News & Analysis

Cold Ambition: The New Geopolitical Faultline

The nuclear icebreaker Yamal. Photo: Wikicommons

Among barren rocky isles, just north of the windswept Siberian tundra and hemmed in by immense ice sheets lies a tenuous blue line through frigid waters. This thin line of open water, of safety, is vigorously maintained by the world’s most immense fleet of nuclear icebreakers. These towering black and red vessels, looming hundreds of feet above the limitless ice pack are visible from all directions. Crushing the ice one mile at a time, they create a tiny space of clear water through which maritime commerce can pass. This route is known as the NSR (Northern Sea Route) and one of the most dangerous sea passages in the world. Now, of what interest is this remote and dangerous commercial waterway to our readers? In short, as global warming pushes back the ice, Russia will possess the most important trade route in the world-and at that, one in a region amply blessed with hydrocarbon reserves. While workers toil in the eternal arctic night to connect pipelines and refurbish ports long abandoned since the fall of the USSR, policy makers in the Kremlin plan their next chess move in the Arctic wilderness.

Map of the Proposed NSR with Major Ports. Photo: Researchgate

Russia is not the only country to invest in Arctic infrastructure, for China, as another facet of the Sino-Russian alliance, is also showing significant interest in the route. If the NSR becomes readily transversable, Chinese commerce can circumvent the Malacca and Gulf of Aden chokepoints, thus making it less vulnerable to a U.S. blockade in the case of war and less subject to international norms in peacetime. Of secondary importance is that it is less susceptible to the growing piracy found in other parts of the world. While the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement does not specify the Arctic as a zone of cooperation, it does lay out rules for investment cooperation zones.

A commercially viable Northern Sea Route would mean not only better access to hydrocarbon reserves but also greater development of many peripheral, interior Russian regions. Three major Russian waterways are connected to the Arctic Ocean: the Ob, Yenisey and Lena rivers. These rivers are access points for today’s underdeveloped settlements which could, with further investment, serve as important port facilities and commercial nodes along the NSR. Additionally, if the NSR becomes viable, these estuaries can be developed into zones of serious commercial and logistical importance. The Russian Federation is clearly aware of this potential and thus dedicates 10% of its infrastructure investment to the Arctic region. Some recent Russian projects include the refurbishment of existing port facilities and shipyards.

Russian support for its arctic ambitions also extends to internal industrial patronage. Russia boasts the largest, most capable icebreaker fleet in the world, and is expanding it even further. The Russian state has significant control over this industry since Severmash (the primary manufacturer) is directly administered by RosAtom, a primary state owned enterprise similar to the U.S. Department of Energy. Without icebreakers, the waterways are not reliably navigable, resource deposits are not mappable, and resupply of outposts and remote settlements is impossible.

Its positioning means the NSR would be easy to isolate from external influence. Russia has formed two Arctic brigades for arctic duties, and has added several new or refurbished bases in the far north. It has also deployed its newest anti-aircraft (S400) and anti-ship missile (K300P) systems to the region as well thereby further increasing its ability to deny access to the NSR in a manner similar to how China tries to control air and sea access in the South China Sea.

The importance of this route is not relegated solely to military and economic considerations, but also relevant to the maintenance of international law. Russia continues to stress the resolution of competing claims as a priority for its Arctic policy. These include claims to large portions of the Arctic Ocean shelf as part of Russian EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Additionally there are ongoing disputes with Norway and the U.S. over maritime boundaries. With a view to resolve these issues, Russia has submitted claims to UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Laws of the Sea) tribunal describing the Mendeleev and Lomonosov ridges as extensions of its continental shelf, and thus belonging to the Russian EEZ. If these claims are adjudicated in Russia’s favor as they have been in the past, Russian assertions that the NSR is not an international waterway but within Russian territorial waters will be greatly strengthened. Russia has also made progress to resolving its maritime border disputes with Norway, agreeing to a more or less half and half split of relevant oceanic resources. It must be stressed, however, that these competing claims create a latent possibility for conflict over hydrocarbon resources and fisheries, thus potentially destabilizing the current system of international dispute resolution.

The U.S. has a vested interest in preserving norms of international law and has spent most of the past century of committed to that goal. However, diplomatic considerations aside, the U.S. has a strategic interest in ensuring unconstrained navigation across any major commercial waterway. In the same way that the U.S. cannot let China have de facto control over the South China Sea, the U.S. cannot permit the NSR to become a waterway over which Russia exercises unilateral jurisdiction. If and when the waterway becomes operable, it is very likely it will grow to encompass a large quantity of international trade, as it significantly shortens the route from Europe to China. Not only is the route shorter, it also avoids areas of potential instability in the Red Sea Straits, and the pirate-ridden Somali and Yemeni coasts It It is only a matter of time until the route becomes viable, and is of paramount interest to the U.S. that the NSR remains an international waterway.

Maersk trial vessel in the NSR, late 2008. Photo: Rosatomflot

Meanwhile, shipping companies have already begun to demonstrate interest in the NSR. In September 2018, Maersk ran its Arctic cargo ship Venta Maersk through the NSR to assess commercial viability. Despite the successful test run, a Maersk spokesman said the company has “…no plans to deploy Maersk vessels in commercial service along the Northern Sea Route.” It appears, then, that it may be a few more years before the NSR is utilized for commerce, but it remains to be seen if policy makers in DC will react in time to implement our national arctic grand strategy.

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