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What is Northern Sea Route and How Can It Turn Russia Into Arctic Superpower?

© Photo : / Arctic economy
Arctic economy - Sputnik International, 1920, 22.05.2023
Russia plans to increase the tonnage of cargo shipped through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to 80 million tons by 2024, and to ship up to 270 million tons through the artery annually by 2035. What is the economic and geostrategic significance of the NSR? And why has Moscow invested so much political and material capital into it? Sputnik explores.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the importance of the Northern Sea Route at a ministerial meeting last week, saying climate change has made it an inevitability as he emphasized no expense should to be spared on implementing the project.
"There have always been certain issues which need to be addressed when it comes to financing, but at the same time I want to draw your attention to the fact that the development of the Northern Sea Route is of course one of our clear strategic priorities. And here we probably shouldn’t think about saving or cutting anything, given the current situation," Putin stressed.

"The Northern Sea Route is opening, this is obvious. Colleagues just spoke about climate change, like it or not, it’s happening."

What is the Northern Sea Route?

The Northern Sea Route (also known as Arctic Bridge Sea Route) is an ambitious Russian Arctic maritime transport artery running through the waters of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the far North, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea in the east to the Barents and White Seas in the west.

How Long is the Northern Sea Route?

The approximately 5,600-kilometer (km) route is the shortest maritime route between Europe and Asia, with the ability to shave upwards of 9,000 km off transit from the East China Sea to the North Sea, compared to shipments via the Suez Canal.
Once fully operational, the NSR is expected to allow the shipment of goods between Asia and Europe in as little as 19 days, 40% - 60% faster than shipments via the Suez Canal or the Cape of Good Hope, respectively.

Why is the Northern Sea Route Significant?

The Northern Sea Route would allow Russia to become a major player in the transit of trillions of dollars of trade annually, and ease the development and exploitation of Russian territories in the Far North – including vast, untapped reserves of oil and gas.
According to a 2021 estimate by the Pentagon, the Arctic may contain nearly a third of the world's undiscovered reserves of natural gas, as well as more than a trillion dollars of rare-earth minerals.
It’s apparently unacceptable that such wealth belong to any nation besides the US, and Washington’s fervent opposition to the NSR is a sure sign of its strategic importance. The US Navy has characterized the artery as an attempt to institute the "unlawful regulation of maritime traffic," and has threatened to carry out the same kind of freedom of navigation missions in the Russian Arctic as it has in China-claimed waters in the South China Sea.
In 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of "exploiting [climate] change to try to exert control over new spaces" in the Arctic, including via the modernization of military bases.
US soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, part of the 6th Marine Regiment participate in the international military exercise Cold Response 22, at Sandstrand, North of in Norway, on March 21, 2022. - Sputnik International, 1920, 03.05.2023
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What Can Russia Do to Thwart Unwanted Intrusions Into the Northern Sea Route?

Fortunately for Moscow, the task of protecting Russia’s northern waters from foreign encroachment has been made easier by the country’s outsized spending on military vessels and icebreakers capable of operating in frigid Arctic temperatures, and by decades of US under-investment by comparison.
Earlier this year, for example, it was reported the US Coast Guard was forced to delay the commissioning of a new polar-class icebreaker until 2027, while Russia’s Rosatomflot signed a contract on the construction of its sixth and seventh Arktika-class nuclear icebreakers, which will join the 50+ icebreakers of various classes already in operation. For the moment, the United States operates just two icebreakers, a state of affairs which should complicate its freedom of navigation ambitions for years to come.
Iceberg near Hooker Island, Franz Josef Land, Russia - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.01.2023
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Russia has spent decades and billions of dollars shoring up its Arctic infrastructure, building or repairing 16 deep-water ports and 14 airfields, creating a Northern Arctic military command, and standing up regional air defense and search and rescue infrastructure to facilitate the security and safety of passage of commercial ships through the NSR.
In March, Russia adopted a new foreign policy concept in which the Northern Sea Route received a prominent place. According to the document, Russia’s major foreign policy priorities include advancing the Arctic transport artery “as a competitive national transport corridor making possible its international use for transportation between Europe and Asia.”
Russia hopes to establish “mutually beneficial cooperation with the non-Arctic states pursuing a constructive policy toward Russia and interested in international activities in the Arctic, including developing infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route.”
Russian Foreign Ministry's building is silhouetted against the setting sun, in Moscow, Russia. - Sputnik International, 1920, 31.03.2023
Full Text: Russia's New Foreign Policy Concept
Last July, Russia implemented an updated naval doctrine which named the NSR as one of six strategic priority directions for improving Russia’s status “as a great naval power and the strengthening of its position among leading global naval powers.” The doctrine lists efforts by some unfriendly governments to weaken Russia’s control over the Northern Sea Route, including through the growing presence of foreign military infrastructure, as one of the top ten threats to Russia in the maritime space.

What Are Russia’s Near-term Plans for the NSR?

Last year, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev announced year-round navigation through the Northern Sea Route is expected to become possible as soon as 2024, with Moscow expecting to ramp up cargo traffic along the route to 80 million tons, as agreed by NSR operator Rosatom and its partners. Trutnev urged a dramatic increase in state investment into infrastructure along the route to speed the artery’s opening for use in global trade.
Rosatom expects cargo transit through the Northern Sea Route to grow to 193 million tons per year by 2030, and more than 270 million tons annually by 2035. Russia plans to build dozens of additional ships capable of operating in the frigid waters of the high Arctic, with 41 under construction and 88 still needing to be built – for a total of 158 by the year 2030.
Russian polar explorers work to set up a new drifting station in the Arctic - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.12.2022
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Why Didn’t Russia Create the Northern Sea Route Earlier?

Researchers and explorers from the days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union studied the country’s northern regions extensively beginning in the 16th century onward, but it wasn’t until climate change and the dramatic retreat of the Arctic polar ice caps from the 2000s onward that Russia received the opportunity to create a global shipping route through its northern waters.
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