Connecting Siberia to the World — (Part III) Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotika

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Constituting all of North Asia, Siberia is an extensive geographical region that is sparsely populated (from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east). It has been a part of Russia since the latter half of the 16th century after the Russians conquered lands east of the Ural Mountains. Covering an area of over 13.1 million square kilometres, Siberia is home to merely one-fifth of Russia’s population, Novosibirsk and Omsk being the largest cities in the region.

River Yenisey divides Siberia into Western and Eastern parts. It stretches southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and the northern parts of Mongolia and China. Known for long harsh winters with short mild summers that keep the soil frozen throughout the year, much of Western Siberia is covered by forest (Taiga) while the northern region is a treeless steppe region called Tundra.

Siberia is extraordinarily rich in minerals, containing ores of almost all economically valuable metals. It has some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel, gold, lead, coal, molybdenum, gypsum, diamonds, diopside, silver and zinc, as well as extensive unexploited resources of oil and natural gas. Russia contains about 40 per cent of the world’s known resources of nickel at the Norilsk deposit in Siberia. Norilsk Nickel is the world’s biggest nickel and palladium producer.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu lately introduced a grand master plan for Siberia, which – if implemented – could move Russia towards Eurasia. Up to five new major connecting the vast region to the Arctic cities should be built in Siberia; each with a population of up to one million. They will be the centres of new industrial clusters including state-of-the-art facilities for natural resource extraction and processing, as well as research and infrastructure to draw population to the largely underpopulated and underdeveloped area. The wider land borders of the Russian Arctic zone, which were formalised in 2020, and the offered incentives have attracted investors in the Far North. In October 2020, Russian President Putin inked an order to expand the Russian Arctic zone’s land borders, including municipalities in the Krasnoyarsk Region, in the Arkhangelsk, Karelia and Komi regions. Under the new Arctic preferential regimes began the implementation of the first 294 investment projects. The amount of investments under the projects is 1.1 trillion rubles.

Known for long harsh winters with short mild summers that keep the soil frozen throughout the year, much of Western Siberia is covered by forest.

Under the Arctic LNG-2 project, the investor will make the Murmansk Region a centre for building large-tonnage offshore structures, which is unique for Russia. From the developing Syradasaysky deposit, the coal will be transported along the Northern Sea Route–seven million tonnes a year by 2026. This amount will grow to 12 million tonnes a year.

The development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a system-level task for the implementation of most projects in the Arctic to transport necessary construction materials and structures, as well as raw materials and products. It literally “stitches” the Russian North to the rest of the world. Thus, it is a strategic task to develop it into a new global transport line. Comparing it to the Suez Canal, the Northern Sea Route is 40 per cent shorter and will develop into competition with it. For true competition with the Suez Canal, a lot must still be done: build icebreakers, improve the transport infrastructures, provide satellite communication, the Internet, weather forecasts and ice radars, set a rescue system, build the fleet adapted to the Arctic conditions. An important task is to improve the life of people living in the northern settlements.

The Russian ice-class fleet will triple by 2030, and new 30 weather stations will be organized in the Russian Arctic zone by 2023. Rescue stations will locate in Pevek, Sabetta, Dikson and Tiksi, the necessary aviation equipment has been purchased already. For rescue purposes, the government has allocated 37 billion rubles ($514 million) up to 2026. The key objective is to guarantee all necessary assistance in any location along the entire Northern Sea Route. Russian news agency TASS reported recently that a new division of the Russian Navy, the Arctic Fleet, being created to ensure the Northern Sea Route’s safety, will have ships and special equipment suitable for the Arctic. In this way, Russia of today is working out Peter I’s plans of expanding northern sea routes by utilising modern technical equipment and new opportunities that Eurasian development plans and BRI are offering.

Apart from the northern corridor, plans of connecting Siberia to the south are already underway with the city of Omsk, with a population of over 1 million is the administrative centre and largest city in southwestern Siberia. The second-largest Siberian city after Novosibirsk, Omsk, is already an important rail hub and connects the northern and southern Siberia with the Trans-Siberian rail routes, heading to Europe as well as into Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and south to China. The basis for this is the trans-Siberian Railway. This is a network of railways connecting Western Russia to the Russian Far East. It is the longest railway line in the world, with a length of over 9,289 kilometres (5,772 miles), starting from the capital Moscow, the largest city in Europe, and ending at Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean.

Government ministers personally appointed by the Emperor Alexander III of Russia and his son, the Tsarevich Nicholas (later Emperor Nicholas II from 1894), supervised the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway that directly connected Moscow to Vladivostok between 1891 and 1916. Even before its completion, the line attracted travellers who wrote of their adventures. As of 2021, the expansion of the railway system continues with connecting rails going into Asia, namely Mongolia, China and North Korea. There are also plans to connect Tokyo, the capital of Japan, to the railway via bridges between the mainland and the islands of Sakhalin and Hokkaido once the border issues between Russia and Japan are cleared.

The Russian Railways JSC launched a program in 2008 for the accelerated delivery of containers cargo by block trains from the Far-Eastern ports (Vladivostok, Nakhodka and others) to the western borders of Russia, called “Transsib in Seven Days.” Within the framework of this program, the cargo delivery time from the Far East decreased from 11 days in 2008 to seven days in 2015.

Asia’s highest-altitude railway tunnel was quietly completed last month, as part of the Dongshan Tunnel complex in Northwest China’s Qilian Mountains. It is expected to significantly increase traffic flow between Gansu and Qinghai, cutting more than 400 kilometres on the previous road connections and about five hours in time. To the north, this route connects through Kazakhstan and to Omsk in Siberia, to the south, with Yunnan Province to the border with Vietnam. It is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Russia is the founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Vietnam already having a Free Trade Agreement with the EAEU, which, in 2015, introduced the free movement of goods, capital, services and people within its five member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Tajikistan was formally invited to join the union and has expressed its interest in acceding, membership negotiations are underway. In addition, Russia has free trade agreements and trade pacts with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Serbia and Egypt. The free flow of goods between these and any future members require new transport channels.

Lists of Russia Belt & Road Initiative projects tend to concentrate – or only include – the massive Power of Siberia gas pipeline that leads from the Russian Arctic to China. However, although this is important, there is rather more going on than purely viewing the Russia-China relationship as only an energy play.

In terms of the Belt & Road Initiative and Russia, several specific projects are coming to completion. In doing so, they will offer post-project opportunities for foreign investors to participate in. This is especially true in the services sector and where transportation corridors and trade development technologies and agreements have emerged. The construction of the Eurasia high-speed railway connecting Europe to China is underway. The 772-kilometres line connecting Moscow to Kazan is just one part of a US$60.9 billion Eurasia High-Speed Railway Project and is scheduled for completion by 2023.

With Afghanistan on the way to peace and the Biden Administration preparing a soft landing for the lifting of US sanctions against Iran new avenues for north-south connectivity will be turning up soon and the fabled “warm waters,” once a figment of imagination rather than any concrete substance, comes within reach.