While nearly 150 ships were stuck in the Panama Canal due to an unprecedented drought, Russia is actively developing the Northern Sea Route. The legendary route whose exploration cost so many lives and efforts during centuries of human endeavour is now seen as a highly interesting alternative for international trade and is making its contribution to the construction of a new multipolar world.
By Nadia Schwarz
Along the entire northern coast of Russia, the shortest route from Europe to the Far East stretches across the cold seas. Still partly dominated in the 13th century by the Pomoros, the ancient Russian people of navigators no worse than the Vikings, the Northern Sea Route became a symbol of overcoming climatic and human limitations, where some failed and others succeeded, but all made their contribution, achieving a great common victory: English, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and, of course, Russians.
The Northern Sea Route was first covered in a single navigation by the expedition of Otto Schmidt, a Soviet scientist, in 1932 on the steam icebreaker “Alexander Sibiryakov”. The first transport operation, a transit cargo voyage of lumber ships from Leningrad to Vladivostok, took place from 8 July to 9 October 1935.
The first steps in the development of the Northern Sea Route were perceived both at home and abroad as a feat, and the polar explorers returning from their expeditions were surrounded by the same halo of admiration as the first cosmonauts a few decades later. After the successful completion of the Cheliuskin rescue operation, the pilots involved became the first to receive the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and the icebreaker Krasin became famous for rescuing the Italian expedition led by General Umberto Nobile, who had crashed his airship in the Arctic on his way to the North Pole.
During World War II, the Northern Sea Route was used to escort warships of the Pacific Fleet to the Barents Sea. Through the Arctic ports the fleet was supplied with coal, military industry – nickel, copper, timber. Transports were often carried out in the face of enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships in mined coastal waters. Arctic communications were protected by the Northern Fleet, shipping was carried out by a system of sea convoys. Hundreds of ships travelled the Northern Sea Route, some 170 of them in convoys. More than 4 million tonnes of various cargoes were transported. The Northern Sea Route was also used by the Allies who, within the framework of the Lend-Lease programme, delivered to the USSR goods needed by the population in the fight against German aggression.
The new stage in the development of the Northern Sea Route began on 3 December 1959 with the commissioning of the icebreaker “Lenin”, the first in Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. This made it possible for navigation on the route to continue all year round. Thanks to this giant, which for 30 years guided 3,470 ships through the Arctic seas, the speed of the voyage increased considerably, reducing it to approximately 18 days.
Climate change, which has affected most of the Earth’s regions in recent decades, has also affected the global ice cover in the Arctic. However, this has had a certain positive effect: it has made shipping in the northern seas safer and less costly.
All these factors together make the northern route today one of the most promising routes for international trade.
Among the advantages of using it for transit transport are: fuel savings due to shorter distances, reduced labour costs for personnel and lower ship freight costs, no payment for passing ships (unlike the Suez Canal), no queues and traffic jams (as in the case of the Suez Canal), no risk of drought (as in the case of the Panama Canal), no risk of pirate attacks, cheaper insurance.
At the same time, Russia, under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, has worked hard to develop the Northern Sea Route. For example, in the mid-2010s the country had four powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers, and Russian shipyards built three new vessels that are the most powerful icebreakers ever built.
Russia has huge reserves of uranium and other radioactive elements, mines and enriches its own uranium, which is used in the reactors of its nuclear icebreakers. This means that its fleet is virtually independent of any changes in the world market for the fuel used in the engines of conventional ships.
In June 2023, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin declared that some 2 trillion roubles (USD 21.25 billion) would be invested in the development of the Northern Sea Route over the next 13 years. This includes the construction of 50 icebreakers and ice-class ships, ports and the creation of an orbital satellite constellation.
The benefits of the development of the Northern Sea Route for Russia itself are quite clear. However, it is very profitable not only for Russia itself and China, which already uses it, but also for the countries of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the USA, Canada and even Africa and the rest of the world. In other words, we are talking about a new logistical corridor of global importance.
Let us look, as one of the examples, at the EU.
Currently, one of the EU’s largest trading partners is China. According to Chinese customs data, in 2022 the total volume of trade between these countries amounted to $847 billion. In addition, there are other countries in the Asia non-violent region with which Europe actively trades, such as Japan and South Korea.
To get from the northern ports of Germany or from the east coast of Britain to China via the traditional Suez Canal route, a ship would have to sail some 23,000 kilometres, whereas the Northern Sea Route is about 14,000 kilometres long. In other words, the route through the Arctic seas is about 40 per cent shorter and, as a result, the fuel consumption and the duration of the ship’s freight will also be much shorter, which will ultimately have an impact on the cost of goods. And this is especially important now, when the US agency Bloomberg writes that by 2024 the whole of Europe will be hit by a crisis, as a result of which the Eurozone’s GDP will spill out by 4-5%.
It is worth mentioning that the Northern Sea Route does not currently have bottlenecks like the Suez Canal, which excludes cases like that of the container ship Ever Given which in March 2021 ran aground in the Suez Canal, blocking it completely. The problem lasted 8 days and more than 450 ships had piled up in the “traffic jam” in front of the entrance to the canal. According to experts interviewed by the BBC, the accident cost the world economy almost 10 billion dollars a day, and the prices of many products rose by 5 to 10% in a few days.
So, it is not surprising that many large companies were interested in the possibility of transporting goods across the Arctic.
It is to be expected that the development of such a large and potential infrastructure will attract attention and annoy the global hegemony represented by the United States, which is trying to stifle the Russian economy by means of sanctions. In addition, due to increased NATO maritime activities in the Arctic, the Russian government had to establish certain safety rules for foreign military vessels, which caused severe criticism from Canada and the US.
However, one of the development principles of the Northern Sea Route says: the Arctic is a territory of peace and harmony. Let it be so.