Friday, September 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Global Warming Could Deprive Russia of Control over Northern Sea Route

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 25 – Global warming, which Moscow had expected to give it a dominant voice over expanded North Sea Route shipping, appears to be taking so fast, Russian officials now say, that ships belonging to other nations will be able to pass north of their country’s 200-mile economic exclusion zone.
That means, Arkhangelsk Governor Ilya Mikhailchuk says that Russia must “start developing the Northern Sea Route” in the near term, while “Russia has the advantage of the ice being thinner insider the 200-mile zone than outside.” If Moscow fails to do so, soon, “others will.” And they will be able to ignore Russia’s concerns.
At present, Russia dominates the use of the Northern route, with most of the shipping involving Norilsk Nikel, Lukoil, Rosneft, and Rosshelf, Barents observer reports. But a few weeks ago, two German merchant ships were able to transit the entire passage “without the assistance of icebreakers,” although with the approval of the Russian government.
But Russian officials say, as a result of rising temperatures, the icecap is receding faster than Moscow had expected, sparking new interest in this route among potential competitors ( and
Among the consequences of this more rapid than expected retreat of the polar ice cap is likely to be a Russian negotiating position that will seek in the very near future to lock in a privileged role for Russia even when ships are able to transit north of that country’s economic exclusion zone.
But precisely because other countries stand to benefit from not agreeing to a privileged Russian position now given what they can see climate change is doing and given that a more northern route is shorter than one going through the Russian zone, it is also likely that the governments of these states will seek to drag out the talks.
Meanwhile, in another border-related issue, officials in the Russian northwest are complaining that they are losing potential foreign investment to areas further from the border and often nearer Moscow because Russia does not have a law governing cross-border cooperation (
Yevgeny Nikora, speaker of the Murmansk oblast legislative assembly, says that “if Russia had a federal law on cross-border cooperation, then Murmansk oblast could have gained a great deal,” but unfortunately each partnering has to be approved separately introducing delays and other problems (
These agreements, each of which Moscow has a veto over, often have been extremely productive, including cooperation between Kirkenes and Nikel. But a law would allow the regions to promote such ties on their own, something that could help them overcome current economic difficulties.
Barents observer reports that Moscow may soon pass such a law. Reportedly, the Russian Federation Council will take up a draft law that has already “received positive reactions from both the Russian Government [that is to say, Vladimir Putin] and President Dmitry Medvedev,” making its passage almost certain.

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