At present, Moscow can move ships, including the naval vessels of the Caspian Flotilla, between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov for only about eight months out of the year because of low water levels in the Volga–Don Canal. However, because of the Kremlin’s desire to reintegrate and dominate the former Soviet republics to the south of Russia, including Ukraine, and be able to use the ships of its Caspian Flotilla not only against Ukraine but in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, Moscow has now announced plans for a major effort to widen and deepen the canal. Those improvements would permit ships to transit the Volga–Don Canal 365 days out of the year. Officials say that the $10 billion project will be completed in 2030. And some of them suggest that Chinese firms will play a major role in this effort, given that Russian companies currently cannot obtain Western support and lack the domestic capacity to complete such a giant undertaking.
Two important if largely neglected moves were made in this direction since President Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s large-scale re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24. On the one hand, Russian officials announced several weeks ago that they would go ahead with plans announced earlier to widen and deepen the Volga–Don Canal to allow year-round use of the waterway (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 16, 2021; Casp-geo.ru, April 21, 2021 and May 6, 2022). This represents a delay from earlier plans to complete the work by 2028. Yet the fact that Moscow is pressing ahead, even amidst the war and tightening Western sanctions, highlights how important riverine traffic is for Russia economically, geopolitically and militarily (Casp-geo.ru, September 27, 2021). Moreover, the initiative appears to mark the end of any possibility that Russia will build a new and even more expensive new canal across the North Caucasus—as many there had long been pushing for (see EDM, June 25, 2007 and October 1, 2010).
On the other hand, representatives of China’s CCCC Dredging Group came to Russia in the lead-up to that decision to discuss with the Astrakhan managers of the Volga–Don Canal the possibility for Chinese firms to take part in dredging operations to widen and deepen that waterway (Rosmorport.ru, March 11). The Russian officials were reportedly receptive. And now that a decision has been made to address the canal’s limitations—a decision likely driven by security considerations as much as economic ones—it appears that China will become a major player in this effort. Such cooperation will enable Russia to use the canal not only to promote a role for itself in China’s east-west trade but also for military and security purposes. In the latter case, even though the project will not be completed for a minimum of eight years, any improvement in the canal will ultimately aid Russia in prosecuting its severe pressure campaign against Ukraine (see EDM, May 31, 2018, November 27, 2018, April 13, 2021).
The tasks Russian and now Chinese firms face in reconditioning the 70-year-old Volga–Don Canal are enormous. Much of its 101-kilometer length is filling up with silt, continually reducing the size and number of ships that can use it; the canal is rated as being 3.5 meters deep along its entire route, but in many places, the depth is far less than that. While some 6,000 vessels and barges transited it last year, most were small, and their passage was slowed by the large number of locks they had to pass through. Such size and time limitations were especially problematic when Moscow wanted to move its Caspian Flotilla to put pressure on Ukraine. Many of the largest ships in that fleet are simply too big to make the passage, leaving them bottled up in the Caspian Sea (see EDM, March 26, 2019). Furthermore, the fact that the canal is closed at least three months out of the year because of ice means that Russia will have to build or purchase large numbers of new icebreakers for it to stay open. In turn, this limits its ability to deploy such ships in the Arctic region and the Russian Far East, where icebreakers are even more needed.
Now that China has become involved, removing the barriers posed by a lack of Western investment, the reconstruction of the Volga–Don Canal is likely to proceed, although quite likely at a slower pace than Moscow has announced. Still, if this effort succeeds, even in part, the internal waterway will be able to carry container traffic far more inexpensively than railways in the region do. This would undercut Western and Chinese-backed rail projects in the region (see EDM, April 19, 20, 2022) and serve as a reminder that even in this century, riverine traffic plays a significant geo-economic and geopolitical role (see Jamestown.org, September 25, 2020). Moreover, it will not only boost economic traffic in the south but allow Russia to achieve two goals. First, it will open up a path for the Caspian Flotilla to leave that sea and supplement Russia’s hard-pressed navy in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. And second, it will enable the integration of river and canal traffic in southern Russia into Moscow’s broader, oft dismissed, plans for using its rivers and canals to the north and west to project Russian influence (see EDM, February 18, 2020 and May 13, 2020).