Russia Announces New Arctic Endpoint for Strategic Rail Project that Could Link with China through Infrastructure in Central Asia

On May 18, the acting governor of Russia’s Archangelsk Oblast, Alexander Tsybulsky, announced that a proposed deep-water port at Indiga, which sits on the Barents Sea abutting the Arctic Ocean, had been selected as the end-point of the planned, strategic Belkomur railway project.  This new, 500-km segment of the project would link Indiga with the industrial areas of Siberia, while also potentially connecting with the rail infrastructure of Kyrgyzstan and, ultimately, China.  The announcement comes in the context of Russia’s new commitment of funds to developing Arctic infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route, as described in a plan unveiled by the Kremlin in March 2020.  Indeed, Indiga has already received $5 million toward its development as a year-round, deep-water port

Although there are already direct connections between the Russian and Chinese railway systems, a separate effort in Kyrgyzstan to build a cross-country railway linking to China could, when connected with the Belkomur railway, expedite transit times from some parts of China, while also more directly linking China with the Russian Arctic.

It is noteworthy that earlier reports have indicated Chinese interest, via China Poly Group (a central state-owned enterprise conglomerate with some operations in the defense industry), in supporting the construction of a deep-water port in Archangelsk Oblast.  In 2017, Poly Group also indicated interest in building a $300 million port in Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle.  There has not been much publicly reported on whether the company pursued either of these interests.

Despite recent enthusiasm for the Belkomur railway and the possible role of Indiga port in it, the project’s economic and financial viability has been questioned over the years by a number of officials and outside experts.  The failure of the project to materialize has been seen as a sign that these concerns are valid.  Nevertheless, Russia’s growing commitment to developing Arctic infrastructure in support of an increasingly important long-term vision held by the Kremlin for the Northern Sea Route should cast these recent announcements in a new light.  So should Beijing’s increasing efforts to develop its own points of access to the Arctic.