Just over six years ago, in January 2017, I noted in an article at Liberty Unyielding that China had recently closed a logistics gap eyed for some 200 years by military planners. The gap had been felt as a hindrance for much longer than that, but it became especially significant to warfare and geopolitics in the age of rail.
China’s feat was completing a capable, reliable rail network all the way from China’s eastern coast to the UK, on the western edge of Europe. On 1 January 2017, Beijing inaugurated the first freight train service from China to London.
Rail service all the way across Asia and Europe, and not operated by Russia to at least Eastern Europe, had never existed before. The lack of such service was a key factor in every kind of geopolitical calculation about Asia: economic and military as well as political. The Soviet “iron curtain” had laid a long stasis over the largely unpenetrated Asian interior, and no modern transport service rumbling through villages old and new in Siberia and the “Stans” had brought the outside breezes of commerce or possibility into it.
Now the service did exist, if in an early and comparatively rudimentary form.
The form of service has not remained rudimentary. China and partners from Russia to the UK have been upgrading and expanding it rapidly in the years since. The networks of China Rail Express are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and Xi Jinping has prioritized them assiduously. (See this 2018 report from CSIS for the map and more.)
In November 2021, for example, CRE launched the fastest freight service to date between China and the portals of Eastern Europe, with a mere 13-day transit from Wuwei, China to Poland. The service, operated by Gansu Platform Company, uses three different Polish border crossings to serve Hamburg, Germany and Lodz, Poland, as well as other points west.
And in late October 2022, China initiated its first fixed-schedule freight service to Europe, which runs between Xi’an and Duisburg, Germany. The Railway Supply website explains: “[T]his is the first Chinese train to have a timetable and it will run between China and Europe on a fixed schedule.”
It’s still necessary to make stops for gauge changes (typically solved by transshipment at intermodal hubs) in the trek across Asia. That continues to slow the service down a bit. But it is weeks faster than sending freight by sea between China and Europe, and a much less vulnerable path for outside interdiction. The political cost may vary, for any interdiction effort no matter where it is, but interdicting rail through Central Asia requires penetration of sovereign territory in Central Asia. On average, that’s a more prohibitive prospect than interdicting cargo at sea or in foreign ports.
The connections reflected on the next map and the schematic following it didn’t exist 20 years ago. Now they do.
Just a couple of points are worth serious thought. One is that Russia and China have never before had such well-developed lines of communication (LOCs) to work with in a military partnership. Over the preceding centuries, Central and Eastern Asia have occasionally been a battlescape for the two Asian giants. But it’s only in the last decade that they have come into a logistic communication network that would serve both, from one end of the continent to the other.
Moscow and Beijing have the world’s longest “interior line of communication” now.
The other point is the purpose of this article. One glance at the map of the CRE network (just above the schematic) reveals that both of the CRE’s northernmost routes enter Europe through Belarus. The most northerly route does so after stopping at railway hubs in Russia that afford connection to Russia’s national rail network.
(Also important to point out: the “dotted line” planned routes for CRE through Central and Southern Asia are not without rail service now. Freight going to and from China can traverse the nations in question, but CRE, per se, isn’t serving those routes yet. Freight has to be transferred to other carriers to continue along those routes. For commercial service, shipping agents take care of that.)
The fastest-ever service mentioned above, with its three entry points into Poland, runs through Belarus. Besides Warsaw, destinations for freight carried by CRE through Belarus include the massive transport hubs in Hamburg, Duisburg, and Rotterdam.
Belarus, and Minsk in particular, is the biggest European entry hub for CRE service to Europe. Note that the great Chinese hub of the “Northern Corridor” route – Manzhouli, on China’s border with Russia – is the collective service entry point for that route. For the “Middle Corridor,” the hub at China’s border is Alashankou in Xinjiang (in the troubled Uyghur Autonomous Region).
But both corridors’ networks connect across Kazakhstan and southern Russia, and funnel freight into Europe through Belarus. (Everything shipped across Russia via CRE goes through Moscow as well. Some freight goes from there to St. Peterburg and onward to Finland and the Baltic Republics, rather than through Belarus to the rest of Northern Europe.)
For completeness, here is the rail network of Belarus, with the CRE entry crossings into Poland annotated.
Regarding LOCs accessible to Russia and China, we shouldn’t neglect the road network either. In the form of the Trans-Siberian highway, collectively Route 297, it has been significantly improved over the last decade. Broad expanses of it that once were mere gravel paths, often impassable in inclement weather, have been widened, graded, and well paved.
In June 2022, a modern bridge was opened over the Amur River connecting Route 297 across the border cities of Blagoveshchensk (Russia) and Heihe (China). Reporting on it in Western languages is sketchy, but it appears to be capable of supporting the heaviest freight traffic. The new bridge will enable truck freight of all kinds to flow between Russia and China along a much-improved Russian roadway.
Notably, R297 runs at several points through major intermodal hubs also served by CRE and Russian lines. So although freight coming from eastern China would probably be loaded by rail at Manzhouli, or stations east or south of it, the means of transport is there along the route (i.e., by road) to add options and redundancy to the growing capability.
The challenge of getting freight across Russia from China has never been so well-served.
Lukashenko heads to China
The easy-open can that Western Russia, Belarus, and Europe now constitute for China is essential context for three bits of news from the past week.
One is that China has offered a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine and Russia. The second is that Western intelligence agencies suggest China is planning to supply Russia with arms for the Ukraine fight. (China says no.)
The third is that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is traveling to China this week to meet with Xi Jinping.
It was less than a decade ago that such a meeting would have had more the character of a political abstraction. It would have been meaningful, of course. But not tethered to implications about China’s Belt and Road posture in Belarus, what that might mean geographically for China’s “hybrid-operational” options as an interested party in the Ukraine conflict, and what role Belarus would serve in an enterprise like providing Chinese military hardware to Russia for use in Ukraine.
China has a foothold in Europe today. Ten years ago, there was no express transport service capable of moving Chinese arms all the way from the industrial hubs of eastern China to Belarus and/or southwestern Russia, with any number of prudent stops and transshipment points in between. Now there is.
And China, with CRE infrastructure all over Belarus, has more than just a few shipping containers rolling through.
The Lukashenko visit may be, as some are speculating, a fresh piece of theater: a show that looks like more than it is. But there’s a lot more actual “there” there, as regards tangible connections between Beijing and Minsk, than there ever was before. And it’s directly applicable to the latest news about China’s posture on Ukraine. It infuses our new geo-military reality with an unprecedented immediacy.
In that regard, one last observation. Belarusians, and possibly others, are reported to have been quietly sabotaging rail transport near the Belarusian border to stall the build-up and logistic movement of Russian troops and weapon systems to the front with Ukraine. Rail connections directly between Belarus and Ukraine were shut down in the first month of the invasion last year.
In late October 2022, according to the New York Post, UK intelligence said that such saboteurs had also claimed at least six attacks since June 2022 on rail points linking Belarus with Russia; i.e., with the Russian rear area across Ukraine’s northeastern border.
This location claimed by the group “Stop the Wagons” is on the Russian side.
Along the same line, a Belarusian “anti-government” group claimed responsibility over the weekend for a successful drone attack on a Russian airborne early warning and air control aircraft (AWACS) at Machulishchiy air base near Minsk. The Russian Beriev A-50 “Mainstay” is similar in function to the U.S./NATO E-3 Sentry. The aircraft is reported as a non-functional loss.
According to Russia’s TASS news service, cited here, Russia’s air defense force was abruptly resubordinated from the ground forces commander to the aerospace force commander, shortly after the drone attack.
Restive partisans in Belarus have had some success with sabotage efforts against Russian assets and logistic arrangements. But Belarus is a critical node for Chinese commerce and access to Europe now. It’s an interesting question what Xi might ask Lukashenko to do about such an internal sabotage problem, if Belarus were to be involved as a way-point or staging point for Chinese arms supplied for the Ukraine theater.
Almost as interesting as such a role for Belarus arising in the first place. We’ve left the 20th century, with its defining wars and defining limitations, behind.
Feature image: Chinese freight trains set out for Europe in 2014. (Image: Screen grab of CCTV video, YouTube)
4 thoughts on “In a new geo-military landscape, Belarus’s Lukashenko goes to China”
“It’s still necessary to make stops for gauge changes (typically solved by transshipment at intermodal hubs) in the trek across Asia.”
Gradual implementation of variable gauge system solutions will smooth out these transport issues as well.
I realize it’s inconvenient for ‘our sides’ narrative, but looking ahead, it might be more important to take the increasing number of various acts in the EU (refusal to transport munitions in Italy, growing Europe-wide protests against the war, and the eventual disruption by saboteurs and 5th columnists in Poland and the Baltic States) into account, rather than the goings on in Belarus.
There’s no real appetite for this war against Russia in Europe — with the exception of the US-bought-and-paid-for euro-‘elites’, rabidly anti-Russian Poles, and brainwashed Anglo-Saxons that is. . .
Hope everyone down OU way is safe and sound.
Everyone is okay so far, WR.
My sincere thanks for your kind thoughts.