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Trans–Siberian Railway

Problems of Geography: Military and Economic Transport Logistics in Russia’s Far East

Emily Ferris
Occasional Papers, 12 October 2020
International Security Studies, Russia
This Occasional Paper examines transport and logistical inadequacies in Russia's Far East and assesses the implications for the country's economy and security.

Russia is vast – it is two and a half times the size of Europe – and its often-inhospitable terrain means it has long wrestled with the problem of developing adequate infrastructure. This presents the Kremlin with both strategic and logistical issues. 

Maintaining Russia’s status as a military power, defending its remote eastern borders, and guaranteeing its economic security through the production and export of oil, coal and gas are all key goals for the Kremlin. However, Russia’s railway, road and port systems are a significant vulnerability for its military and economic ambitions. 

Russia’s power structures have become increasingly Moscow-centric since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. This has meant regional administrations in the Russian Far East (RFE) continue to be overlooked economically and politically. Putin has curtailed regional governors’ autonomy, while the regions are often funded in piecemeal ways and in significant debt to Moscow. Notwithstanding numerous state-initiated development plans for the RFE and the establishment of the state-controlled Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, locals often feel detached from mainstream Kremlin policymaking, particularly in the remote regions that border China and Mongolia. 

Some political elites in Moscow and the regions are aware of the need to develop the RFE to support Russia’s ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region. But these same players also view the RFE as a convenient money-making opportunity that can be exploited to further their own financial ends. They are aware that patronage networks risk being uprooted if new players enter the market. The Kremlin’s approach to the RFE often takes the form of hyped investment programmes or grandiose infrastructure projects, which do not allocate funding to the right areas, and ultimately have few tangible economic, political or security benefits. 

Most of Russia’s dense transport networks, and its civilian population, are located in the west of the country, leaving the RFE underfunded, under-populated and under-resourced. Concentrating the population in the west makes economic and practical sense – it has fewer geographical challenges and climate variations, and is closer to the EU, which remains Russia’s largest trading partner. This has left the east more vulnerable to economic and security changes. This paper aims to determine whether this uneven transport network density has impacted Russia’s economic and security interests in the RFE. 

Emily Ferris
Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia

Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI, specialising in Russia and Eurasia’s foreign... read more

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