Russia’s War in Ukraine Starves Belarusian Railways of Upgrades

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 70

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia for its export infrastructure, especially as its Ukrainian options have been closed since Moscow launched the full-scale invasion.
  • Minsk is seeking alternatives to Russian railways by using the still incomplete International North-South Transport Corridor and discussing plans to create a Eurasian multimodal transport corridor.
  • As Russia continues to pursue its exorbitantly expensive war, Belarusian railway upgrades will remain an afterthought in Moscow for the foreseeable future.

Since February 2022, Belarus has become increasingly dependent on Russia for its export infrastructure. In 2023 alone, Belarus transported 14 million tons of cargo via Russian territory (Plan B, February 5). For Belarus to maintain its current gross domestic product (GDP), exports must grow by a minimum of 7.6 percent this year (Belta, February 4). Meeting this goal depends on the ability to maintain and upgrade the Belarusian railway links that connect to Russia, endeavors for which the Russian government has properly not budgeted. Furthermore, Russia has struggled with Ukrainian attacks on its railways. Hundreds of sabotage and arson incidents have been reported to Russian law enforcement agencies since February 2022 (see EDM, January 30). As a result, Belarus has begun looking for alternatives to solve its railway problems, but the options do not look promising.

Russia does not have the money to improve Belarus’s railways, as its development plans increasingly focus on supporting its war against Ukraine. Modernizing Russian Railways (RZhD) to transport Belarusian goods would take about $1.7 billion (156 billion rubles), which is not included in RZhD’s investment program. RZhD’s current investment package projects spending a tenth of this amount—$166 million (15.1 billion rubles) (Plan B, April 19).

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka agree that bilateral rail transit infrastructure needs to be upgraded. On January 29, Putin and Lukashenka chaired a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus at St. Petersburg’s Konstantin Palace, where infrastructure issues were included on the agenda. Lukashenka advocated for increasing the capacity of the Oktyabrskaya Railway, which connects to northwestern Russia and passes through Belarus. He remarked, “It is clear that millions, even tens of millions of tons of Belarusian cargo have been redirected from the ports in the Baltic states to St. Petersburg, Murmansk, and the Black Sea ports, but the system is strained. This is why … [Putin] and I discussed this problem, we decided that operations on the Oktyabrskaya Railway in the direction of St. Petersburg must be increased. In the first stage, it will require a little money and a little work to restore the junctions” (, January 29). Interestingly, Putin did not mention railway issues in his introduction. Instead, he noted, “Results for the past 11 months of past year show that Russian-Belarusian trade increased by almost 9.5 percent and came close to a record $43 billion. Russia has invested over $4 billion in the Belarusian economy.”

Officials in Minsk maintain that RZhD’s current funding for transit logistics is inadequate for Belarusian railway requirements. According to them, another $988.7 million (90 billion rubles)  is needed for the construction of a bypass near St. Petersburg and almost $758.5 million (69 billion rubles) for the development of railway infrastructure. Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia for its export infrastructure and currently uses about 19 Russian ports in the St. Petersburg region to export goods, mainly petroleum products and fertilizers (Kommersant, April 19). By 2030, Belarusian officials had hoped to increase transportation of goods through the St. Petersburg region from 13 million to 20 million tons.

Due to the lack of significant RZhD funding, Belarus has downsized its expectations and is no longer seeking new rail lines but rather the reconstruction of several railway crossings. Dmitrii Krutoi, the Belarusian ambassador to Russia, commented on the new realities, saying that the rail lines would first need seven new sidingssections on the side of the main rail used to load and store goods.  He remarked that the current sidings are “mothballed and need to be quickly restored” (Plan B, February 5).

Belarus is also seeking alternatives beyond its reliance on the Russian market, which already accounts for 65 percent of Belarusian exports (see EDM, April 1). Minsk is now considering using the still incomplete International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)—a 4,500-mile interconnected skein of ship, rail, and road networks designed to transport freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe—to transfer its fertilizer exports to post-Soviet Central Asian nations (see EDM, June 7, 2023, March 6).

Despite the logistical problems, the Belarusian government plans to sustain its 2024 GDP at 2023 levels, requiring exports to grow by a minimum of 7.6 percent. Three months ago, Belarusian Minister of Economy Yuri Chebotar stated that the Belarusian economy must develop at an accelerated pace, noting, “We proceed from the concept that our economy should develop at a faster pace than the world.” Chebotar stated that Minsk’s ambitious economic goals for 2024 include ensuring GDP grows by 3.8 percent, increasing the population’s real disposable income by 3.5 percent (Belta, February 4).

Geography dictates that Belarus must continue to focus on improving the logistical relationship with Russia—its ally and largest neighboring market. According to Krutoi, the Belarusian and Russian governments are negotiating the equalization of railway tariffs for the supply of Belarusian goods to the Russian Far East. He told reporters, “As soon as the tariff policy is structured and we clearly understand it, I think we will significantly increase the volume of industrial supplies. Ice cream even began to be delivered to the Far East. They saw that the economy was working and began to expand their range of food supplies” (Belta, April 1).

As for international trade, an even more optimistic meeting occurred on April 24 in Minsk. There, the heads of the transport departments of Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan discussed plans to create a multimodal transport corridor that would connect Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (Belta, April 24). 

Yet, Minsk’s logistical efforts remain bedeviled by its ally’s lack of generosity. Belarus first wanted to build a new railway line to the Leningrad region at Russia’s expense (, September 26, 2023). When Russia did not find money for that plan, Minsk downgraded its ambitions to upgrade the existing lines. Moscow, however, still has not found money for that either (, October 2, 2023). Further afield, Belarusian hopes for both the INSTC and Eurasian multimodal transport corridor will also suffer from this severe funding shortage. 

As long as Russia continues to pursue its bottomless money pit of a war, Belarusian logistical railway upgrades for the foreseeable future will remain an afterthought in Moscow, however much Minsk wants to increase its popsicle sales in Vladivostok. This could become a fatal oversight should Minsk be dragged into Russia’s war. While Minsk wishes to avoid war, the country has been quietly mobilizing and the parliament voted in April to leave the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (see EDM, April 11). If Belarus joins the fighting, it will need improved railways not only for exports but also for crucial military logistics.