Cold truth about Russia’s Arctic ambitions and Northern Sea Route

Cold truth about Russia’s Arctic ambitions and Northern Sea Route

Cold truth about Russia’s Arctic ambitions and Northern Sea Route
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This month Russian President Vladimir Putin released his 15 year strategy for boosting Russia's presence in the Arctic region. Formally known as the “Basics of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2035”, this strategy sets out a plan to increase energy production in Russia's Arctic region, while also improving transport infrastructure and economic growth.

According to some estimates the strategy could lead to up to 15 trillion rubles ($200 billion) of new investments over the next 15 years period. With a stagnant economy and declining oil prices it remains to be seen where Russia will find these resources.

For geographical and historical reasons, the Arctic region has always held a special place in the hearts and minds of Russians. Putin’s latest strategy and economic investment in the Arctic region is nothing new.

In the early 18th century, Russia sent a number of large expeditions to explore and map the Arctic coastline in Sibera. These missions were not cheap - funding these expeditions cost Moscow one-sixth of its state budget in 1724.  

The explorers, scientists, and adventurers who participated in the Kamchatka expeditions, known as the Great Northern Expeditions, numbered in the thousands. Even by today's standards, this was probably the largest scientific expedition in history.

Some things never change. Almost 300 years later, Russia is as active as ever in the Arctic.

Russia has invested heavily in militarizing its Arctic region by opening new bases and deploying more troops to the region. Two-thirds of the Russian Navy is found in Russia’s Arctic based Northern Fleet.  While the Arctic region remains peaceful, Russia’s recent steps to militarize the region, coupled with its bellicose behavior toward its neighbors, makes the Arctic a security concern.

Russia is also eager to promote its economic interests in the region. Half of the world's Arctic territory and half of the Arctic region's population is located in Russia. It is well-known that the Arctic is home to large stockpiles of proven, yet unexploited, oil and gas reserves. The majority of these reserves is thought to be located in Russia.

As a key part of Russia’s economic growth in the Arctic, Moscow hopes the Northern Sea Route (NSR) will become one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.  

The NSR runs from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait connecting European with Asian markets. There are some who suggest that the NSR could become a viable alternative—even a rival—to the Suez Canal because it cuts transit time and distance from Europe to East Asia considerably.

In some cases this is true.

As a key part of Russia’s economic growth in the Arctic, Moscow hopes the Northern Sea Route (NSR) will become one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.  

Luke Coffey

Using Northern Sea Route certainly makes a trip between northern European ports to northern Asian ports shorter than using the Suez Canal route. It must be pointed out that this is not the case for southern European ports like Genoa, Trieste or Barcelona.

However, a word of caution is needed.

Last year only 31 million tons of goods were shipped along the route. By comparison more than 1.2 billion tons of goods transited the Suez Canal during the same period. Of the 31 million tons of goods shipped along the NSR, only 697,000 tons made the full journey from Europe to Asia. This is five-hundredths of one-percent of the total volume shipped through Suez.

In 2019 only 37 ships transited the whole route of the NSR. During the same period more than 18,800 ships passed through Suez Canal.

Clearly there is a long way to go before the NSR becomes a serious revival to the Suez Canal—if it ever does at all.

In 2018 a presidential degree set a target of 80 million tons shipped across the NSR by 2024— still well below what passes through the Suez Canal. A 2016 report from the Copenhagen Business School found that: “The results from the quantitative study on the feasibility of liner shipping across the NSR indicate that Arctic liner shipping may become economically feasible around 2040, if the ice cover continues to diminish at the present rate.”

Russia is trying to exert more control than ever over the route—even against established international norms and laws.

Last year Russia announced that it was implementing stringent navigation rules for the entire length of the NSR—even outside Russian territorial waters. Under these rules, for example foreign navies would be required to “post a request with Russian authorities to pass through the Sevmorput [NSR] 45 days in advance, providing detailed technical information about the ship, its crew and destination.”

Needless to say this has caught the attention of some NATO members.

The June 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy noted that “Russia regulates maritime operations in the NSR, contrary to international law, and has reportedly threatened to use force against vessels that fail to abide by Russian regulations.” So far only the French Navy has challenged Russian claims by conducting a Freedom of Navigation operation in 2018.

There are also concerns about the safety of ships using the NSR. The shipping lanes are a considerable distance from search and rescue facilities so safety is a major concern. When ships use the NSR, they often rely on support from Russia, especially in the form of icebreakers, which increases shipping costs.

Considering the additional risks and costs associated with using the NSR, it remains to be seen if such a small difference in distance when compared with the Suez route is really worth it. Right now the numbers of ships using the route suggest it is not.

Global interest in the Arctic region will only increase in the years to come. China is already getting more involved especially in the Russian Arctic. As much of the world’s focus with Russia remains on its nefarious actions in Syria or its illegal annexation of Crimea, Moscow’s Arctic ambitions should not be ignored.

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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