Staunton, April 8 – Vladimir Putin’s regime routinely hypes the Northern Sea Route as the future of east-west trade, but a review of the situation by the influential Russian military journal, Voyennoye Obozreniye, suggests that the route isn’t going to play the role the Kremlin envisages, a view that Western analysts increasingly share.
Russian military analyst Yevgeny Fedorov notes that the possibilities of the Northern Sea Route depend on the development of Russia’s Far North and that such development is not only prohibitively expensive but is unlikely to happen anytime soon (topwar.ru/181753-arkticheskij-uzel-nuzhen-li-rossii-severnyj-morskoj-put.html).
The Russian North occupies 18 percent of the country’s territory but has only two percent of Russia’s population. The ports and cities that do exist there were created in Soviet times as part of a grandiose plan to transform the environment. But they do not pay their own way. Instead, they require massive subsidies to this day.
That has presented the current Russian leaders with a challenge, Fedorov says. No one intends to “throw the Arctic to the winds of fate.” The natural wealth of the region is too great for that. But “to continue developing the region on ‘the Soviet model’ is also something that no one intends to do either.”
The Putin government has chosen to move forward with a public-private partnership involving Russia’s giant oil and gas companies. The latter have promoted the idea that Russia should not develop cities in the North or roads and railways across melting permafrost regions but rather take out the resources via the Northern Sea Route.
This looks like the perfect solution. But Fedorov says, it is attractive only in theory.
Between 2015 and 2020, Moscow planned to develop the region around a series of localized centers, but then it decided instead to promote the development of the region as a single macro-region. “This means that the Russian leadership has in part returned to the Soviet model of development everywhere in the Arctic.”
“In large measure,” the analyst continues, “this is connected with the hopes for the development of yet another regional mega-project – the Northern Sea Route. The government’s plans for it are simply grandiose” with Moscow assuming that such a route can easily compete against the Suez Canal and its own Trans-Siberian railway.
Global warming has only added to the self-confidence of Moscow planners, but in fact, the Northern Sea Route remains problematic. The remaining ice requires the existence of icebreakers which even Russia does not have enough of, the opening of new ports for ships to put in at, and a radically expanded navigation aids system.
Backers of the plan like to speak of speeds of 15 knots an hour for ships using the route, something which would mean that the time between Europe and Asia would be much shorter than on the Suez route, but in fact, the real speeds now possible are only nine knots and thus the transit time is the same for the Northern Sea Route as for the Suez Canal one.
“But that is not all,” Fedorov says.
Container vessels, an increasingly important part of oceanic trade, need to go
into ports for resupply ever three to four thousand kilometers. But there are no ports that ships can use
from one end of the Northern Sea Route to the other. Building them would be
Experts say, he continues, that “from Vladivostok to Rotterdam itself, there is not a single major port capable of receiving container vessels of world class” and that Russia would have to build 16 large ports to make such shipping possible on a regular basis. (The reason container ships have to put in so often is for resupply, of course.)
“Besides these problems, the Northern Sea Route doesn’t have enough icebreakers. Of the new series, only the Arktika has entered service.” And global warming as fast as it is happening isn’t going to eliminate the need for them anytime soon, the Voyennoe obozreniye analyst says.
He points out that “the main problems are connected with the extremely weak development of the eastern part of the Arctic Sea Route. In fact, to the east of Norilsk, there is nothing and won’t be for many years. There is no infrastructure, no productive capacity, and no major ports.” Chukotka will get the Internet only in 2024.
The daunting costs and difficulties of changing all this, Fedorov argues, prompts the question he began with: “Does Russia need the Northern Sea Route?” Most likely, he suggests, the answer is “no.”
Indeed, if it continues to pursue its dreams, “Russia risks creating an enormous structure, investing gigantic means and in the end having a Northern Sea Route that isn’t used. The transformation of the Arctic into a mega-region is transforming it into an analogue to a Soviet ‘construction of the century,’” something that will cost a lot and achieve little.
“Unfortunately or happily, the Arctic region is not intended as a place where hundreds of thousands or even more millions of people will live. It is too difficult both for health and of the budget.” Consequently, plans for the development of the Northern Sea Route which depends on the development of the Russian North must be scaled back.
Not unimportantly, concerns about the cost of shipping along the Northern Sea Route, its environmental impact, and declining demand are now being sounded by Western analysts as well, but their voices are often overwhelmed by Russian hype and by those in the West who are using that hype to justify their own plans (thebarentsobserver.com/ru/arktika/2021/04/rossiyskie-usiliya-po-prodvizheniyu-sevmorputi-vstrecheny-skepticheski).