Lack of Roads in Russian Far East Limits Moscow’s Power Projection in Pacific

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 180

The absence of roads and railways connecting the strategically positioned Kamchatka peninsula, in the Russian Far East, with the rest of the country is undermining Russian national security and reducing Moscow’s ability to project power into the Pacific region, according to Dmitry Verkhoturov. Building either an all-weather highway or even a single-track rail line will be enormously expensive, the Russian security analyst says. But doing so and thus overcoming this chokepoint is every bit as important—if perhaps not as glamorous—to the defense and enhancement of Russian power as are new generations of planes, ships and nuclear weapons, he argues (APN, October 1).

Compared with Soviet times, Russia’s Pacific Fleet is extremely weak, Verkhoturov says. Its ships are aging, and there are fewer than half as many as there were during the Cold War. As a result, with the exception of the Kamchatka Flotilla, the rest of the fleet in the event of war would be capable only of defensive actions and coastal defense. The United States and Japan could “bottle up” almost all of Russia’s other ships and thus open the way to a Russian defeat.

But, Verkhoturov continues, “the problem of the development of the Pacific Fleet consists not only and not so much in the quantity and quality of ships as in the fact that there are limited possibilities in the Far East for basing the fleet in a strategically useful way. Comparatively few suitable harbors exist because “practically all of them freeze for several months” every winter. Indeed, he writes, “in the entire Far East, there is only one harbor that does not freeze”—at least not to the point that icebreakers would not be able to keep it open for shipping relatively easily—and that is the underdeveloped Avacha Bay, on the southeastern edge of the Kamchatka peninsula.

Viewed strategically, it is the best base for Russia’s Pacific Fleet because it has direct access to the Pacific and is “far from the straits controlled by probable opponents and their hostile naval bases.” But it has one serious shortcoming, Verkhoturov says, which Moscow can and must redress. Kamchatka does not have ground transportation links to the mainland and thus lacks the industrial and shoreline infrastructure necessary for the fleet to function.

“Without roads to Kamchatka,” the utility of Russia’s Pacific Fleet is severely undermined. First of all, the absence of such infrastructure restricts the fleet to coastal defense. But this also means that a far greater percentage of the ships will be under repair at any one time than would be the case were Russia to have a more robust set of facilities in the Far East. Consequently, the real order of battle will remain far smaller than the nominal one, in some cases more than 50 percent less.

As the military analyst notes, “A road to Kamchatka is acquiring extraordinary strategic significance, comparable with the development and production of the latest generation of strategic arms.” But can Moscow afford to build such a road? The answer, Verkhoturov argues, is that it cannot afford not to, however difficult and expensive it would be.

Building such ground links from the mainland into Kamchatka would be “a difficult task,” all the more so because “in this part of Russia roads in general are a great rarity.” Small road networks were built around Magadan and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksy, but they are not connected. To tie them together would require building a road through approximately 2,500 kilometers of unpopulated wilderness. And if Moscow wanted to link a base on Avacha Bay to the mainland’s rail network, that would require building a line of 3,670 kilometers.

Building such long road and rail corridors anywhere in Russia would be “a difficult task,” he says; but given conditions in the Russian Far East, it would be especially difficult and expensive. He estimates that the road would cost approximately 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion), and the rail line—403.7 billion rubles ($6.5 billion). Together, they would cost the astronomical sum of half a trillion rubles (more than $8 billion).

Such projects, of course, would not only make possible the development of the naval base in Avacha Bay but would also have collateral benefits: boosting investment in the entire far eastern region of the country, promoting growth along the highway and rail line, and becoming the basis for the industrial development of Kamchatka. This last advantage could possibly even allow that distant region to challenge the current dominance of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East (APN, October 1).

Verkhoturov’s article is noteworthy for three reasons: First, it suggests that some in Moscow are now planning for the projection of Russian power in the Pacific region, something few people in the West have paid much attention to and which puts Moscow on a collision course with Beijing and Tokyo.

Second, it suggests that Vladimir Putin may be prepared to return to the Soviet-era practice of “gigantic” construction projects as the chief means of inter-regional transfer of resources, an approach that Mikhail Gorbachev rejected and that has been largely off the table since then.

And third, it unintentionally highlights the extreme weakness of Moscow’s position in the Far East, a weakness Putin has done little to address. The lack of ground transportation infrastructure will make it increasingly difficult for Russia to hold the region given the resurgence of China.