Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Russian Infrastructure to Support Northern Sea Route Won’t Be Ready for at Least Another Decade, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 12 – The Washington Post reported four days ago that global warming is opening the Northern Sea Route to more shipping sooner than expected, but officials and experts in the North say that Russia won’t have the necessary infrastructure in place to support trade on that route for at least another decade.

            The Northern Sea Route is significantly shorter than sea lanes around southern Africa or through the Suez Canal, and potentially it is safer – there are no pirates as there are in the Indian Ocean. But until recently, the shipping season was limited by weather to July through September. Global warming has now lengthened that time to through October.

            But, journalist Andrey Belenky says on the basis of conversations with experts, Russia lacks the infrastructure to make the Northern Sea Route popular with shippers – and at the current rate of development, will lack that for another decade or even more (

                On the northern coast of Russia, along the Northern Sea Route, there are only seven ports, the journalist continues, “and only one of them – at Dudinka where the Yenesei flows into the Kars Sea – does the amount of trade exceed a million tons a year.”  The rest of the area is vacant, and building infrastructure there is very expensive.

            A single new electric and gas line across the region would cost more than half of what the Turkish Flow pipeline has, Belenky says. But without something like that, trade among Russian regions in the North will remain small; and international shipping will increasingly pass beyond Russia’s control, especially as ice breakers become less necessary to make the transit.

            Moscow has been putting money into the Murmansk port, even though technically it is not on the Northern Sea Route, but that investment “is the exception,” experts say.  Most projects in the region are either “far from completion” or still at the stage of talks rather than construction, according to Igor Orlov, an aide to Arkhangelsk governor. 

            The planned expansion of the Arkhangelsk port “also will not be completed soon.” Its first stage won’t be realized until 2023; and its second, not until 2028.” Thus, those who want to rely on it will have to wait “another ten years in the best case,” Belenky says. And the best case is unlikely.

            Tensions with the West have slowed or stopped many of these projects, he continues, because as Murmansk Governor Marina Kovtun puts it, “no projects in the Arctic are possible without international cooperation.”  And at present, that does not exist at least in the amount necessary to proceed.

            With regard to infrastructure, Moscow has talked more than it has done, the journalist says. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, there was talk about creating a Ministry for the Arctic; but that didn’t happen.  A little later, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said there would be some special state corporation to focus on this area. But it hasn’t appeared either.

            “The growth of the Russian economy is slowing,” Belenky says; “and the Northern Sea Route could change this. However, judging from the timetables of projects around it, the country needs a minimum of ten more years for preparation.” The ice on the Arctic Ocean will continue to melt. 

                “Each additional year, without new infrastructure, will be a missed opportunity for profit for Russia.” 

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