The Russian government has taken notice of environmental changes that have steadily opened the Arctic coastlines of countries in the northern hemisphere to increased maritime traffic, with the Kremlin recently announcing its intention to expand maritime cargo transportation along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in 2023. Speaking at the “Transport of Russia” forum last month, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that, since the beginning of this year, 25 million tons of cargo traversed the NSR. Mishustin called the development of the NSR one of the Russian government’s “key priorities,” projecting a need to achieve a transportation target of 80 million tons of cargo by 2024 (Vedomosti, November 16).
The NSR stretches for 3,479 miles (5,600 kilometers) from Murmansk to Vladivostok along Russia’s Arctic and Pacific coastlines. Severe climactic conditions frequently complicate use of the route; navigation in the NSR’s eastern sector from Taymyr to the Bering Strait is impossible during winter without icebreaker escorts, as the thickness of the ice there can reach 9.8 feet (3 meters). Cargo traffic on the NSR in 2021, before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his all-out war against Ukraine, totaled 34.9 million tons (Atomic-energy.ru, January 13). A major strategic commercial advantage of the NSR for Russian merchants is that it runs entirely through Russian internal waters, which are free from foreign interference, unlike Russia’s other outlets to the world’s oceans, such as the Turkish straits, where commercial traffic has suffered from the conflict around the Black Sea.
Well aware of the potential benefits of developing the route despite the difficulties involved, in August 2022, the Russian government approved a strategic document for developing the NSR through 2035, at a projected cost of nearly $28.75 billion, or 1.8 trillion rubles (RIA Novosti, August 4). Interestingly, the document made no mention of where funding for this development will come from.
On November 18, at a Russian Security Council interdepartmental commission meeting regarding how to ensure Russian national interests in the Arctic, Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia would face a shortage of nuclear icebreakers by 2030 due to the aging of its fleet (Vedomosti, November 18). Medvedev noted that half of the six icebreakers operated by state-owned Rosatom subsidiary, the Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FSUE) Atomflot, which has overseen the NSR since 2018, were built using outdated technologies. Medvedev added that their service life has been repeatedly extended, a practice that will no longer be feasible by 2026 or 2027. During the winter-spring NSR navigation season in 2021 and 2022, more than 20 ships became iced in and needed to be rescued by icebreakers (Portnews.ru, December 1). According to FSUE Atomflot Acting General Director Leonid Irlitsa, at least 13 icebreakers are required to ensure that the NSR remains navigable year-round in the Far East (Seanews.ru, July 18).
Interestingly, use of the NSR will not be restricted solely to Russian commercial and naval shipping. On November 30, the Russian Federation Council approved amendments to the law allowing foreign ships to use the NSR. The amendments note that foreign commercial and naval vessels need to request permission 90 days before their intended use of the route (Portnews.ru, November 30). However, Putin’s ill-advised military assault on Ukraine has complicated international trade for multinational logistics companies and brokers, as anything that passes through Russia is now potentially liable to secondary sanctions. Chinese companies, which earlier had been increasing their usage of the NSR, are growing concerned about the potential economic damage from the collateral blowback of secondary sanctions; unlike previous years, at the beginning of July 2022, China’s COSCO Shipping Corporation had yet to file any requests for navigation in the NSR’s waters (Korabel.ru, September 19). As COSCO is the number-one shipping firm in the world, operating 1,413 vessels with a capacity of 113.47 million deadweight tons, the Chinese entity’s caution deprives the NSR of significant current and future revenue (Coscoshipping.com, accessed December 13).
Not surprisingly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has become increasingly concerned about Russia’s accelerating Arctic activity. Beyond Moscow’s growing interest in the region’s commercial potential, since 2005, Russia has reopened dozens of Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic and modernized its navy while developing new hypersonic missiles. Since Putin began his “special military operation” against Ukraine, one consequence for Russia has been that the geopolitical and military situation in the Arctic is changing, as once Sweden and Finland join NATO, seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council will be NATO members (the others being Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Canada and the US). Broadening its concern beyond the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, NATO noted in this context that, on July 31, Putin signed the “On the Approval of the Naval Doctrine of the Russian Federation” decree, with the new naval strategy pledging to protect Arctic waters “by all means” (Kremlin.ru, July 31). Bolstering NATO concerns, in September 2022, Chinese and Russian warships conducted a joint exercise in the Bering Sea (Federalnews24.ru, September 27).
The convergence of all these elements are casting the Arctic as a new front in the ongoing major geopolitical upheavals in Eurasia. As Putin squanders his country’s military personnel and logistics to continue tormenting Ukraine, the conflict is also depleting NATO’s weapons stocks, a sobering thought for those contemplating a possible new operational front in an inhospitable Arctic environment. Ultimately, NATO would do well to build on its revitalization stemming from Russia’s war against Ukraine and develop a strong, more unified approach to countering Russian activity in the Arctic.
By the Jamestown Foundation
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