Global logistics under pressure from Russia’s invasion

The Yomiuri Shimbun
All Nippon Airways officials check the safety of a flight route that bypasses Russia’s airspace at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on April 13.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put much strain on logistics between Japan and other countries, as the war has not only forced suspensions in Trans-Siberian Railway freight service and maritime shipping to Russia, but has also required airfreight between Japan and Europe to make wide detours to avoid Russian airspace.

Moscow’s aggression has exacerbated logistics disruptions that were triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns that prices will remain high.

In early March, Japanese logistics companies halted freight shipments using the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The railway is the world’s longest, running about 9,300 kilometers to connect the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok with Moscow. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry had encouraged Japanese companies to use the railway based on an economic cooperation plan agreed upon at a Japan-Russia summit in 2016.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the whole situation. In April, the railway’s state-run operator, Russian Railways, went into default.

According to the Trans-Siberian Intermodal Operators Association of Japan, comprising 14 freight companies that use the Trans-Siberian Railway, the volume of cargo handled in the first half of 2021 jumped more than tenfold compared to the amount loaded during the whole of 2019.

Containers carrying products such as auto parts and chemicals were first transported by ship from Japan to Vladivostok and then by rail all the way to Moscow, from where they were delivered to various parts of Europe, mostly by truck.

According to the ministry, freight via the Trans-Siberian Railway took only 20 to 30 days to get from Japanese ports to Moscow, about half the time required for maritime shipping, with costs much lower than airfreight. It was expected that the railway would serve as an alternative to sea freight, but there are no prospects for resuming the use of the railway for logistics.

Alternative flight routes

When the news of Russia’s invasion was first reported on Feb. 24, tension ran high in the All Nippon Airways office in charge of setting flight routes.

The news prompted staff to step up their efforts to change flight routes for Europe, and they examined various factors that had never before been necessary to handle until late at night every day. In peacetime, flights from Japan to Europe pass over Russia, but the carrier had to determine detour routes to ensure safety while taking into account economic sanctions imposed by the West against Russia.

ANA is also tasked with transporting COVID-19 vaccines from Europe. While it normally takes two months to change flight routes, the carrier completed the work just in two weeks. It started using a southern route that passes over Asia in early March, and a northern route that flies over Alaska beginning on April 18.

Japanese airlines have been focusing on the cargo business as they have faced a sharp drop in passenger traffic due to the pandemic. According to the Japan Aircargo Forwarders Association, the volume of exports by air to Europe increased about 50% in fiscal 2021 from the previous year.

With maritime shipping playing the main role in Japan’s trade, airfreight handles less than 10% of the total volume. Air cargo transports auto parts and food products from Europe, and machinery parts and semiconductor-related products from Japan.

Japan Airlines also started using a northern route at almost the same time as ANA, referring to a similar one used during the Cold War to avoid airspace over the then Soviet Union. However, the new route requires a longer flight time to Europe — adding over four hours to a flight to Helsinki, for example — and therefore requires more pilots on duty.

This also means aircraft have to carry more fuel, reducing the amount of cargo that can be carried and consequently pushing up freight costs.

Choushimaru Co., a Chiba City-based operator of a sushi restaurant chain, raised the price of a signature item featuring Norwegian salmon by about 20% in mid-March, prompted by increases in the costs for the airfreight of the product.

Sailor shortage

Shipping, which handles 90% of the nation’s international trade volume, continues to face disruptions caused by Russia’s aggression. Ocean Network Express (Japan) Ltd., a container ship operator in which the nation’s three major shipping firms invest, halted freight operations to and from Russia and Ukraine at the end of February. Fares for vessels that specialize in carrying liquefied natural gas have risen sharply as the demand for the commodity has been surging in Europe.

Securing mariners has also become an issue amid the invasion. According to the International Chamber of Shipping and other organizations, Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers for the profession, accounting for about 15% of the world’s mariners. A shortage of mariners caused by the invasion could further disrupt logistics, the ICS said.