A Perfect Storm for Russia’s Infrastructure
January 11, 2024
  • Tatiana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Journalist Tatiana Rybakova looks at why transport and utility accidents are becoming more frequent in Russia. Is a recent cold wave to blame? Or did the cold only expose underlying problems?
Heating issues in Voskresensk, Moscow Region, January 6, 2024. Source: VK
Russia is freezing. In Moscow Region alone, 20 settlements are without heating. The temperature is under 10 degrees in homes in the cities of Voronezh, Tyumen and Ryazan, as well as in Yaroslavl Region and others. Often, the heating problems are combined with power outages, which in the absence of natural gas makes the situation critical.

Utility problems

Moscow did not come out unscathed either – due to a fire at a transformer station in the northeast of the city, four large districts were without electricity and heating. The most well-known accident happened at a boiler house in Klimovsk, Podolsk District, where people were without heating for several days in minus-30-degree cold. In Lytkarino, Moscow Region, people are warming themselves by fires!

The reason is said to be an unprecedented cold wave. “The current accidents are primarily attributable to the cold. The stronger the cold, the more frequent the accidents,” says economist Nikolai Kulbaka. In his view, this has happened since Soviet times; it is just that such accidents are not always given so much media attention.

Generally speaking, however, short-lasting cold waves of minus 30-35 degrees are the norm for the European part of Russia. They come once every few years. But historically the accident rate for utilities is also high. As for the media component, it is difficult for journalists to ignore the fact that tens of thousands of people are at risk of freezing to death.

The current utility accidents are a classic case of a perfect storm, says economist Sergei Petrov (name changed at the interlocutor’s request). “Four factors have come together, each of which reinforces the effect of the other: local budget deficits, infrastructure overload in ‘fat years,’ sanctions (though I would rank them the least important) and the cold,” he says.

Typically, many municipal and regional budgets are in deficit, explains Petrov, and today, when they also have to support families whose relatives are fighting in the so-called special operation, the situation has gotten worse.

“At the same time, it has grown more difficult to fill regional and municipal coffers: they receive income from local private businesses, but now, when it is mostly state business that is seeing growth, tax revenues from the private sector have fallen. As a result, many regions have to increasingly save money on repairs. Fewer repairs mean more accidents. Moreover, since Soviet times in most regions the quality of communal infrastructure has left much to be desired,” says Petrov.

Even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, admitted that the country’s infrastructure is dilapidated. He insisted that during the 20 years of Putin’s rule, updating all of it “is simply impossible.” It is embarrassing to point out that China, for example, radically modernized its entire infrastructure during that time. And without any exports of high-priced oil.
The low quality of utility systems has also been compounded by rapid housing construction in the last 20 years:”
A utility accident in Podolsk, Moscow Region. January, 2024. Source: VK
huge districts with new buildings were often connected to existing systems, and even in cases where, for example, their own boiling houses were built, they were fed from existing electrical substations, gas networks and trunk water pipelines. “This, by the way, is a problem mainly for rich regions,” notes Petrov.

Indeed, the districts that are now freezing are mostly areas where rapid housing construction took place in previous years. Klimovsk is a case in point. Previously, it had been a village where workers of the Klimovsk Specialized Ammunition Plant mostly lived. As was standard in the Soviet Union, public utilities in such enterprise-affiliated settlements fell on the enterprise. Thus, the village was heated by the factory boiler house.

After the early post-Soviet economic reforms, production declined and the enterprise was resold several times under dubious schemes, while the current owners could be close to the Kremlin. Such schemes were in demand for a common reason: a regime of secrecy was maintained at privatized defense enterprises that could show at least some military production and so-called mobilization capacities (i.e., mothballed capacities). In particular, this means that no civilian regulatory authorities can come for an inspection without first obtaining permission from the intelligence services. This created, especially in the 90s, excellent opportunities for businessmen who were not on such good terms with the law.

But a housing boom began, and Klimovsk turned from a village into a microdistrict of the city of Podolsk, and blocks of multistory modern apartment buildings sprung up in place of the sparse enterprise-affiliated housing. And all of them were connected to the plant’s boiler house.

Firstly, because responsibility for the microdistrict’s utilities was not reassigned. Secondly, this was beneficial for the owners of the plant and the boiler house: flaccid production at the enterprise was not testing the boiler house’s capacity, while the developers paid well to be hooked up to the system.

But then Russia invaded Ukraine. The army needed ammunition, a lot of ammunition, and the Klimovsky plant started up its mothballed capacities, bringing production back up to previous levels. The load on the boiler house increased sharply. But now, it had to serve not just the plant and a couple five-story apartment buildings for workers, but a huge microdistrict of several thousand residents.

Add in the skimped-on repairs in the preceding period, skimped-on workers who service the boiler house, skimped-on repairmen, who in most such microdistricts are self-taught migrant workers... Then the cold wave struck – severe, but not supernatural – and everything fell apart.

Tellingly, the string of accidents bypassed wealthier residential areas in Moscow Region and Moscow. “The most advanced residential complexes usually have their own boiler house. It’s even cheaper, but the problem is that Gazprom does not want to give permission for a gas connection,” explains Petrov.
Getting permission from Gazprom is a matter of connections and money. Developers of business-class and even more elite complexes have such connections and do not mind the money – the price of the apartments makes up for it.
Developers of cheap residential complexes generally try to save money by not paying bribes to the authorizing authorities, and the residents suffer as a result.

However, boiler houses in prestigious residential complexes have their own problems. As a rule, Western equipment is used there. But due to sanctions, that equipment is now neither supplied to Russia nor serviced. In addition, modern boilers generally have an internet connection with the manufacturer – for remote diagnostics and repairs.

In theory, this problem is being solved. “A friend of mine installed a VPN on his Italian heating boiler, after which the boiler decided that it had returned to Italy and started working,” Petrov laughs. But this is not a long-term solution, he warns: it is easy to track the real location, via satellite, for instance.

“No one will bother over an individual boiler, but for large boiler houses this is a risky option.” Of course, Italian or any other Western manufacturers are unlikely to turn off their unauthorized connected equipment in severe cold, but it is possible in the warm season.

In terms of spare parts, Petrov is sure that imported boiler houses are in better shape if the manufacturer is a popular brand. “ABB has a lot of production in China. It is a long-standing Chinese tradition that unofficial production is set up right next to official production, producing the same products but under its own brand. These products, officially with a Chinese name but absolutely identical to the original ones, are no problem at all to buy. Many Russian factories have already formed entire teams to select analogues of Western equipment,” says the expert.

The biggest challenge, he says, is that the Chinese have completely different programming principles. Sometimes the documentation is also in Chinese. “Chinese-to-Russian translators mainly come from the humanities, [so] for them technical translations are difficult,” explains Petrov.

Now, the cold wave in Russia is subsiding, and the damage from the accidents is gradually being cleaned up. But since the quality of utility infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, Kulbaka expects the frequency of accidents to increase.

Transport problems

Accidents are increasingly happening in the airline industry – something the cold clearly has nothing to do with. For example, two of the three Boeing aircraft operated by Red Wings (one of Russia’s 10 largest airlines by passenger traffic) went out of service in the summer, because of which 400 Russian tourists got stuck in Antalya. Red Wings was unable to send a flight from Yekaterinburg to Antalya to pick them up and was forced to ask for help from Ikar Airlines.

Meanwhile, previously an Ikar plane had been unable to fly from Phuket to Irkutsk because its weather radar broke. There are radars in warehouses, but they cannot be sold to Russia due to sanctions. Finally, Aeroflot, Russia’s national carrier, had eight planes break down in five weeks.

“This, of course, is due to sanctions – the equipment is in need of a standard change of parts, repairs; simply put, authorized maintenance,” says Kulbaka. As soon as this maintenance stopped, problems began.

There are several types of maintenance performed on an airplane, which differ in terms of complexity, explains Petrov. “We can do some of the operations ourselves; they do not present any difficulties. Some of them require consumables. We can produce some simple consumables – such as gaskets and seals – but foreign manufacturers prohibited airlines from doing this.”

He goes on: “now, amid sanctions airlines might begin to produce simple parts despite that ban. But there are components, mainly engines, that cannot be made in an improvised manner. So, as engine resources are exhausted, the number of flights will be reduced. And so far there is no information on, or even rumors about, whether something has been successfully ordered from Iran or an agreement has indeed been reached on repairing aircraft there, as had been reported in the media.”

However, Kulbaka believes that for the most popular models – Boeings and Airbuses –buying the needed parts through third parties will not be a problem due to the huge number of them circulating around the world. Another issue is whether the parts can be replaced by Russian specialists without putting safety at risk.

In Petrov’s view, the situation of the early 90s may now be repeated, when the decline in living standards and the economy led to a sharp reduction in air travel, and impoverished airlines cannibalized their own fleets. “In principle, Russian aviation survived in this state for 10 years, so they can survive for 10 years today too,” the expert believes. Moreover, for the European part of Russia there is an alternative: trains.

Alas, not all is well with them.
Recently, for technical reasons the new Lastochka high-speed train, going from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow, was halted. But the Russian train Finist, meant to replace the imported, Siemens-built Lastochka, broke down on its first trip.”
Regarding the Lastochka, Petrov believes that the inability of European technology to handle the Russian cold played a role, while the breakdown of the Finist can be attributed to the unproven technology. But Kulbaka believes that the problem is much more serious: “we lagged behind in terms of quality of train production for quite a long time and [then] started making trains using foreign technology. This helped us begin to make good trains, but now it is unrealistic to replace the imported parts with Russian ones of the right quality. This means that these trains will be slower, of poorer quality and in greater need of repairs.”

Bursting pipes, non-flying planes, trains that do not run – all this does not yet amount to a major disaster. It will not happen, the experts concur. But there will be more accidents, malfunctions, delays and other troubles, which are now impossible to prevent. “But this is on the horizon of a year or two,” warns Kulbaka. To predict what will happen on a longer time horizon, however, cannot be done. It remains to be seen when the quantity of accidents will transition to quality and infrastructure will start falling apart.
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