Polar Notes

Jan 2020

Russia’s Northern Sea Route Ambitions

At the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg last month, Rosatomflot announced that shipping on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) will grow to 92.6 million tons by the year 2024. Rosatomflot, which is part of Rosatom, is the Russian state corporation that, earlier this year, was given overall control of regulation, administration and development of the NSR. Its target is significantly higher than President Vladimir Putin’s own ambition to see shipments grow to 80 million tons by the same date. In 2018, shipments stood at 18 million tons, up from 10 million tons in 2017.

The NSR is attracting ever greater interest as the Arctic ice environment changes and energy exploitation along Russia’s northern coast is scaled-up. Conditions continue to vary from year to year, but sea-ice is diminishing in much of the Russian Arctic far faster than along the coast of Canada, or in the High Sea area of the Central Arctic Ocean.

Most shipping activity will be tied to regional imports and exports. The Yamal and Gydan Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects in Siberia are emerging as the centerpiece of Russia’s 21st century energy export strategy (see PolarNotes #35). Other exports from the Russian Arctic along the NSR over the period out to 2024 are expected to include 17.5 million tons of oil and 23 million tons of coal from inland developments, as well as nickel ore and goods, according to the five-year plan announced by the Kremlin last year. However, the prospect of up to 30% distance savings for transit shipping between

European and Asian ports has also heightened interest in the route. Last summer, Maersk became the first company to send a container ship through the NSR (see PolarNotes #30).

To meet its targets, Rosatomflot will make use of a new generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers - the third of these, Ural, left the dry dock this week, with two more likely to be ordered by the end of the year. By 2035, the company claims it will have eight new ice-breakers in service, supporting shipments along the NSR, expected to exceed 120 million tons. Meanwhile, President Putin has invited foreign investors to participate in the construction of port infrastructure in Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky to serve the NSR. Rosneft – Russia’s largest producer of crude oil – is also seeking foreign investors to help exploit its ‘Arctic cluster’ of onshore fields, which could further boost traffic on the NSR. 

China has already invested heavily in the Russian Arctic and the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has been the most active among foreign companies utilising the NSR. At the recent Belt and Road meeting in Beijing, President Putin reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to working with China – and all other countries in the Belt and Road Initiative – on establishing an Ice Silk Road: a “global and competitive route connecting northeastern, eastern and southeastern Asia with Europe”. As part of this endeavour, a Russia-China scientific centre has been established for joint Arctic research. Russia’s Ambassador to Beijing has also intimated that China’s growing experience in building icebreakers could help meet future needs (China launched its first domestically-built icebreaker last year, and has already commissioned plans to build its first nuclear icebreaker).

Responding to these developments, a Chinese commentator speculated that the Ice Silk Road could provide an alternative to the Arctic Council as the basis for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. Meanwhile, the United States has increasingly voiced its concerns about the strengthening Russia-China Arctic partnership. The prospect of an Ice Silk Road, underpinned by closer Russia-China economic cooperation, is likely to be a key issue in the Pentagon’s next Arctic Strategy, which is expected to be released this summer.

Reminder: Thwaites Glacier briefing - 11th June 

The next APPG Polar Regions briefing - Thwaites: The Doomsday Glacier - will take place on 11th June at 4.30pm. A team of scientists will explain how the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is under threat. If it calves, it could cause a 3 metre rise in global sea levels.

PolarNotes is written by Dr Duncan Depledge and endorsed by
 James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions). 

The author is grateful for comments received from Malte Humpert while drafting this article.

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk. 

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.