Russia Commits to Building Northern Sea Route Infrastructure

Earlier this month, Russia hosted the Fourth International Meeting of the Arctic Council at Naryan-Mar, a seaport in the Barents Sea, to discuss issues relating to the infrastructure and safety of ships passing through the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Earlier this month, Russia hosted the Fourth International Meeting of the Arctic Council at Naryan-Mar, a seaport in the Barents Sea, to discuss issues relating to the infrastructure and safety of ships passing through the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The meeting was attended by seven of the eight permanent members of the Arctic Council, the US being conspicuously absent. The meeting was also attended by observer states including China, India, Singapore and South Korea, which joined the Council in May 2013.

There is good news coming from the northern latitudes, and the economic potential of the Arctic is encouraging. In the coming years, the cargo volume through the NSR could increase by 10-15 percent annually. By some estimates, it could even grow seven times in the coming five years, reaching 8-10 million metric tons. Interestingly, similar statistics have been recorded in the past few years, with an increase from four vessels in 2010 to 40 in 2013, and an increase in cargo volume to nearly a million metric tons.

These statistics and predictions may be too optimistic unless adequate infrastructure, such as icebreakers, ice-class vessels, technical services, emergency response mechanisms and search and rescue facilities are developed to ensure that the NSR is economically viable and safe for commercial shipping. This was perhaps one of the many reasons why Russia organized the conference where it voiced its commitment to develop the NSR and related infrastructure to ensure safe passage of ships from Russia’s Far East to Murmansk. The Russian Arctic Strategy, endorsed by President Putin in February 2013, envisages "development of science and technology, creation of a modern information and telecommunications infrastructure, environmental security, international cooperation in the Arctic, provision of military security and protection of state borders."

Ice breakers and ice-class ships are considered to be a key to any successful voyage through the NSR. Currently, Russia has the largest fleet of such vessels, which includes six nuclear powered and several diesel-electric icebreakers. Some of these will be decommissioned in the next three to five years and need to be replaced. Rosatomflot, a subsidiary company of Rosatom, the Russian agency responsible for managing nuclear-powered vessels, has announced that three next-generation nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers, the "Arctic," the "Siberia" and the "Ural," will enter into service in 2017-2021. It is important to note that it can take about four to five years to build a medium capacity nuclear propelled icebreaker, which may cost as much as US $ 1 billion, and an ice-class vessel, around US $500 million.

During the Naryan-Mar meeting, Russia also announced a plan to develop Radio-Technical and Information (RTI) systems, which would compare and analyze information coming from various sources, such as real time picture of incidents, accidents, emergency situations and also acts of terrorism targeting infrastructure facilities. The system is designed to automatically share data with response agencies.

As part of the conference, Russia also held the Arctic-2014 oil spill response exercise, which simulated a fire on an oil tanker in the Pechora Sea, and checked how various agencies responded. A number of state and commercial companies such as Gazprom and LUKOIL, and a number of platforms (Antonov An-26 and Ilyushin Il-38 aircraft; Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft; a coast defense ship; the Spasatel Karev rescue vessel; and the Yuri Topchev icebreaker) belonging to various agencies participated in the exercise. Significantly, these exercises were observed by international experts.

The US absence at the International Meeting of the Arctic Council deserves attention. Although the Russians were quick to dismiss any apprehensions of a lack of US interest in cooperating with Russia in the Arctic, Washington has announced a number of sanctions (following the Ukraine-Crimea crises) that restrict the export to Russia of high tech equipment for oil exploration in extreme weather conditions. Apparently, Russia is almost 100 percent dependent on imported technology and equipment which are critical for energy exploration in the Arctic. This could potentially disrupt ambitious projects that Russian companies are planning.

Asian observers should have benefited immensely from this meeting, as it served as a unique opportunity for them to develop contacts with permanent members and observer states at the Arctic Council. It should have also given them a glimpse of the political, economic and strategic development of the Arctic Council member states. These are significant issues for Asian countries, which pin great hopes on the changing Arctic. It will be useful to keep in mind that observer states are "true observers," and have no say in the proceedings of the Council. Finally, it will be important for Asian countries to find a common approach to the Arctic, and a Pan-Asian dialogue could help develop a regional Arctic strategy. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.