Moscow Faces Enormous Problems in Developing Northern Sea Route
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan

Window on Eurasia: Original Blog Article

New York, October 30 ­ The Russian government has made the development of the Northern Sea Route a priority in its new transportation strategy document, but Moscow faces enormous difficulties in reversing the decline in the amount of freight moving along the Arctic border of Russia.

But unless it addresses these problems and soon, Moscow analyst Azhdar Kurtov says, it will face even greater challenges in integrating the northern portions of the country into the Russian economy as a whole and in serving as a major shipping route between Europe and Asia.

A week ago, the Russian government approved a Transportation Strategy for Russia up to 2030. Given the "enormous" size of Russia, Kurtov points out, it would be surprising if the country's government did not give particular attention to transportation networks, which provide the foundation for the economic and political integration of the country.

The development of the Northern Sea Route is particularly important, he notes, because it connects the economic complexes of the Far North and the Far East with the rest of the country and "links into a single network the major rivers of Siberia," which remain the most important transportation arteries in that region.

Indeed, "for a large number of regions of Russia" ­ including Chukotka, the islands of the Arctic Ocean, and Taymyr ­ the Northern Sea Route is "the only means of transporting cargo and guaranteeing the well-being of the population. Without it, a company like the Norilsk metallurgical complex could not function.

Russian officials like their Soviet predecessors have long understood that and also aspired to develop the Northern Sea Route as "the shortest water pathway between the ports of Europe and the countries of Asia and the Pacific rim." But the economic dislocations following the collapse of the Soviet Union continue to restrict the route's possibilities.

In the 1990s, Kurtov notes, with the exception of Pevek, Russia's Arctic ports fell under the control of the federal subjects on whose territory they were located. And the failure of many of them to make the necessary investments has meant that the amount of cargo carried by the Northern Sea Route has fallen from 6.6 million tons in 1987 to 1.7 million tons this year.

Many of the freighters that had plied these waters were mothballed or cannibalized for their metal, and they were not replaced. The Russian Federation launched a new atomic icebreaker, which should have helped the situation, but four of the six icebreakers now functioning in the Arctic, Kurtov says, need expensive renovations to keep functioning.

According to Russian transportation specialists, he continues, the Northern Sea Route needs "a minimum of six atomic and four diesel icebreakers," significantly more than it has now, and it also requires the construction of seven ice-worthy tankers and 18 freighters with a combined deadweight of 81,000 tons.

If Moscow makes the necessary investments not only for ships but for shore and navigation facilities in the Northern Sea Route, he concludes, it may be possible to boost freight along it to 5-7 million tons annually by 2010 and to 13-15 million tons by 2015, a figure that would almost double the best year at the end of the Soviet period.

But given the recent financial crisis and the likelihood that other projects with more powerful political patrons will limit investment in this route, it is likely that at least for the next few decades, the Northern Sea Route will be more a dream than a reality and the peoples living on Russia's Arctic coastline will remain cut off from what they call "the continent."

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