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The Northern Sea Route, Russia’s Coronary Artery

This article is part of a series on Russian interests in the Arctic. Russia's Arctic policies and postures are often misunderstood, overblown, or underrated because they take place in a complex regional context and result from complex internal politics. Every second month, Morgane Fert-Malka contributes with an analysis, interview, or book review shedding light on this central Arctic player.

By Morgane Fert-Malka

Maritime affairs often occupy a discrete place in global politics, but they function as the circulatory system of our world order. Great powers are made and unmade at sea, where wars are won and lost; goods, people, and ideas spread; some of the most interesting principles of international law are developed; and the world’s ecosystems are regulated.

The importance of water—oceans, seas, and rivers—also concerns Russia, even if the country is often perceived as a predominantly continental power with limited access to the open seas. One prominent scholar, Leslie Dienes, described Russia as an archipelago, with its few “islands” or nodes of human settlement, economic activity, and political power separated from each other by impassable terrain. But while land acts as an obstacle, water connects these nodes to each other and to the outer world.

In this regard, Russia’s Arctic cities and settlements may be best connected in the country, lying at the mouths of great rivers that cut across the country and facing the Arctic Ocean. Framing Arctic communities in this way may be an exercise in paradoxical thinking, but it is necessary to understand the significance of the so-called Northern Sea Route—Russia’s frontier and its coronary artery.

The NSR, A Moving Target

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is the official Russian denomination for the maritime area along the country’s northern Asian coast, spreading from Novaya Zemlya in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, and northward to the boundary of Russia’s exclusive economic zone. It does not extend to the European part of the Arctic, i.e., the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in the Barents Sea. 

The NSR was legally defined by Moscow for administration purposes, and encompasses internal, territorial, and international waters. Russia maintains that several principles of international law grant it regulatory exclusivity in this area. Most prominently, Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates, “Coastal States have the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction, and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone, where particularly severe climatic conditions and the presence of ice covering such areas for most of the year create obstructions or exceptional hazards to navigation.”

While it’s clear that Russia can deny freedom of navigation in the NSR's international straits under this provision of international law, this might not last forever: The extent and nature of sea ice coverage is changing, which may raise questions about the validity of Russia’s jurisdiction in the future.

This uncertainty makes the NSR a particularly sensitive issue for Russian legal experts and policymakers, whose promotion of an aggressive rhetoric of exclusivity reflects their chronic fear of seeing Russia’s rights and interests encroached upon and foreign ships and submarines navigating freely in the area. Regardless of the legal status of the area, the NSR is perceived as a flank, where both international and domestic channels converge but Russian prerogatives are natural and beyond question.

The NSR at the Heart of Russian Identity

To most Russians, the NSR evokes a glorious history of conquest, exploration, and scientific activity. Arctic exploration is an integral part of Russian patriotism, and provides a positive historical narrative where imperial and Soviet greatness is demonstrated without bloodshed. It is a tale not of military victory over an enemy, but of human victory over the impossible.

It features the Soviet explorer and the ice, engaged in an epic struggle and love story. This narrative aligns with the various currents of Russian identity, which is at once orthodox (the plight of the Christian voluntarily embracing God’s hardships), Promethean (the revolt of man against nature’s taboos), and Sisyphean (the absurdity of the human quest to conquer emptiness and die trying). By contrast, more recent narratives of internationalization of the NSR have a dull flavor of political correctness and evoke Russia's loss of status in the post-Cold War order. 

The North is not only a place of conquest for Russian explorers, but also a flank vulnerable to aggression. A critical part of World War II played out in the Arctic. While the decisive fighting took place in the Barents Sea, some of the essential supplies delivered between 1941 and 1945 by the United States to the embattled Soviet Union crossed through the NSR. This tragic and glorious past still informs contemporary Russian perceptions of the region.

The Infrastructure Challenge

Most English-language literature about the NSR focuses on global transportation and new shipping opportunities opened up by the melting of ice. The typical argument is that Russia’s main goal is (or should be) to make the NSR the preferred route for international shipping, supplanting the Suez and Panama canals, and, of course, to reap economic benefits in the process. Given the current lack of infrastructure for ports, the insufficiencies of the icebreaking fleet, the administrative and regulatory complexity, and the persisting danger of Arctic navigation, it is generally concluded that Russia has failed to reach this goal—an assessment corroborated by dwindling figures of transit shipping along the NSR. For foreign shipping companies, even if it saves miles, using the NSR remains riskier, more complex, and more expensive than alternative routes, which makes it especially unattractive given current commodity prices. However, while integrating the NSR into the global transportation system is certainly an important goal for Russian policymakers, it is far from the only one.

The significance of the NSR is more clearly visible in terms of the domestic economy. Insofar as Russia still envisions its economic future in terms of natural resource extraction, its most promising hubs aside from the Barents Sea are Yamal, Norilsk, and the various existing or planned offshore sites located on and supplied via the NSR. There is a general atmosphere of determination in the Russian maritime Arctic; Moscow now considers the improvement of infrastructure, which fell into decay after the fall of the Soviet Union, to be a strategic development goal. Arguably, European sanctions and Russia's financial difficulties have only strengthened Russian leaders’ resolve to build a domestic technological base, seek Asian investment, and look south and east for new markets and suppliers to sustain industrial projects along the NSR.

For Russia, whose major challenges have always been demography and the management of its vast territory, the development of the NSR may be a way to increase mobility between the country’s sparse settlements—especially in the North, where the construction of durable roads and railways remains impossible and air transportation is expensive. In practice, it remains to be seen whether NSR investment will serve not only industry but also broader human development goals. For the moment, crossover between the two is limited, and industrial projects even tend to capture resources, leaving local communities worse off than before.

It will take political courage and holistic planning to make the NSR the main thoroughfare of a healthy, unitary country—but there is no alternative. In Russia, where the northeastern territories are emptying and populations from Moscow to Vladivostok are experiencing ever-widening gaps in living standards, it’s a case of sink or swim. 

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Morgane Fert-Malka is a French Moscow-based political analyst. She focuses on Russian decision-making processes and on Russia's Arctic policies. She writes for various outlets such as Russia Direct (Moscow) and IFRI (Paris). She also co-founded WeBuildEurope.eu, a pan-European strategy think tank based in Vienna, where she heads a research project about the role of the European Union in the Arctic.

[Photo courtesy of V. V. Mikhaylichenko. Noncommercial Partnership of the Coordination of Northern Sea Route Usage, Moscow]

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