Staunton, Dec. 25 – Aleksandr Shalak, a historian at Baikal State University in Irkutsk, says that Russia’s failure to develop its internal transportation network puts its economic development and even its sovereignty at risk however often it uses force to expand its territorial extent.
In a new article, “The Role of Transportation in Securing Political and Economic Security: Unlearned Lessons of History” (in Russian, Istoriko-ekonomicheskiye issledovaniya 22:1 (2021): 142-162; online at jhist.bgu.ru/reader/article.aspx?id=24307), he provides some devasting statistics to back up his argument.
Shalak says it is a general rule that “great are not those states which occupy large spaces but those which control the transportation and communications on their territories.” Russia has not done well by that measure. Indeed, he argues, it lost by the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese war because of these shortcomings.
But it is a profound mistake to think that this problem is only a historical one. In fact, in some respects, it is getting worse. Trade between the Pacific rim countries including China and Europe now amounts to a billion tons a year, but Russia can handle only 90 million of that, 85 million via the Trans-Siberian and five million by the Northern Sea Route.
And since 1991, the situation has been getting worse not better, the historian says. Between 1992 and 2017, Russia built a total of 407,600 kilometers of railway, about the same as the USSR built on average in a single year.
Russia’s situation regarding river and sea transportation links is just as bad, he continues. During World War II, Russia lost 365 ships, but between 1991 and 1997, it sent to the scrap heap 629. And at the same time, it closed many of the yards that had been used to build ships in Soviet times.
The carrying capacity of the Russian river fleet collapsed. In the 1980s, Russian river vessels annually carried 500 to 600 million tons of cargo and 103 million passengers, but in 2015, these ships carried only 120 million tons of cargo and only 13.5 million passengers – and this despite the fact that Russia has the longest internal river system in the world.
Russia’s domestic aviation network has collapsed as well. In the mid-1980s, its smaller planes made about one million flights a year and carried almost 10 million passengers. Now, this network has declined to the point that it is carrying only two percent of what it once did, effectively cutting off one part of the country from another.
In 1990, the RSFSR had 1400 civilian airports. By 2016, that number had fallen to 282. And the system has become even more Moscow-centric than it notoriously was in Soviet times. Now, two-thirds of all domestic flights go through Moscow rather than between other cities of the Russian Federation.
Road construction has also collapsed. In the first post-Soviet decade, only 97,000 kilometers of new hard surface highways were opened, down from multiples of that in the last decades of Soviet power. As a result, Russia has a density of highway mileage per 1000 square kilometers 30 times less than Germany and ten times less than the United States.
Unless these numbers change and soon, Russia will not be able to develop economically and will not be able to prevent outside powers from dominating portions of the country, Shalak says. Moscow should be worried about that rather than focused on further expansion abroad as it appears to be now.