Thursday, October 21, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Increasing Traffic on Northern Sea Route Sparks Security Concerns in Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 21 – Now that the first cargo ship ever has traversed the Northern Sea Route without icebreaker assistance, traffic in the Arctic Sea north of Russia is set to expand dramatically next year, a development that along with concerns about access to mineral 32resources and geopolitical competition there, is raising new concerns in Moscow.
Three days ago, a Norilsk-Nikel ship docked in Shanghai after a 32-day voyage thus becoming the first cargo vessel in history to have sailed across the entire Northern Sea Route without icebreaker assistance, according to a company press release cited by Barents Observer (
While the ship, the “Monchegorsk,” is “an ice-classed vessel,” meaning that it is able to pass through waters where break ice is present, its latest voyage, the company said, marks “the first time in the history of the navigation of the Northern Sea Route … that such a large vessel passed through the eastern section of [that route] without icebreaker assistance.”
The ship is currently off-loading its cargo of metal and will return with Chinese manufacturing and consumer goods, and officials of the company say that this routing will take on average 20 days as compared to the 60 to 65 days of sailing that would be required if ships took the traditional southern route via the Suez Canal.
Global warming has reduced the ice cover and extended the shipping season for the Northern Sea Route, but as the last icebreaker-assisted convoys leave this week, Barents Observer says, more companies are poised to send their ships along this passage next year (
Six convoys are already scheduled for 2011, Rosatomflot says, and that organization’s icebreaker fleet reports that it currently has 15 requests for assistance, a big increase from this year and one that suggests 2010 will be remembered, as Barents Observer has said, as a breakthrough year.
Global warming and the retreat of the icepack have made this possible, with September 2010 becoming “the first time in modern history that the Northern Sea Route was totally ice-free, with only a few places [ion which even] drift ice could been seen from the bridges of vessels sailing that route.”
Not only is this route shorter, Barents Observer continues, but it “also has the advantage of not being frequented by the sorts of pirates that lurk off the coast of Somalia,” near the entrance to the Suez Canal. Indeed, the failure of the international community to find a way of suppressing piracy is an increasingly important factor in making the Arctic route attractive.
Within the Russian Federation, the prospect of more traffic is having two consequences. On the one hand, it is leading to the construction of new port facilities at Murmansk and Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. And on the other hand, it is feeding Russian concerns about Moscow’s ability to maintain security along the Russian Federation’s northern border.
In an article in the current issue of “Novaya versiya,” Moscow journalist surveys these concerns and draws the conclusion, on the basis of conversations with independent Russian experts on the military that Moscow is “not prepared for a large-scale war” north of the Arctic Circle but could defend its interests with respect to shipping.
Three weeks ago, Anton Vasilyev, the special representative of the Russian President, declared that “Russia does not plan to create ‘special Arctic forces’ or take any steps that would lead to the militarization of the Arctic,” despite provisions of Moscow’s security doctrine saying just the opposite (
This latest “new look” in Russian diplomacy may reflect a desire to project a more cooperative attitude in the region, both because more powers, including China, are getting involved there and because many in the Russian capital appear to recognize that some of Moscow’s earlier pretensions in the region are not sustainable.
But Aleksandr Tsyganok, one of Russia’s leading independent security analysts, says that however that may be, Moscow must take steps to ensure its “control over the sea routes” to the north of the borders of the Russian Federation which are rapidly becoming ice-free and thus more attractive to international shipping.
He suggests that at a minimum Russia should “already today” build a base for a naval flotilla “at the mouth of one of the major rivers of Siberia” in order to ensure that no other country will be able to project power into the high north and thus threaten Russia’s interests there.
If Moscow decides to take that step, it is likely to present it as providing a search and rescue capability for shipping, whatever its actual intent. But the central Russian powers that be are likely to face other obstacles than international ones: the costs of such a distant base would be high and most of the numerically small ethnic groups there would likely oppose it as well.

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