russia’s bigger infrastructure projects, even if they are successful, usually carry less freight and fewer people than would otherwise be the case. This makes them expensive “white elephants” that may allow Kremlin leaders to celebrate publicly but do little to address the country’s underlying transportation problems—a point numerous Russian and foreign experts have highlighted (Profile, July 25, 2022).

This pattern alone gives new evidence for the old saying that Russia has only two fundamental problems: roads and fools. Aleksandr Shalak highlighted the seriousness of such issues in an article that appeared just before the start of Putin’s expanded war in Ukraine (Shalak, “The Role of Transportation in Securing Political and Economic Security: Unlearned Lessons of History,” 2021; in Russian, Istoriko-ekonomicheskiye issledovaniya 22:1). The Irkutsk historian argues that, as a general rule, “great are not those states which occupy large spaces but those which control the transportation and communications on their territories.” He says Russia has not done well by that measure, adding that no one should forget that it lost both the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War because of these shortcomings.

Shalak also says that it is a profound mistake to think these problems are only historical. Trade between the Pacific Rim countries, including China and Europe, now amounts to a billion tons annually. Still, Russia can handle only 90 million of that, 85 million via the Trans-Siberian railway and 5 million by the Northern Sea Route. The addition of the Northern Broad Gauge will not change this number significantly. Moreover, the historian says that since 1991, the situation has been getting worse, not better. Between 1992 and 2017, Russia built a total of 407,600 kilometers of railway, about the same as the Soviet Union built on average in a single year, a number that has continued to decline.

Russia is also building fewer roads, especially in the Arctic where they remain almost non-existent, Shalak says. In 1990s, Moscow built only 97,000 kilometers of new hard-surface highways, down from the last decades of Soviet power. As a result, Russia’s density of highway mileage per 1,000 square kilometers is 30 times less than Germany’s and 10 times less than the United States. He warns that unless these numbers change, Russia will not be able to develop economically and will not be able to prevent outside powers from dominating portions of the country. Moscow should be worried about these issues rather than focusing on expansion. If the Kremlin ignores this warning—and it certainly appears to be doing so about the railways and roadways in the Russian North—that could make its current neglect of infrastructure one of the most dangerous collateral benefits of its aggression in Ukraine.

This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 38