Competition in the Arctic

By Nina Bachkatov

Russia seized upon the incident in the Suez Canal to remember the world that it exists another shipping route between Asia and the European continent – along its northern coast. It diplomatically stated the Arctic route as “a complement, not a rival, nor an alternative” to Suez. In the present tense relation between Russia and the West, with China’s growing assertiveness in the background, this shipping route, entirely on Russian territory, was added to the long list of “Russian threats” to the “free world”. Paradoxically, the opening of a complete Northern sea route would result from the global warming that international cooperation is supposed to fight and the consequent acceleration of Northern seas’ melting – not from Kremlin’s plots.

For years, Russians have been divided about the plus and minus of global warming, opposing those who see opportunities in climate changes and the others who see foresee a catastrophe for all humankind. President Putin has been constant in his view that, to a vast country encompassing all kind of climates, global warming offers new opportunities for economic development and geopolitical weight. Dramatic changes, in some parts of the country, is a price worth to pay.

Old project

The attention paid to ice melting in the Arctic is not new, but it has accelerated sharply during the last 5-10 years and extended from environmental questions to economic, political and military issues.

In October 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev had launched the “Murmansk Initiative”, one of his regional initiatives giving substance to his “New Political Thinking”, by which he wanted to demonstrate that, under his leadership, the Soviet Union was abandoning its confrontational policy in favour of dialogue.

As Arctic ice started to shrink exponentially, Russia had made expansion of the Northern Sea Route one of its key priorities. In one of his 2008 May Decrees signed at the start of his current mandate, President Putin listed the increase of annual shipments along the route to 80 million metric tons by 2024 as one of the country’s goals.

On paper, the benefits are evident. The Northern Sea Route cuts about 40% of the distance between Asian and European ports compared with the Suez Canal. The later has to be enlarged to safely accommodate the demand for huge containers vessels, a colossal investment that the Egyptian government cannot afford. The alternative is a long additional sailing around Africa.

New challenges

The Kremlin’s interest for the Northern route fits into the larger picture of Russia projecting itself as a transit zone, the size of a continent with a single custom regime, presenting no risks of interruption by regional conflicts or bilateral quarrels between countries involved in the route.

Russians have always been puzzled by the little attention the West is paying to geography. This includes successive attempts to cherry pick former communist or soviet states, or Turkey, as the “bridge” between Asia and Europe. A look on the map suffices to see not only that relations with Russia could not depend on “bridges”, but that it is a Eurasian continent in itself, extending from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea. For Moscow this transit position represents a huge economic potential, and it fits in its obsessive quest for “sovereignty”.

To this effect, the Trans Siberian railway has been updated and freight better organised under the TransContainer company. Ports have been upgraded or even build from scratch, first to prevent perceived blackmail by the Baltic states, and then to transform the shipping Northern route into a reliable channel, offering security at competitive prices.

Russia is also ahead of other Arctic countries in term of ice breaking capabilities. Simply because, even during the short ‘open’ season, ships needed to count on icebreakers for tracing their channel or rescuing them if trapped by the ice. For years, Russians have been investing in production and design of new generations of icebreakers with nuclear propulsion. Reason why Rosatom state corporation for civilian nuclear power is deeply involved in the Transpolar Sea Route project.


For all the sincere efforts made in favour of bilateral or regional cooperation, the Polar Circle neighbours are growingly trapped by their mutual suspicion. Nato and the US have been increasing their presence to prevent Russia to monopolise the traffic and access to Arctic resources; Russia has reacted as a besieged fortress, modernising its Northern Sea fleet and surveillance’s infrastructure. In fact, this growing international interest represents a huge challenge for a country whose successive military doctrines were based on its capability to defend the territory in case of simultaneous attacks from the East, the South and the West. Since Peter the Great, the Russian navy (Northern fleet, Black Sea fleet, and Pacific Fleet) has been a pilar of this planification. The frozen inaccessible Northern border was never an issue.

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