Russian policymakers lay out plan to develop Northern Sea Route

From August 6 to 11, the “Northern Sea Route to Strategic Stability and Equal Partnership in the Arctic” conference is taking place aboard the Yamal, a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Representatives from all eight Arctic states, along with several Russian ministers and policymakers, are in attendance. The icebreaker will travel west from the port of Varendey to the port of Tiksi. A greeting distributed to attendants that featured a message from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev set the tone for the conference. In his message, he said,

“The Arctic holds rich reserves of minerals, and the Northern Sea Route passes through the shortest shipping route connecting Europe and Asia. Therefore, sustainable and stable development of the region – based on cooperation and unconditional respect for international law – is of exceptional importance.”

Here, Medvedev struck a cooperative tone, in contrast to the comments of Russian Navy Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, who last month warned, “Currently, a wide range of threats, which may negatively effect Russian economic interests, are concentrated in the Arctic.” Vysotsky was speaking of China, Japan, the Koreas, and NATO, among others – countries and organizations that, by Russia, might be seen as wrongly intruding in a space that is not territorially theirs.

Competition in Arctic not a ‘fight’: ambassador

On board the Yamal, Gustaf Lind, Sweden’s Ambassador to the Arctic, gave his opinion on the situation up north. While he acknowledged that competition is taking place, he is also a staunch believer in the Arctic Council’s ability to resolve regional problems. With Sweden chairing the Arctic Council until 2013, it is natural that he would support the organization and its goals. Additionally, however, Sweden’s Arctic strategy is mostly executed through multilateral organizations, while the same cannot be said for Russia. Though the country certainly cooperates with other states and organizations, is developing its portion of the Arctic in a more unilateral manner. Lind averred,

“Such titles as ‘Fight for the Arctic,’ ‘Five countries are fighting for the Arctic’ or ‘Fight for Arctic resources’ – this is not the correct interpretation of what is happening. Yes, there is competition and this is normal.”

Meanwhile, the secretary of Russia’s national security council, Nikolai Patrushev, spoke about making Russia more competitive economically in the Arctic. He stressed how crucial developing the Arctic for Russia’s national security is, stating,

“The primary condition for strengthening the national security of Russia is increasing its competitiveness in the international segment of the transcontinental transportation, primarily through the use of the Northern Sea Route.”

Patrushev added that he wants to see the issues of transportation infrastructure and military and border security linked together. This could mean installing border patrols at ports, for instance.

Northern Sea Route in the spotlight

Right now, three million tons of cargo are shipped through the NSR every year. Patrushev believes that figure could rise by two-thirds to five million tons of cargo by next year. For comparison’s sake, the Suez Canal saw 57 million tons of cargo pass through it in the month of April 2011 alone [1]. Still, by 2030, it is estimated that the amount of cargo passing through the NSR could reach 85 million tons. With that much traffic in conditions that will still be dangerous and somewhat icy, it is imperative that Russia has icebreakers to monitor the waters and come to the rescue when necessary.

With that in mind, Russia’s budget for 2012 includes funding for a new, state-of-the art 60-watt nuclear icebreaker. Minister of Transport Igor Levitin told RIA Novosti that the contract should go to only one company, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, since this will help to ensure that the icebreaker is built to exacting standards. In addition, as part of a program for developing transportation from 2012-2015, Russia will plan to build three 25-watt diesel-powered icebreakers.

Uneven development in Russian Arctic

Patrushev also brought up two other points with regard to Russia’s development of its Arctic region. First, while the western portion of Russia’s northern coastline is somewhat well-developed, such as around the areas of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, the eastern portion lags behind. That is where most of the resources are concentrated, too. Patrushev observed,

“The existing navigation and hydro-meteorological system in the Arctic secures the effective functioning of its western sector but falls short of guaranteeing a high efficiency in its eastern sector, where we have most of our potential resources. Effective development of the region requires strategic planning within the framework of the Russian government’s policies for the Arctic.”

Second, Patrushev noted that the Russian government should develop tax and investment policies that stimulate growth in the Arctic. Though the resources are there, ready to be extracted, it is less certain whether there will be any people to do the work. Residents are already moving out of the Russian Arctic at an alarming rate. In addition, with little infrastructure in the east, Russia has serious demographic and infrastructural problems to contend with should it wish to develop the Arctic at a speed to match its rhetoric. But at the very least, it has a plan.

External Links

 “Cargo carried through Suez Canal rises to 8-month high in April,” Bloomberg

Northern Sea Route to be developed,” Voice of Russia

Levitin: in 2012 Russia will build a new icebreaker for the Arctic,” RIA Novosti (in Russian)


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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