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 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 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, military, and political. The Soviet “iron curtain” had laid a long stasis over the largely unpenetrated Asian interior. No modern transport service rumbled 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 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.)

All images and graphics: click to enlarge for legibility. Map credit: CSIS. See The Rise of China-Europe Railways

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, Lodz, Poland, and 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.”

Making stops for gauge changes (typically solved by transshipment at intermodal hubs) in the trek across Asia is still necessary. 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 the 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 following map and the schematic following it didn’t exist 20 years ago. Now they do.

Note hubs in Manzhouli and Alashankou (China), and Belarus. The schematic map below shows how the CRE route service relies on those hubs. Map credit: China Daily. See the link: https://tinyurl.com/2fzfb63b


Per the previous map, all the CRE (here, “CER”) route service from Manzhouli to Northern Europe’s major transshipment hubs goes through Belarus. Included is China Rail’s touted “rapid express” service to Poland, inaugurated in 2021. The fixed-schedule route launched in 2022 between Xi’an and Duisburg, though it traverses Alashankou, is funneled by rail connections in Russia through Belarus as well. Map credit: Kyoung-Suk Choi
(Department of International Trade, Jeonbuk National University, Korea). “The Current Status and Challenges of China Railway Express (CRE) as a Key Sustainability Policy Component of the Belt and Road Initiative.” MDPI Open Access Journals; March 2021

Just a couple of points are worth serious thought. One is that Russia and China have never had such well-developed lines of communication (LOCs) to work within a military partnership. Over the preceding centuries, Central and Eastern Asia have occasionally been a battle scape for the two Asian giants. But in the last decade, 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).

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.

Map credit: Wikipedia – Homoatrox (derivative work) – Own work, using File: Belarus location map.svg (CC-BY-SA 3.0) by NordNordWest. Author annotation of CRE crossings into Poland.

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, has been significantly improved over the last decade. Broad expanses that once were mere gravel paths, often impassable in inclement weather, have been widened, graded, and well-paved.

One view of the Trans-Siberian Highway network dubbed collectively Route 297. Wikipedia.



Second view of R297 with sections annotated by number. The numbers and details for each are available at the link below. Note that “24” is the location of the new (Jun 2022) bridge connecting Blagoveshchensk, Russia, and Heihe, China. See Wikivoyage at https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Trans-Siberian_Highway. 

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 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.

Google map; author annotation.


Bridge opened in June 2022 over the Amur River, linking the highway systems of China and Russia at Heihe and Blagoveshchensk. Wikipedia – Prokopov roman4 – Own work


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.

The governing lifestyle. CCTV video, YouTube


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.) Third, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is traveling to China this week to meet with Xi Jinping.

Less than a decade ago, such a meeting would have had more of 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.

As some are speculating, the Lukashenko visit may be 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 unprecedented immediacy.

In that regard, one last observation. Belarusians, and possibly others, are reportedly 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.

Railway sabotage near Novozybkovo in October 2022, claimed by Belarusian group “Stop the Wagons.” See NY Post link in text. Zoomed-in inset map via NY Post, social media. Google map; author annotation.


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” functions similarly to the U.S./NATO E-3 Sentry. The aircraft is reported as a non-functional loss.

Google map, satellite image, author annotation.


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: Screengrab of CCTV video, YouTube)

Cross-Posted With The Optimistic Conservative