The Northern Sea Route perspectives and hurdles

The Northern Sea Route perspectives and hurdles

At the end of December 2019 Dmitry Medvedev’s government presented Rosatom with a really nice holiday gift as the “Northern Sea Route development plan for the time period until 2035” was approved. One year before Russian law 525-ФЗ was enacted on December 27, 2018 paving the way for the State Atomic Energy Corporation “Rosatom” to receive commission as the infrastructure operator of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

The law 525-ФЗ is not so easy to comprehend because it stipulates changes to several other federal laws: “Concerning the State Corporation Rosatom”, “Concerning the Internal Sea Waters, the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the Russian Federation”, “Concerning the Seaports of the Russian Federation”, and a slew of other regulatory documentation. This is nothing to be surprised at since many of the laws had not changed since 1990’s. It was the period when Russia found itself in dire straits, so that other more immediate tasks and problems had priority over the development of NSR. If we put intricate legal and bureaucratic details aside, broadly speaking the meaning of 525-ФЗ is rather straightforward: Russia is returning to the Northern Sea Route in a big way, intending to promote it for the benefit of the country’s economic advancement, and NSR shall attain the position that enables this transportation route to grow into a real competitor to the southern sea route connecting Europe and Asia. Naturally Rosatom shoulders the bulk of the job for NSR development. This makes perfect sense. Since the time when the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker “Lenin” was commissioned Atomflot has become the the master of NSR and uncrowned champion of the Arctic. The sea route that had always been challenging to put it mildly, was turned into a stretch of navigable waters thanks to the peaceful use of atomic energy — a feat never seen before.

NSR development blueprint is not just about icebreakers

525-ФЗ can be fairly described as the law about Rosatom, it elevated our national atomic corporation to the status of infrastructure operator for the whole of NSR, giving it the mandate to oversee development and operation of all the seaports and their installations. Now Rosatom is responsible not only for escorting commercial vessels with its nuclear-powered icebreakers, but also for providing icebreaker service to all the NSR seaports, conducting hydrographic surveys, supplying power to port installations, and upgrading seaports so that they meet modern requirements. According to the law 525-ФЗ, in order to enable Rosatom to manage the extensive range of tasks the company was authorized to become the main budget holder of the state finances slated for the development of NSR. As has always been the case the budget cannot be spent just for the devil of it with no strings attached, so the law 525-ФЗ stipulates that Rosatom should come up with detailed roadmap for NSR development, complete with the implementation schedule for every stage of the plan. The plan has to be agreed upon by all the relevant state offices and ministries that will take part in its implementation and finally it has to be approved by the government. This is perfectly reasonable as the government holds the purse strings of the state budget. The jumbo investment into NSR should not throw the state finances off balance. Both the financing mechanism and the accountability for expenses must be stipulated.

Vyacheslav Ruksha, Director, Northern Sea Route Directorate

And so Rosatom started to advance its plan based on the above. For Rosatom managing the whole of NSR is a new challenge, consequently a new executive branch has been created within the corporation, it was christened NSR Directorate. At the helm is Mr. Vyacheslav Ruksha, the former head of  Atomflot for 10 years. Such personnel solution was perfectly logical because there is no other living person on our small planet who has a comparable degree of experience and intimate knowledge of the Arctic and all the nooks and crannies of NSR, complete with deep understanding of “Severny Zavoz” which means regular deliveries of cargo to the northern territories of Russia. Such shipments are of critical importance for communities along the Arctic Ocean coast. This is the reason why the plan for NSR development is unusual, unlike the multitude of development programs produced by various ministries and departments of the government. The plan takes into account suggestions by the official executive bodies, administrative branches, scientists and ecologists, carriers of cargo, and resource-extracting companies located in the Arctic zone of Russia. In this particular case the opinion of ecologists carries a lot of weight. Natural habitats of the Arctic Ocean and its seaboard are unique and fragile; it would be a folly to repeat mistakes that accompanied development of the Arctic during the Soviet period as such errors take many years to correct.

Three whales and a turtle for NSR and the Arctic

Before we take a look into the development blueprint for NSR a couple of preliminary steps are needed. The government-approved plan spawned by Rosatom cannot be the only foundation for the development because NSR is just a waterway across the Arctic. The shipping route provides essential support for commercial ventures on the Russian mainland, the islands, and the Arctic ocean shelve. NSR is inseparable from events taking shape on the firm ground, it cannot be a “thing in itself”. It is the NSR shipping that supplies communities all over the polar zone as they cannot survive on their own and have no other means of life support. On the flip side the NSR shipping is the backbone of transportation of natural resources extracted in the Arctic to their end users; from the standpoint of logistics it is the one and only option that makes such exploitation possible at all.

In April 2019 Russian president asked the officials to prepare not one but three documents outlining development of the polar zone. Just like our planet is allegedly supported by three elephants, the Arctic will rest on this tripod foundation. The Russian government’s task had been to come up before the end of last year with “The basics of state policy in the Arctic region” and “The strategy for development of the polar zone of the Russian Federation”. This is what should transform the plan for NSR development into an integral part of systematic multi-faceted expansion instead of being a solo project. Such systematic approach is bound to instill optimism into the proverbial turtle on whose back the elephants are standing. The “turtle” is the future of Russian economy and society, a benefit for the whole country and a possibility of sustained development for the near future, a blueprint that will remain in effect until 2035.

The available toolbox of drivers for Russian economic advancement is far from limitless. Development of the polar zone is quite important and potentially very lucrative. First and foremost we need to develop the Arctic region for our own good as year-round navigation along the NSR route can and should become the foundation of yet another important project: it has potential to evolve into the centerpiece of international North-West passage, the shortest shipping route connecting Europe and Asia. The scope of such advancement is not limited to a lot of work waiting to be done. From our perspective this is a momentous challenge for Russia that may have historic significance, the result can dwarf any bunch of projects dedicated to extraction of commercial minerals, whatever the size. International trade relies on transit routes that sometimes keep on humming for centuries. Such routes generate value not only to their final destinations but also to all those countries that are lucky enough to be situated along the way. Territorial maritime belt of a country is limited to 20 nautical miles from its shoreline according to regulations of maritime commerce, but the limit does not apply to NSR thanks to certain quirks of nature and climate. Packs of ice floe that cover the Arctic Ocean make it impossible to plot a sea route northwards of our arctic islands. Caravans of vessels can sometimes venture out of Russian territorial waters but ultimately they are compelled to come back and navigate passages between our islands or between our islands and the mainland.  This is why the NSR route is one-of-a-kind, its unique advantage can be negated only by the much-touted global warming. Theory aside, ice situation over the NSR area presents yet another challenging issue.

Ice monitoring in the polar zone is all year round activity that goes on for almost a hundred years – understandably within limitations of available technologies. The area covered all over by pack ice was the smallest in 2008; it grows slowly but steadily ever since, even though it is now much smaller than the vast area of ice sheet observed in the 1950s to 1980s period. It is generally accepted by scientific community that the Arctic Ocean is in no hurry to get rid of its ice cover. If only Russia succeeds in the development of NSR so that it becomes an integral part of the North-Eastern passage, and if we make the northern route economically feasible for shipping lines, our future generations will enjoy substantial economic benefits for hundreds of years to come. To put it short, Russia is now attempting to turn into reality a project that ushers in a new historic turning point for the country and may bear fruit for centuries to come. We should always remember that any discussion about the NSR – be it numbers reflecting growing output of oil, natural gas, LNG, coal, or all the other mineral resources – is ultimately focused on the strategic goal, even though it is not always mentioned.

Nuclear-powered icebreaker “50 Years of Victory”

Admittedly we are riding before the hounds since the existing versions of “The strategy for development of the polar zone of the Russian Federation” and “The basics of state policy in the Arctic region” cover the period until 2020; both documents have expired, and the updates are still missing. Our Analytical journal can be blamed for being overly sympathetic towards Rosatom, but the fact remains that the nuclear corporation succeeded with the assignment put forth by the Russian president; their plan for NSR development took shape and received the all-clear from the government, while the government itself failed to complete on time the task outlined by Vladimir Putin. In February 2020 deputy head of of the new  (as well as the previous) Russian government Yury Trutnev who is in charge of overseeing development of the polar zone announced presentation of a new iteration of the development strategy at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg (SPIEF) which was expected in June. Meanwhile “The basics of state policy” were approved by the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Both documents are continuing their drift towards the State Duma (the parliament). No one seems to be in a hurry and no one has been reprimanded; at the same time there is one Arctic-related document that has made it all the way to the scrutiny of lawmakers; it is a blueprint of new law outlining tax breaks for companies that have their projects carried out in the polar zone. Such law is important indeed but the overall style of doing things seems like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. While no strategic action plan for the Arctic region exists and there is no concrete state policy, the law outlining corporate benefits is already in the State Duma. This is what Rosatom creating its blueprint for the NSR development had to take into account; obviously implementation of quite a few of the plan’s components will depend on particular details of some cornerstone legislation that does not yet exist.

There is little doubt that the new Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has a hell of a time dealing with the loose ends inherited from his predecessor. We can only hope that the new government will be able to clear up the “arctic” backlog in short order. For the sake of reference Yury Trutnev was promoted to the position of deputy prime minister in charge of the polar zone affairs on February 26, 2018. On the same day Alexander Kozlov was appointed to the position of minister overseeing the development of the Far East and the Arctic. In addition to that a reshaped 84-strong state commission dedicated to development of the Arctic and headed by Dmitry Rogozin was approved by the government decree №203-р on February 10, 2018. The commission is in place, the minister and the deputy prime minister have been appointed but the state plan and its strategy for development of the Arctic are nowhere to be seen, and those responsible for the failure to meet time constraints for the legislative blueprints are nowhere to be found. This is just a statement of facts; anyone is free to draw conclusions.

The plan for NSR future drawn up by Rosatom is already in place; only time will tell the extent of changes in the plan that may follow the passage of all the above paperwork through the State Duma and the Council of Federation. It should be noted that Rosatom remains the operator of NSR infrastructure for almost two years while day to day operations are carried out by its subsidiary company, “NSR Directorate”. There is also a second manager of the operations: “NSR Administration”, which is a federal state budgetary institution within the framework of Agency for marine and inland water transport of the Russian transportation ministry. From open sources it is impossible to glean any adequate understanding of the boundary between the authority of NSR Directorate and the one of NSR Administration.

Arctic Ocean view from “top of the world”.

There is an important non-political issue to be discussed before we switch over from this foray into the state policy and start scrutinizing the plan for NSR development. The issue is a wonder in itself. Notwithstanding the glut of info about our projects and plans for the Arctic region, have you ever seen the Arctic Ocean map in general and the Northern Sea Route map in particular?  Let us remember that the Arctic Ocean is rimmed not only by the Russian shoreline; it borders Norway, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Alaska (USA), Canada, and you can see the North Celestial Pole is in the midst. The correct map that provides adequate understanding of the ocean’s shape is a bit odd as the perspective is different. A look from above the Northern Pole is “scientific view” of the Arctic Ocean.

The map is scalable, you may take a closer look at the historic challenge that Russia is facing over its development of the Northern Sea Route.

First things first, let us define some terminology. According to the Federal law №155-ФЗ of July 31, 1988, NSR is defined as “long-standing, historically formed national transportation artery of Russia; it is navigable in line with generally accepted principles and regulations of international law, international agreements wherein Russia is a party, and the national legal regulations”. Let us put aside our arguments with those international partners who are not happy with the historical affiliation of NSR; it is a broad-ranging topic that can be discussed at great length. Broadly speaking the problem for these partners is that they are dissatisfied with NSR’s traditional affiliation as a matter of principle. Let us skip the arguments until next time and focus on the NSR route. According to Article 5.1 of Russian Federation’s Merchant Shipping Code the NSR waterway is defined as follows:

“Water area adjacent to the northern shore of Russia, inland seas, the adjacent zone and the exclusive economic zone of Russia. To the east NSR water area is delimited by the line separating respective water areas of Russia and USA, and the geographic parallel of Cape Dezhnev in Bering Strait; to the west NSR water area is delimited by the meridian of Cape Zhelaniya of Novaya Zemlya archipelago, the eastern shoreline of Novaya Zemlya archipelago, and the western inlets of Matochkin Strait (you can see this strait on the map between the two major islands of Novaya Zemlya archipelago), Kara Strait and Yugorski Shar (not shown on the map; this strait is located between Vaigach island and the mainland)”.

Such broad and fuzzy definition of NSR borderlines has a reason: the waterway does not have a single fixed route. It follows a general pattern but at the same time is prone to “migration” up and down geographical latitude between the mainland shoreline and the North Pole depending on ice situation. The route of NSR might change within a single navigation period. This is how NSR is plotted on a map that outlines the ice situation:

You may notice that Federal law №155 does not stipulate a particular geo referencing for NSR, apparently it does not have fixed borders. The western border is outlined only in the Merchant Shipping Code. Article 5.1 of the Code is effectively cutting off the seaports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk from the NSR water area, together with Indiga deep-water seaport and all the projects associated with these sites. Rationale for the current version of the Code is obscure while the federal law 155-ФЗ does not provide exact definition of NSR whereabouts.

Weather conditions and hydrographic features

The route of NSR can be notionally subdivided into three zones that differ by their climate and conditions for navigation: Atlantic, Siberian, and Pacific. The Atlantic zone is under the residual influence of Gulf Stream; it encompasses the Barents Sea, western section of the Kara Sea, and a section of the Arctic Ocean to their north.  It is the warmest part of NSR with temperatures along the shore of western Kara Sea rising to +6 oC (+43 oF) in summer. Around the Barents Sea summer temperatures can reach as high as +7 oC (+45 oF). Even in winter the climate of Barents Sea is relatively balmy as the average temperature in this zone of NSR is about -20 oC (-4 oF). The weather is a tad cooler along the shore of Kara Sea where the temperature in winter routinely drops to -28 oC (-18 oF). The obverse case of a warmer climate is manifesting itself in frequent storms with the waves reaching 7 meters (23 feet) high, while summertime niceties include frequent precipitation and foggy weather. NSR’s Siberian climatic zone includes eastern part of the Kara Sea, the whole of Laptev Sea, and western part of the East Siberian Sea. Winter temperatures there are as low as -34 oC (-29 oF) on average while the summer highs reach +1 oC (34 oF), but the storms and dreary weather are less frequent than in the other two climatic zones.

NSR’s Pacific zone encompasses eastern part of the East Siberian Sea, and the whole of Chukchee Sea. In winter it remains under the influence of Pacific Ocean which makes the climate somewhat milder in comparison with the Siberian zone, but precipitation is much higher, while in summer it is often quite foggy due to the temperature differential which can be quite substantial. Snowstorms are behooved to the the entire NSR area: up to 14 days in any given winter month there can be blizzards. Navigation is directly influenced by the prevailing winds, their direction, speed, consistency and the propensity to push ice floe either out into the Arctic Ocean or in the opposite direction, the latter may increase both the floe prevalence and the associated tending. Ocean waves are influenced by winds and local depths; in September and October situation all over the NSR area becomes especially complicated as the waves reach as high as five meters (sixteen feet) on average. The problem of high waves dissipates by November as the whole water area of NSR freezes over, with the exception of southern Chukchee Sea. By the end of October the ice sheet is usually 25-30 cm (0.8-1 ft) thick, by December it grows to 70-90 cm (2.3-3 ft), by May it becomes 140-210 cm (4.6-7 ft) while in northern areas the thickness of ice can be over three meters (ten feet).

The most challenging navigation choke point of NSR is adjacent to New Siberian Islands. The draft limit of Sannikov Strait is only 11.6 meters (38 feet) which makes it the most shallow section of NSR route. Another complication comes from incessant sea currents. The ever-changing seafloor relief warrants nautical surveying which is not conducted yet on a regular basis. The draft limit is about the same in Dmitri Laptev Strait connecting the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea. The strait is located between the mainland shoreline and Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island.  If the event of ice situation mellowing so much that it allows navigation northwards of New Siberian Islands the restriction becomes less stringent as the draft limit there is 18 meters (59 feet). Kara Strait has about the same depth with 21 meters (69 feet) draft limit.

There is one main reason why the above numbers are important: let us remember that the depth of Suez Canal is 50 meters (164 feet). Most of the available set of NSR nautical charts comes from hydrographic surveys dating back to the age before 1990. New updates started appearing only in 2010, following delegation of the job to “The Hydrographic Enterprise”. In February 2019 a Federal State Unitary Enterprise “The Hydrographic Enterprise” was transferred from under the umbrella of Russian Ministry of Transportation to the auspices of Rosatom as the latter is the designated operator of NSR infrastructure. This does not look like a sophisticated move at first glance but “The Hydrographic Enterprise” operates eight land bases and nine vessels for hydrographic surveys; three auxiliary vessels; a combined expedition for hydrographic surveying of the Arctic; a combined radio navigation unit; navigation equipment service that operates 1043 onshore assets and 195 floating warning signs in the Arctic; naval safety information center in St. Petersburg; NAVTEX station in the port city of Tiksi; pilot service for the Arctic, and also supervises port construction and infrastructure works management. Both Rosatom and “The Hydrographic Enterprise” have their work cut out for them as seabed survey data with resolution better than 500 meters (547 yards) covers only 28% of the Kara Sea, 35% of the Laptev Sea, 15% of the East Siberian Sea and only 9% of the Chukchee Sea area. To put it mildly, our understanding of submarine relief of the NSR area is based on a number of fixed measurements of depths and terrestrial coordinates. What does this mean in practice? Suppose there is a vessel chugging along one of the traditional routes where all the shallows and cays have been laid down upon the chart in great detail. An ice floe can force deviation from the known route which entails a certain risk of getting into real trouble. Our shipowners are not very happy about this, ditto foreign operators who send their vessels by the way of NSR. There is another problem in a similar vein: there are nearly not enough vessels for rescue, towing and fire-fighting operations as major seaports that make up NSR waypoints are few and far between.

Tiny icebreakers and enormous icebergs

One reliable feature of the ice situation is its instability since ice floe can be carried about rather quickly by currents and winds. Escort by ice-rated vessels of at least Arc 4 ice class is a must. Ice situation over the NSR route is never dull: for example during the summer shipping season of 2017 Vilkitski Strait was chockablock with icebergs so that even nuclear icebreakers had to beat a retreat and find an indirect route through Shokalsky Strait (between Bolshevik Island and October Revolution Island of Severnaya Zemlya archipelago). Unrivaled best-practice method for dealing with such situations has been developed by specialists of “Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute” and Rosneft. A historic first for Russia occurred in September of 2016 when “Kapitan Dranitsyn” icebreaker supported by research vessel “Akademik Tryoshnikov” towed several icebergs away as a matter of experiment. Only two out of 18 such towing attempts were unsuccessful while the largest iceberg weighed over a million metric tons.

“Kapitan Dranitsyn” icebreaker

Million ton iceberg is a block 150 by 150 meters (approximately 490 by 490 feet) in size, its invisible part is submersed to the depth of over 100 meters (approximately 330 feet), while the displacement of “Kapitan Dranitsyn” is only 15 thousand metric tons. In spite of the mismatch the icebreaker and its equipment were not damaged while towing this wonder of nature. The expedition was financed entirely by Rosneft; its main outcome is the proof that icebergs can be manipulated by humans, as theoretical prediction of such solution to the problem of roaming icebergs was successfully put into practice. According to Alexey Chernov who was the head of the “Iceberg — Summer 2016” expedition, in the future it may be feasible to tow away six to eight icebergs daily, if only there is sufficient manpower and equipment. The story seems like science fiction but the fact remains: a diesel icebreaker with the crew of 60 proved to be sufficient for the task, no nuclear-powered icebreakers required. Icebergs visit the area of NSR not so frequently, it may be sufficient to have icebreakers of “Kapitan Sorokin” series on duty. By the way, such stand-by duty would not become a trying ordeal for the crews, as “Kapitan Dranitsyn” icebreaker has 49 cabins with private bathrooms, complemented by such amenities as restaurant, bar, gym, sauna with warm seawater, library, and a small hospital. The setup seems appropriate for the XXI century.

Another challenge thrown up by the Arctic environment had been insurmountable in the past: communication was patchy at best due to technology limitations. Indeed 70-75 degrees north latitude is the limit for satellite communication services by InmarsatThurayaGlobalStar, and further to the north there is no connection at all as attested by foreign vessels on exploratory voyages. There is yet another complication which is hard to describe without using strong language:

“Office hours of the NSR Administration are: Mo-Thu from 09:00 to 18:00, Fri from 09:00 to 16:45”.

Let us remember that time difference between the seaport of Murmansk for example and the seaport of Pevek is 9 hours. To what extent such “intensive” schedule of work at the NSR Administration can further the increase of cargo turnover by foreign shippers and carriers is anybody’s guess. There is nagging suspicion that the result of such working practice is on par with icebergs choking Vilkitski Strait or towering waves coupled with thick fog in the Chukchee Sea.

NSR and world oil prices

Rosatom’s plan for development is not based on the definition of NSR water area that can be found in the Merchant Shipping Code; instead it stems from a more fuzzy definition originating from the federal law 155-ФЗ which says that NSR is “long-standing, historically formed national transportation artery of Russia”. Our hope is that the Code is going to be changed really soon. As you can see even the abridged list of problems and tasks that the NSR Directorate has to tackle is several pages long. Also there is a more straightforward proof that the task needs to be done. It is often said that the volume of shipments along the NSR route is already 4-5 times higher than the top score achieved in the old days of Soviet Union. This is true indeed and we are justifiably proud of the achievement. Following the departure of 14 former Soviet republics the remaining rump of post-Soviet Russia singlehandedly surpassed the totals of the former larger country. We have the tangible million-ton proof that all the wailing by liberal and pseudo-left political circles that “everything is lost, the industrial base and science have both crumbled” have no basis in reality. For such achievements to come within grasp we need to see not only our track record of victories but also a whole raft of problems ahead.

Below is some statistics on transit sea freight volume in recent years. The top result scored by NSR in its behind-the-scenes competition with the Suez Canal dates back to 2013 when the transit volume reached 1.3 million metric tons of cargo. Things have changed dramatically since then: 2014 – 300 thousand metric tons of transit cargo, 2015 – 39.6 thousand tons, 2016 – 194 thousand tons, 2017 – 194 thousand tons, 2018 – 491 tons.  The total result for 2019 is not yet known; the available number is for October 1 – by that date the volume of NSR transit stood at 441.8 thousand tons. Some may think that the abysmal situation is the result of Western sanctions levied against Russia but this is really not the case. We are accustomed to newsfeed that puts it short and simple: “The NSR route is much shorter than the southern option”, but maritime cargo transportation is provided by shipping companies that take down-to-earth view of things. Let us do the same.

Distances (in nautical miles) between the main seaports of Europe and Asia, and the advantage of North-Eastern passage expressed in percentages:

Rotterdam ⇒ Yokohama – 7’381 miles along the NSR route, 11’180 miles along the Suez route, the NSR advantage estimated at 34%

Rotterdam ⇒ Shanghai – 8’417 miles along the NSR route, 10’525 miles along the Suez route, the NSR advantage estimated at 20%

Let us not forget that the NSR route has variable length. It can range from 2’700 nautical miles if plotted close to the North Pole to 3’500 miles if it clings to the mainland shore. In other words, the unpredictable ice situation can render the advantage less significant. Also let us not forget that 2014 was marked not only by the onset of sanctions targeting Russia, but also by dramatic drop in oil prices. If we combine this reasoning with all the above mentioned risks it can provide the clue why foreign shipping companies are not exactly queuing up to have their vessels escorted through the NSR route. The queue will appear no sooner than Russia on its own solves all the problems or minimizes all the obstacles described in this article.

A few words about budgeting

It is not just year-round NSR navigation that Russia needs, not only new advanced nuclear icebreakers that would empower it to resolve all the other remaining issues. Each step of the work backlog requires some heavy lifting in project financing. Sufficient to know that the cost of a new nuclear-powered icebreaker of LK-60 series is 37 billion roubles while our current estimate for the futuristic “Leader” series is over 100 billion roubles per unit. Furthermore we have one single “Zvezda” shipyard having the capability to build “Leader” icebreakers and that shipyard is still under construction. A return on such investment is only possible from fees generated by icebreaker support to ever increasing volume of cargo shipping. It is the same volume of cargo shipping that is expected to underpin the financing for the whole amount of work to be done by “The Hydrographic Enterprise”, modernization of its technological capabilities and replenishment of its fleet of specialty vessels. There is no other source of funding besides the state budget and fees generated by the icebreaker support to finance a fleet of now rescue vessels and deployment of extra constellations of satellites capable to provide communication, hydrographic and meteorological monitoring services that will cover the sea area of NSR. In order to start year-round navigation all over the NSR its seaports must be able to load and unload cargo regardless of the season. This is possible only with steady supply of diesel-electric icebreakers for the port auxiliary service fleet of “Portoflot”, which is yet another subsidiary of Rosatom.


The main waypoints most often mentioned in the media are seaports of Varandey, Sabetta, Dikson, Dudinka, Igarka, Khatanga, Tiksi, Provideniya, Pevek, and Egvekinot. Other ports such as Naryan-Mar, Amderma, Zeljony Mys, Beringovsky, Anadyr, Chersky, Peschanka, and Keperveyem are mentioned much less often. The point is, Russia has over 70 seaports and wharves in the Arctic overall. They were built to facilitate “Severny Zavoz” (cargo deliveries to the northern territories of Russia), and were busy at the time of peak economic activity around Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Yakutiya, Chukotka, and Magadan Oblast, but nowadays they are more dead than alive. Increasing turnover of the main NSR seaports can contribute to the solution of major issues. With the advancement of solutions to the old problems it will gradually become less expensive to operate “Severny Zavoz” and the string of long-neglected ports; such development will bring knock-on effect of resurrecting old projects in the Arctic zone and starting new ones. At the heart of NSR development plan is its economic engine, more specifically the icebreakers and major seaports. Obviously there should be more of such major seaport waypoints. As follows from definition found in the Merchant Shipping Code, the NSR area has just a couple of major seaports that are capable to increase their cargo turnover in the future – Varandey and Sabetta; at the same time Murmansk and Arkhangelsk seaports which are integral to the Russian development plan for transportation infrastructure development, and Indiga seaport are outside of the area. Is there any logical reason behind this voluntary and artificial limitation, considering for example the ongoing construction of new terminals for coal in Murmansk, as our main customers for this energy resource China, Japan and India are well aware of the benefits resulting from supplier diversification? Such question seems rhetorical and the answer can be found in the above mentioned Rosatom’s plan for developing NSR that has got the seal of approval from the Russian government.

Indeed our Analytical magazine does not claim that this one article fully describes all the obstacles created by the environment, geography and geology that make the Northern Sea Route so difficult to tame for hundreds of years. Following the first acquaintance it would be appropriate to describe in more detail the contribution of Rosatom to the NSR development plan, the time sequence for implementing some individual components of the plan, what exactly Rosatom is going to do on its own, and which of the plan’s components are beyond its power and authority.

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