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Russia had always had a slightly distanced attitude when it came to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Though both countries have worked on various BRI projects for years, Russia has always seemed to be an absent partner in the initiative. Russia is not a partner of the BRI; however, it has offered its backyard for some of the infrastructure developments that are significant to the New Silk Road.

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In this article, we explore the Russian interaction with the BRI through infrastructure developments in terms of rail routes, terminals and ports that are critical junctions along the New Silk Road. Despite political asymmetries, the two nations have worked closely together to sustain transport and logistics in the region, creating a win-win situation for both parties.

Russia and BRI projects

Some Russian infrastructure projects are not part of the BRI, but they are critical to Eurasian connectivity and the New Silk Road. Broadly there are two geographic connectivity: China–Mongolia– Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) and the New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB).

The CMREC was announced in 2016, three years after the foundations of the BRI were laid. By then, there was already a known involvement of Mongolia in the project, yet Russia stayed on the fringes even though its trade with China grew over the consecutive years. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner, with over 323,000 TEU of cargo transported annually. In this corridor, the development of road and rail transport became central, increasing speeds of trains and thereby creating faster transport systems between China and Russia via Mongolia. There are two notable routes, first from Honqiraf in China to Novosibirsk in Russia: the other route in the east starting from Tianjin, China to Ulan-Ude, in Russia.

One of the most popular corridors upon which EU-China trade sustains is the NELB. The route has long historical connections and in the 21st century emerged as the most successful venture for the BRI and the rail freight industry. Many refer to this route as the “New Silk Road” itself, as it connects Easternmost ports in China and Russia to Europe. With a 9,200km long connection, the New Silk Road has benefited from the growth of many terminals along its way. The only significant infrastructural flaw, which stems from historical reasons and not that of current planning, is the gauge change between China and Russia, and then between Russia and Europe, which are known to cause delays and disruptions when traffic increases along the route.

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The infrastructure developed in these specific corridors has opened new destinations for rail freight, such as Chengdu to Lodz Chongqing to Duisburg, Wuhan to Hamburg, Wuhan to Lyon and Yiwu to Madrid and further developed landlocked terminals such as UIan Ude, Kuragino, Urümqi, Khorgos, Novosibirsk and many others. Over the past decade, the region has seen exceptional growth in BRI projects from which countries like Russia, though not a member, have also benefitted.

Cross Border Cooperation

Russia occupies a large chunk of the geographical connectivity for rail freight between China and Europe, primarily while operating on the NELB. Therefore, it plays a pivotal role in the EU-China rail freight connection. Years before the creation of BRI, in 2008, a joint venture between the German Deutsche Bahn, Russian RZD and the China Railway Corporation launched their first train from Xiangtan to Hamburg. The train took a total of 17 days and was recognized as a success thanks to lucrative cross border cooperation between national rail agencies.

Since then, this Trans-Eurasian Logistics has witnessed a boom in its operative capacities, especially since the beginning of the BRI project. As the longest goods railway in the world, in 2020, up to 60 trains were known to travel per week on this route! Rail transport in Russia is heavily dependent on freight movement, as over 90 % of cargo that moves in the country goes via rail. Strong rail capacities made Russia the natural choice for being considered a part of the rail freight route despite the break of gauge.

In the past years, though Russia may not have warmed up to the idea of the BRI, it has significantly joined hands as an equal. A splendid example of this bilateral ties formed during the pandemic, especially to support the ‘Health Silk Road’ project. Health Silk Road project focused on aiding international communities in anti-pandemic efforts by providing aid and knowledge. The Sino-Russian cooperation results in exciting dynamics in the Central and West Asian regions and forms an exemplary model of superpowers collaborating to support emerging economies and progress within the area.

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