Staunton, March 6 – The suspension of most work on the BAM and Trans-Siberian railways over the last year has led to a sharp decline in how much cargo they carried, and that together with demographic problems is forcing Russian Rail to seek defense ministry approval to use soldiers to work on these lines which link Russia and China.
Russian Rails has cited the first of these problems, noting that the company has suffered major losses over the last 12 months and needs to improve its trackbeds significantly if it is to meet Moscow’s ambitious targets for the expansion of shipping via this corridor. But it is likely that the demographic problem Russia faces is more critical (krizis-kopilka.ru/archives/84114).
The declining number of young Russians available for military service or working on such labor-intensive projects far from the center as railway development in Siberia means that the Kremlin would appear to be confronted by a choice in reducing the size of the military or cutting back on key economic projects.
Not surprisingly, it is reluctant to do either; and thus using soldiers to perform work on BAM and the Trans-Siberian is a way of trying to do both. But such a strategy carries with it real risks: it makes military service an even less attractive option than otherwise, and it certainly reduces both preparedness and unit cohesion.
Consequently, even though Russian Fail says that the defense ministry has agreed to its proposals, it is likely that many in the defense establishment will drag their feet lest such economic duties undermine Moscow’s ability to maintain its military at the levels Vladimir Putin clearly wants.
It is thus perhaps significant that while Russian Rail has announced an agreement, the defense ministry hasn’t; and even in its announcement, the railroad managers have not said how many men would be involved, a likely indicator that there won’t be many and that the program remains controversial with officers.