Although often overlooked by policymakers and world leaders, maritime trade was unexpectedly spotlighted in the early Spring of 2021 following the ship Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal. The six-day blockage resulted in massive disruptions to global shipping. While most of the world’s attention was transfixed on the seemingly hapless attempt to unground the cargo ship, others took note of the Kremlin’s position on these events. Russian officials seized this opportunity to underscore the drawbacks of having only one sea route connecting China and Europe—one that passes not only through the Suez Canal but also the narrow Malacca Strait. This message followed the numerous Russian attempts made over the past century to establish a shipping route hugging its Arctic coast from the cities of Vladivostok to Murmansk.
Exploration of the Northern Sea Route
The history of shipping in the Arctic began in the 1880s when the Vega, a ship funded by Swedish and Russian industrialists, successfully traveled through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Europe to East Asia. While the voyage technically pioneered the way, it also highlighted the major challenges of shipping in the Arctic. The sea ice prevented steady forward progress along the route—for most of the year parts of the route are completely iced in. Although the Soviet Union made steady progress in building up an icebreaker and developing a better understanding of shipping dynamics in the far north, the route itself faced challenges historically because of the Soviet Union’s isolated status and restrictions against foreign ships traversing the route. The collapse of the Soviet Union showed promising opportunities for foreign ships, but the region’s economic difficulties led to a decline in the route’s traffic. While early exploration and Soviet development improved Russian understanding and control of the remote Siberian coastline, geopolitical and economic issues prevented the growth of a commercial shipping route.
However, the Russian economy rebounded in the early 2000s, coupled with the rapid pace of economic growth in East Asia making the route prescient once again. The route experienced strong growth throughout the mid-2000s. In 2010 the Arctic route saw passage for 41,000 tons of cargo and in 2019 over 285,000 tons of international cargo passed through the route. A wide variety of nations and private interests contributed to the development of this effort. The MV Nordic Barents journeyed from the North Sea to a Chinese port in 2010, symbolizing the renewed prospects seen in the Arctic route. Likewise in Europe, Norwegian-Russian cooperation swept away previous barriers to shipping in the Arctic, and Russian icebreakers accompanied the ship all the way to the Bering Strait. At the time, that journey seemed to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in a trail for Norwegian authorities to continue cooperation with the Russian Northern Sea Route Administration and Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation. Renewed interest in the route relied on groundbreaking “firsts” in order to lay the logistical foundations.
Spreading Optimism for the Northern Sea Route’s Viability
Besides the enthusiasm of the Nordic countries to increase their shipping, the developed East Asian countries signaled their reciprocal intent to develop the route from thousands of miles away. After concluding a visit to South Korea in 2021, Russian Minister of Far Eastern Development, Alexei Chekunkov, told domestic media outlets that Korean investors were actively looking at joint investment into upgrading route facilities. Following this news, the biggest proponent of the route outside of Russia, rather unsurprisingly, has been the People’s Republic of China. A 2021 Brookings Report on China’s Arctic ambitions found that while the nation’s interest in the region can primarily be characterized as geopolitical, it nevertheless seeks to generate greater influence through investment in transport facilities, icebreakers, and natural resource extraction.
With China expressing interest in becoming a near-Arctic power, it is no wonder that the region is seen as an arena of geopolitical competition with increased scrutiny. While the world’s current major trading routes pass through US ally-dominated areas such as the Suez Canal and Straits of Malacca, the Northern Sea Route can be controlled by Russia. With the increase in hostilities between Washington and Beijing, the Northern Sea Route is attractive for China as a way to export goods without relying on the vulnerable Strait of Malacca. In addition, Chinese leadership may be seeking to deepen Sino-Russian ties by buying into this maritime project. Another major advantage of the Northern Sea Route for Chinese exporters is that it is shorter than the conventional Indian Ocean/Cape of Good Hope route. The Arctic Institute notes that distance savings along the Arctic Route from Japan to Europe are as high as 50 percent. With enormous potential for cost savings—the question remains, whether or not ships can pass through.
The Northern Sea Route in a Warming Climate
Only in the 20th century with the advent of sea power could ships finally traverse the entire Northern Sea Route. With better technology and the power of modern engineering, the route could now be more feasible. Now, in the 21st century, climate change may make the route profitable. According to statistics collected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Arctic Sea is averaging 12.6 percent of sea ice loss per decade. The growing gap between Russia’s Arctic coastline and sea ice means there is an increasing window for ships to transit along the route. With emission levels continuing to rise, this trend looks to continue, meaning further shrinking of Arctic sea ice.
Scrambling to adjust to a new reality, Russian authorities have been busy building and upgrading port facilities along its desolate Arctic coastline. Besides developing ports, Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, has worked to project Russian power in the region by building icebreakers. Russia’s latest class of icebreakers are the world’s most advanced, far outstripping the capabilities of the United States and Canada’s fleets. Given the changes that have occurred with climate change, astonishing economic growth in China and East Asia, and increased logistical progress on the Russian coastline, one might ask: Why is the Northern Sea Route seeing no traffic in 2022?
A Frosty Future
Besides triggering a new Cold War and realigning supply routes across the globe, Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 also resulted in a complete halt on shipping across the Northern Trade Route. With Western companies ostensibly concerned with European security in the wake of Putin’s destabilizing war, Chinese shipping companies are also staying away from the route. These all may potentially be geopolitical efforts to avoid American and European sanction penalties. With Russia’s international isolation deepening, the window on the Northern Sea Route’s development as a trading route may enter a dormant phase. While trade on the route survived Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, not only will trade stop on the route in the near future, but also actually last into the long term. Some analysts believe that Russia is well on its way to considerable international isolation—particularly in the realm of trade. Most of the selling point of the NSR for Russia is that it can play a vital role in facilitating the transport of goods to Europe. Yet, with European leaders already looking to drastically reduce their reliance on Russian energy, it seems unlikely that they will open the door to Kremlin-sponsored trade. Therefore, the EU’s pivot from criticism to resistance regarding Putin’s regime marks more than a temporary suspension of trade.
Nevertheless, as global warming and advancements in icebreaker technology continue apace, the Arctic is certainly “heating up” as an arena for geopolitical competition and resource extraction. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on and the country’s rift with the West deepens, there is a possibility that the United States could contest Russian claims of the water under international law as more sea is uncovered. Similarly, China is continuing to look for an opportunity to become an Arctic power. For these reasons, the Northern Sea Route in the short term may play host to military vessels instead of cargo ships. Despite the challenges of transiting via Russian waters, the potential for a polar shipping route will nevertheless remain, and not as elusive as before.