Freight News

Ukraine invasion puts Russia links in jeopardy

[ February 24, 2022   //   ]

Russia’s apparent full scale invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February could lead to severe sanctions being imposed on the country, including the cutting of shipping and transport links. While freight transport has not been specifically mentioned in the list of possible measures, it seems unlikely that services will continue in their present form.
The rail route from China to Europe via Russia’s Transiberian railway has become popular over the past two years in the face of Covid-related disruptions to shipping. It offers a somewhat faster route than sea services, though forwarders reported that congestion at the border and break of gauge points on the route had been building up recently.
Russia itself is heavily dependent on overland transport links at least from the west of Europe. It has only limited direct access to the sea in the north-west through the port of St Petersburg, served mainly by feeder vessels from the main European hub ports such as Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp.
Its main outlet to the south was actually through Ukraine and the Black Sea. Its only other major sea outlet is in the Far East.
Other than seaports, Russia is heavily reliant on road and rail links. The future of those from the western Europe are, to say the least, now heavily in doubt.
Links with China might continue, depending on Beijing’s stance, but it would make Russia heavily reliant on that border which, as far as rail is concerned, is hampered by a break of gauge.
Forwarders and logistics operators using the Russian rail system speaking the day before Russian forces were reported to have mounted a full-scale push into Ukraine said they had not been affected by the crisis. Many services operated via Belarus, a country which is itself now deeply involved in Russia’s military action.
And on 21 February, just two days before Russia made its incursion into rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine, shipping and logistics Maersk announced the launch of a new AE66 service linking Korea, Japan and China to Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, the Baltic countries and Poland via the Transiberian railway, operating from Russia’s Pacific seaport of Vostochniy to Kaliningrad on the Baltic sea, offering a transit time of around 20 days.
Off the record, forwarders say that there could be considerable pressure not to close transport routes, except as a possible last resort. However, that was before Russia mounted its full scale invasion of Ukraine.
Airfreight could also be affected by the political situation. Any prolonged ban on overflying Russia would lengthen sectors and reduce capacity and frequency on the Europe to Far East routes, but arguably even more serious would be a ban on Russian freighter operators from Europe or North America.
Volga-Dnepr Group is one of only two major operators of the Antonov An-124, a workhorse of the project and heavylift freight sector with its ability to carry loads of 120 tonnes or even more. The Group’s Volga-Dnepr Airlines operates 12 of the type, along with five somewhat smaller Ilyushin IL76TD-90VDs, while its AirBridgeCargo arm flies 13 747-F freighters on scheduled and charter flights.
Ukraine-based Antonov Airlines is the other major operator of the An124, with a similar—sized fleet. It also has the sole operational example of the even larger An225.
Until December 2016, Volga-Dnepr and Antonov operated in a joint venture, Ruslan, set up in 2006 to jointly market their combined fleets and improve availability. However, this was disbanded as relations between the two countries deteriorated, the Ukrainian company setting up Antonov Airlines to market and operates its fleet independently.
Antonov later took steps to replace Russian components in its aircraft with items from other countries, as support for many items including navigation systems were no longer available.
Even before the current crisis, Antonov Airlines had the advantage over its Russian rival of the open skies agreement signed between the US and Ukraine in 2015 which removed the need to apply for charter permits in that market.