Russia’s Arctic North Sea Route

Paul Goncharoff

Russia has developed new rules for the passage of all foreign ships, including warships and merchant vessels navigating through Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR). The need for such new “rules of the road” has arisen due to recent intensification of naval interest both military and commercial, and activities by various state players in the Arctic. According to Russia the purpose of these new rules are to maintain control over shipping, and the environment.

The new rules call for all ships and vessels from other countries to notify a Russian monitoring service 45 days before they plan navigating through the NSR. They must report the name of the ship, the route and the timing of navigation, name and military rank (if a warship) of the captain as well as the main parameters of the craft, such as displacement, draft and engine characteristics.

In addition, the regulations will oblige all foreign ships and vessels to take on board Russian pilots when navigating the NSR. This to handle any potential emergency or complication due to changeable ice situations, Russian icebreakers will also be available to provide assistance.

This year the expected trade turnover through the NSR should reach 30 million tons, and in the not too distant future can reach 80 million tons.

The NSR is the shortest maritime passage connecting Europe and the European part of Russia with the country’s Far East regions and Asia. This artery passes through several seas of the Arctic Ocean, including the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, Chukchi Sea, and partially through the Bering Sea in the Pacific Ocean.

Today the NSR is mostly used for transporting oil and gas shipments, including liquefied natural gas (LNG) and petrochemicals, concentrated ore, coal, and metals. However this is quickly changing and by next year container vessels and similar will make their mark as well.

Russia’s job is to protect its Northern Sea Route since it is the slender, recently navigable, path abutting and between its vast northern border and the arctic ice. With the dramatic increase in tonnages being shipped, the maritime traffic has become a critical issue in these waters.

The government has therefore developed rules for the passage of foreign shipping on it. The US representatives have repeatedly stated that they are also interested in the NSR and Russia “has no right to dictate its terms there.” However, with the adoption of new rules, this situation will change.

At the same time, Russia reserves the right to refuse the passage of ships, and in the case of unauthorized movement along the NSR, Moscow will be able to apply emergency measures including arrest and seizure or according to some, even more dynamic action should such be required.

The United States and other NATO countries have shown particular interest in the Russian North for a long time and this has not just been limited to words. Last year, a French naval vessel sailed the Northern Sea Route without warning. The commander of the ship afterwards said that the purpose of the passage was “the development of our knowledge of the region.”

Foreign ships with cruise missiles on board, passing along the Northern Sea Route, do pose a serious threat to Russia, since by doing so they are holding virtually all military and political centers of the country within strike range.

Given the current international situation, control over the NSR of Russia makes simple common sense. According to the President of the Center for Global Interests in Washington, the new rules for passage via the NSR are a continuation of a consistent policy.

Representatives of the United States have repeatedly stated in spite of Russia that the Northern Sea Route should be a transport artery, open to the entire world community. The Russians point out that the NSR is not only within Russia’s territorial waters, but that Russia has the legal right and responsibility to regulate navigation along the entire route.

The United States has been and is challenging the rights of coastal countries to establish shipping rules in northern latitudes not only in Russia. The US does not recognize the right of Canada to manage its Arctic routes as well.

US claims against the Northern Sea Route have their roots in the Cold War. In 1964, Washington and Moscow exchanged notes of protest because of an attempt by American ships and submersibles to proceed unauthorized along the northern coast of the USSR.

A member of Russia’s Federation Council’s committee on defense and security F. Klintsevich said that the United States is trying to escalate tension around the Northern Sea Route for economic reasons as well. He noted that the NSR is shorter and more profitable than other routes for the delivery of goods between Asia and Europe. In fact, up to half of all Eurasian cargoes can now be transported via the northern route. This is a trade turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars. The United States as a major trading power does not derive economic benefit from the development of Russia’s NSR.

Regardless, if the United States increases its military presence in the Arctic North, it will be in conflict with several existing international treaties on demilitarization of the Arctic. This looks like it is developing into yet another new geopolitical flashpoint to concern us all.