► Putin’s long tenure has been marked by profound changes in the spatial organization of the country’s territory. Measures have been taken to modernize infrastructure and develop the most sensitive and strategic regions but a more sophisticated regional strategy is needed.
Vladimir Putin’s long tenure as the head of the Russian Federation has been marked by profound changes in the spatial organization of the country’s territory, especially in terms of its connections with foreign countries and internal connectedness. Beyond some highly publicized episodes, very concrete measures have been taken to modernize infrastructure and develop the most sensitive and strategic regions.
"The concrete inequalities between regions in terms of transport infrastructure and accessibility, an essential fact that explains both the appearance of certain structuring axes and the fragilities that may threaten the very unity of the country."
The heterogeneity of Russia’s territory and its key dimensions are known: physical (remoteness, huge distances, natural resource inequities), economic, demographic, and ethnic. On a purely practical level, the immensity of the territory is such that many leaders, in Moscow and the regions alike, feel a need for territorial cohesion. The 2011 decision to reduce the number of time zones from 11 to 9 was intended to facilitate links between the regional administrations and the capital city. But this symbolic measure could hardly hope to affect the concrete inequalities between regions in terms of transport infrastructure and accessibility, an essential fact that explains both the appearance of certain structuring axes and the fragilities that may threaten the very unity of the country.
At the end of the Soviet era, the major transportation networks suffered several blows that accentuated the heterogeneity of Russian territory. With republic borders becoming state borders, several routes involved passing through the territory of another state: the Moscow-Rostov-Sochi railway passed through Ukraine, while the Trans-Siberian Railway traversed Kazakhstan. To avoid having to clear customs in these countries Russian Railways was compelled to construct “strategic” bypass routes. Several regions of the Far North and the Far East found themselves, too, poorly connected to the rest of the country due to a lack of year-round roads and railways. Far from being purely a media stunt, Putin’s 2010 expedition across Siberia in a yellow Lada highlighted the importance of developing new transport axes to unify the country and develop its eastern regions, which are hemorrhaging people as residents relocate to big cities further to the west. The authorities’ plan includes improving the road network in Transbaikalia, completing the railway linking Baikal-Amur Magistral to Yakutsk, and a proposed project to extend the railway line to Magadan, as well as the reopening of a railway works located on the northern bank of the Ob River.
If the Russian authorities are concerned primarily about the weakness of transport networks in Siberia, the Arctic, and the Far East, they have not forgotten the European part of the country. After years of hesitation, the Sapsan high-speed train, which travels from Moscow to St. Petersburg in under 4 hours, was inaugurated in 2009. Moreover, new high-speed trains to Kazan or Sochi are under discussion. The decision to privatize part of the M11 between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and to introduce tolls, should speed up the motorway project, allowing for its completion by 2019.
"If the Russian authorities are concerned primarily about the weakness of transport networks in Siberia, the Arctic, and the Far East, they have not forgotten the European part of the country."
Beyond these spectacular and oft-cited examples, hundreds of less publicized projects are being undertaken across the country to remove the obstacles that were, at the end of the Soviet era, the daily lot of freighters and travelers: missing or deteriorated bridges, anarchic access to city centers, and the almost complete absence of highways and bypass roads around main cities, which caused innumerable bottlenecks. On all these fronts, steady progress is being made. Dozens of bridges have been built across rivers in the European part of the country, shortening many journeys, and bridges over the Ob and the Lena are under construction. New express lanes are being built everywhere, not only in Moscow (the two new inner peripherals and exit radials) but also in many peripheral regions, such as the Kola peninsula (where there is now a bypass serving Murmansk and its civilian and military ports). A highway bypassing the center of Sochi and serving the sites of the 2014 Olympic Games, as well as new mountain roads in Chechnya and Dagestan, will allow for the control and development of these sensitive regions. The decision, taken immediately after the annexation of Crimea, to build a bridge over the Strait of Kerch by the end of 2018, is part of this strategic work to make inter-regional links more coherent.
A key policy relates to new port infrastructure, which is progressively overhauling the geography of interactions between Russia and the European Union. In the north, the new ports of St. Petersburg are gradually outpacing those of the Eastern Baltic, Vyborg, and Primorsk in terms of hydrocarbon exports. The ports of Ust-Luga (opened in 2007, reached 100 million tons in 2017 and should be the starting point for Nord Stream 2) and Bronka (a new container terminal built at the intersection of the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland and the motorway ring road built through Kotlin Island, where Kronstadt is located) will predominate in terms of other cargos. This spectacular effort is reminiscent of the decisions to create the new ports of Rotterdam or Hamburg and represents a real departure from the previous situation. The port of Kaliningrad has become marginal due to its isolation from Russian territory, and its new container terminal serves mainly the local Free Economic Zone. As for the Port of St Petersburg, it is too enclosed in the conurbation and will be refocused on passenger traffic and some specialized transport.
"The decision, taken immediately after the annexation of Crimea, to build a bridge over the Strait of Kerch by the end of 2018, is part of this strategic work to make inter-regional links more coherent."
In the south, on the Black Sea side, a similar trend is at work with the accelerated modernization of Novorossiysk, which in 2016 became the first Russian port with 131 million tons of traffic (compared to 50-70 million tons at the end of the Soviet era). Also worth noting is the rise of a series of new terminals in Port Kavkaz (the point of departure of ferries to Crimea), Taman, Tuapse, and Rostov-on-Don. The objective of this dual plan is explicit: gradually reducing transit through ‘near abroad’ countries to the benefit of new Russian infrastructure. Putin was particularly explicit in congratulating Transneft president Nikolai Tokarev for deciding to abolish, after 2018, any transit of hydrocarbons through the ports of the three Baltic states. This step could revolutionize the geographical logic of the region, which has, since the creation of the Hanseatic ports, developed primarily as a point of exchange between Northern and Western Europe and the Russian hinterland. A similar trend is underway with Ukraine, here too with potentially dramatic consequences for Kyiv. Through the spectacular development of its port and logistical facilities, Russia is breaking away from its history of interdependence.
"In the absence of a more sophisticated regional strategy, infrastructural changes—especially those in Siberia, the Far North, and the Far East—do not seem to provide solutions to Russia’s ills."
However, the Russian system continues to operate largely through federal programs administered by the center, the effectiveness of which is questionable. In the most sensitive regions, such as the Caucasus, the Far East, and the Arctic, this control requires the establishment of dedicated administrations (either a ministry or a committee), which interfere with the autonomy of regional authorities. Elsewhere, government action relies mainly on careful monitoring of local social and political situations: to avoid crisis, the president may replace the governor or initiate an urgent investment plan. Moreover, the desire to maintain control over the most profitable sectors in each region has led to the strengthening of the role of siloviki. The presence of “urban binaries”—Moscow vs. Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod vs. Kazan, Krasnodar vs. Rostov-on-Don, Krasnoyarsk vs. Vladivostok—shapes several regions and is problematic for development.
In the absence of a more sophisticated regional strategy, infrastructural changes—especially those in Siberia, the Far North, and the Far East—do not seem to provide solutions to Russia’s ills, in particular the need to de-concentrate activities outside the hypertrophied capital region and implement a policy that would support more balanced spatial development.
Jean Radvanyi is Professor of Geography at INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris), Co-director of the Europe-Eurasia Research Center, Paris. He is the Co-author of Understanding Russia: The Challenges of Transformation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
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