Russia seeks to strengthen hold over Arctic sea routes

Sarah S. Davison Moscow is developing "a concept paper" outlining the urgent and rapid development of the Northern Sea Route, reflecting a far more aggressive posture towards Arctic development by the Russian Federation than any other circumpolar capital.

by Sarah S. Davison

Moscow is developing “a concept paper” outlining the urgent and rapid development of the Northern Sea Route, reflecting a far more aggressive posture towards Arctic development by the Russian Federation than any other circumpolar capital.

Referring to internal Russian websites, the Jamestown Foundation said the still-secret concept paper emphasizes that for Moscow, the Northern Sea Route is about far more than geopolitics, security, or even natural resources.

Instead, it’s about recovering direct access to Europe through a new shipping route that could quickly eclipse the Great Silk Road in both trade volumes and geo-strategic heft.

“Russia is moving to recover its position in the Arctic and especially along the Northern Sea Route,” reported Paul Goble, referring to comments by Russian analyst Aleksandr Pronin on Stolietie.ru.

“Russian experts now believe that it (the Northern Sea Route), rather than any Great Silk Road development, (sic) not only will play the predominant role in East-West trade but also give the Russian Federation enormous influence over that exchange.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union sparked international plans to reinforce the “Great Silk Road,” the ancient network of roads, highways, footpaths and goat tracks connecting the spice, slave and silk markets of the “Far East” with Europe.

Shoring up this historic trade route through Central Asia and the Caucasus became a priority with the discovery of major oil and gas finds in the newly independent former Soviet states, with international consortia engaged in vicious competition to win transboundary permissions to build pipelines capable of transporting mammoth energy volumes to market terminals in Urumqi, Kashgar and Turkey.

The determined American presence in Afghanistan, along with Iran, China, and India’s growing interests in the region, have created an unstable and competitive environment for Russia to reclaim its historic role.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also triggered the loss of all Russia’s major seaports to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states, and rail traffic also must now cross the new “‘Stans” before reaching Europe.

But the melting of the ice cap has created a new and direct route, and Russia is acting to take maximum advantage.

Instead of focussing on the energy and resource wealth to the south, Russia is acting to fix the problems along its Arctic shore, which emerged when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

A failing Arctic marine service compromised raw exports and local population bases. Russia’s far North domestic air service failed due to an absence of fuel imports. Non-Russian flag vessels established a presence in an area dominated for more than 60 years by the Soviet Union’s merchant marine.

Now, however, change is afoot.

Moscow is building out its Arctic fleet, restoring its far North military air bases, creating specialized Arctic brigades within its military, and positioning men and materiel on Arctic islands and on board ships.

The most significant efforts remain in the wings, according to Gable. He said Pronin expects the concept paper to outline far more significant planning.

“It will make clear that the defence of Russia’s interests in the northern ocean is about more than security and access to resources there: it is very much about countering the possible but likely declining importance of the Great Silk Road project in which the West has invested so much hope.”

Sarah Davison is a former Yukon journalist who attended the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She currently lives in Whitehorse.