Russia, more than any other advanced country, has long depended on its rivers and canals to move people and cargo within the country and abroad. But a combination of climate change, the increased use of water by people living along these waterways and siltation have lowered water levels to critically shallow depths (Samaraonline24.ru, July 13). Russian naval yards have failed to produce new river ships and barges since Soviet times, in addition to scrapping 30 percent of these aging vessels over the past decade alone (Window on Eurasia, January 6; Vz.ru, July 6). Now, Western sanctions have further restricted Moscow’s ability to modernize its riverine fleet and transformed what had been critical transportation routes both domestically and abroad into bottlenecks that are limiting Russia’s ability to move people and goods as well as squandering any hopes of becoming a regional transportation hub (see EDM February 7, 2019, June 1, 2021; Window on Eurasia, December 27, 2022). One Russian commentator has even declared that, as notoriously bad as the country’s roads are, the state of its rivers and canals is even worse (Newizv.ru, January 11, 2019).
The problems in this sector have become so acute that, at the end of June 2023, President Vladimir Putin himself sounded the alarm—though, remarkably, his words on this issue so far have attracted far less attention than his discussions about Russian railways and highways. In a speech to experts, the Kremlin leader described the preservation and development of Russian waterways as “a systemic issue” and said that “one of the most severe problems here is bottlenecks that limit navigation and reduce the carrying capacity of waterways.” Therefore, he continued, the country must ensure “guaranteed depths for the movement of ships, above all in the most heavily used routes.” He also announced plans for the construction of new river and canal vessels to replace the existing fleet, most of which were built in Soviet times and have not been replaced or modernized since. This program, which replaces one announced in 2016 but that has not been completed, is slated to last until 2035, with half of the new tonnage scheduled to come online by 2027 (TASS; Vz.ru, June 20).
This plan reflects the fact that waterways are far more critical for Russia than for most other countries. Given the shortage of railways and highways throughout much of the country, rivers and canals carry as much as 80 percent of the nation’s cargo that the other branches do combined during the navigation season, a time that is limited by falling water levels and the absence of a sufficient number of river-based icebreakers to allow ships to pass for longer periods (Casp-geo.ru, September 27, 2021; Vz.ru, July 6). With this critical importance of rivers and canals, one might have expected Russia to press for the dredging and improvement of its waterways with the construction of new vessels that experts say could lead to a trebling or more of the cargo-carrying capacity of the waterways. But that has not happened, and under the current sanctions regime, such an increase is unlikely. Dredging operations, for example, have been cut back, and Moscow humiliatingly has been forced to turn to China and Iran to help it deepen some of its canals and rivers (Rosmorport.ru, May 11, 2022; see EDM, November 1, 2022; February 24).
The war against Ukraine and Western sanctions have only exacerbated Russia’s problems. On the one hand, in the course of the conflict, Moscow has used the Volga-Don Canal river system to shift naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov to put pressure on Ukraine (see EDM, May 31, 2018; April 13, 2021). Yet problems with water levels have restricted passage to only the smallest ships and the absence of icebreakers means that this route is not available for three months of the year (see EDM, August 6, 2020). Moscow has been talking about what might be done, including the possible construction of a parallel canal system across the North Caucasus, but costs and instability there appear to have killed off that project for now (see EDM, March 26, 2019; March 3, 2020; Casp-geo.ru, September 27, 2021).
Moreover, Western sanctions have led Moscow to push for an expansion in north-south trade with Iran and the countries on the Indian Ocean littoral (Iarex.ru, August 1, 2021; Casp-geo.ru, December 4, 2021; Realtribune.ru, November 30, 2022; Vz.ru, July 6). Some progress has indeed been made in the development of this route; however, poor trends in trade between Russia and these countries as well as Moscow’s difficulties with handling intermodal trade have limited its value up to now (see EDM, April 11). If the Volga-Don Canal were modernized and more ships able to pass along its length, some of these problems would be mitigated—and that, perhaps more than anything else, is the reason for Putin’s remarks last month, however unlikely they are to lead to any real results.
A major reason for this skepticism is the enormous costs of fixing Russia’s river and canal system. Dredging the entire length of Russia’s numerous rivers, something that has not been done for many years, would be extremely costly. And Moscow’s problems with shipbuilding and Putin’s desire to build up the navy make it unlikely that Russian shipyards will produce the new riverine ships he is talking about. In truth, some Russians are even more alarmed than the Kremlin leader about what the problems of falling water levels in Russia’s largest rivers and the death of many of its smaller ones represent for the future. For example, Moscow commentator Irina Mishina even argues that these trends, if not reversed, will not only undermine the health of the Russian population and block economic growth but also threaten the survival of the Russian state itself (Newizv.ru, June 3).
Many of Russia’s smaller rivers, 50 in Voronezh Oblast alone, and some of its largest ones have seen a significant decline in water levels, Mishina points out. And the problem is now not restricted to the summer months but has become year-round, even on the Volga, the critical north-south water route in the central and western parts of the country. Shipping is now restricted or even blocked, the health of the people along the rivers is deteriorating and the country’s economy is suffering as a result, Moscow specialists report. Unless that changes, Mishina concludes, disasters loom for the future—and from a direction all too few Russians are worrying about it.