The Russian icebreaker Tor at the port of Sabetta in the Kara Sea shore line on the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic, some 2,450 kilometers from Moscow. Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryavtsev

Media reports and commentaries are hailing the Russian LNG (liquefied natural gas) carrier Christophe de Margerie’s latest voyage along the Northern Sea Route as a watershed. The voyage has brought Moscow’s dream of year-around access to the NSR into the limelight again, and speculation is rife about whether the prospect is closer to reality than previously thought.

However, a few less-reported aspects can shed more light on the NSR’s feasibility as a transshipment route.

Sister ship didn’t emerge unscathed

The Nikolay Yevgenov, another LNG carrier and sister ship of the Christophe de Margerie, departed a day later on the same route but suffered damage to its propulsion system. The ship took a detour through the Suez Canal and is in dry dock in France for repairs. The incident has diminished the sensational claims that the Arctic is now open for year-around safe voyages without heavy icebreakers clearing the way.

Russia’s strategy for the NSR

The Kremlin views the development of Russia’s Far East region and the economic feasibility of shipping along the NSR as the main fulcrums of its geo-strategy. 

Traditionally Russia has focused more on the Arctic than the rest of the world has because it is the closest geographically – which is why today the Kremlin commands the largest nuclear icebreaker fleet.

The government of Russia has a dedicated ministry for the development of the Far East. President Vladimir Putin has said, “The rise of the Far East is our national priority for the entire 21st century.” Furthermore, the Kremlin has set a target for increasing the shipping volume on the NSR to 90 million metric tons by 2030 and 130 million metric tons by 2035.  

As is typical for places with extreme temperatures, the Russian Far East has a low population density (about one person per square kilometer). Apart from the federally administered industrial facilities, it has many underdeveloped population centers with a pattern of population outflow to European Russia. Despite this, there are a lot of yet-to-be-exploited natural resources in the region, especially hydrocarbons.

There are various aspects to Russia’s Northern Sea Route Development Plan, including construction of essential infrastructure: terminals, seaports and railways to ship the hydrocarbons from the north coast of the Yamal Peninsula, and geological exploration on the land and hydrography-oceanographic charting of the thawed Arctic seas. 

There are also plans to build new nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers and Lider-class nuclear-powered guided-missile destroyers to extend the piloting-service and security umbrella.

Russia has appealed to the United Naations to revise the limits of its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone in the Arctic.

In light of scientific data supporting Russia’s claim for expanding its continental shelf and EEZ, it seems likely that either the UN will soon approve the EEZ expansion or Russia may act on its own. The expansion of its EEZ in the Arctic will be a shot in the arm for Russia’s economic prospects because of the additional subsurface hydrocarbon and mineral deposits.

Digital connectivity along the NSR 

In terms of digital connectivity, the North Sea region has traditionally been behind the rest of the world, except for the Nordic countries, which will see even more growth in data centers by big tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others. 

For Russia, it’s complicated, with little connectivity infrastructure outside of the industrial facilities, the oil-gas exploitation facilities and seaports along the NSR, which facilitate both. The bandwidth of these systems is precious for state industry applications and military communications. The civilian population not engaged in any state enterprises/functions live virtually without Internet access. 

The Russian government doesn’t have the cash on hand to lay a complicated fiber-optic cable system independently. However, if such a system comes online, it will be faster than other similar systems in terms of routing and bandwidth offered. 

Along the NSR, the most talked-about project in terms of fiber-optic undersea cables is Arctic Connect, which “may be 1,500-2,000km shorter than existing links connecting Europe to Eastern Asia.” 

Typically ventures of this kind are built, operated, and maintained by a consortium of private players. The project is worth at least €700 million (US$840 million). 

The Russian partner in the consortium is MegaFon, the country’s second-largest cellular-service provider. Finland’s government-owned Cinia Group is the arbiter of this cable system. Cinia is ready to work with everyone in the consortium from China Telecom and Huwaei Marine to MegaFon. At least six Japanese companies were also involved in the final feasibility studies for Arctic Connect. 

One key point to highlight is that the NSR doesn’t have choke points like the Malacca Strait, where a confluence of submarine cables increases the chances of them being damaged or cut. In that sense, private investors in the infrastructure have less to fear from potential saboteurs – unless the Russian icebreaker piloting assistance and security umbrella in the region either fails or turns a blind eye. 

Perceived Russian, Chinese surveillance threat

Russia and China have been vocal about their aversion to the West’s “rules-based order,” and the geopolitical rivalry among Russia, the US and China is no secret. 

When it comes to the cables along the NSR, the West perceives a threat derivative from inherent suspicion of Chinese and Russian corporate entities being proxies of their countries’ spying apparatus. 

There have been similar worries about Russian and Chinese survey/spy ships snooping around submarine cables

The Russian survey ship Yantar has been tracked as a potential threat to submarine cable network infrastructure. The Yantar has operated in several places, including waters near Scotland, the Baltic Sea and South America.

Chinese survey ships and drones capable of spying are also a worry for littoral countries in the Indian Ocean Region. 

Some recent commentaries also talk about MegaFon’s ties to Russia’s federal security service, the FSB. It is no secret that in Russia, telecom providers and private enterprises cooperate with law enforcement and the “Siloviki,” that is, the security services. Thus a tap into the new system to some capacity is not beyond the realm of possibility for the FSB or Russian Military Intelligence (GRU).

Role of the Russian space program

In the Arctic region, the most significant focus of the Russian space program and Roscosmos is on enabling better communications and remote sensing capabilities for shipping, especially fishing vessels, on the NSR. 

Russia has started building ground stations and is launching the Arktika constellation of satellites for remote sensing and Earth observation capabilities in the region.  

Arktika satellites will also allow the Russian authorities to provide enhanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) positioning data and weather/meteorological data.

These new assets will have huge implications for the safety and efficiency of seafarers, including fishermen, on the NSR. An assessment published by IHS-Markit in mid-2020 said the Russian Arctic and the Bering Sea were “second-highest in terms of recorded deaths” among seafarers. According to that same report, “These are as a consequence of fishing and trawling incidents.”

AIS and transponders are vital for conducting search and rescue (SAR), and the aforementioned Russian space assets are presumably being launched to mitigate this.

The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement of 2011 is a pledge by Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the US on developing the capability to conduct SAR in their land area, internal waters, territorial sea and the airspace above them. 

Russia has the biggest icebreaker and SAR aviation fleet standing by, and thus would be the key SAR umbrella partner for anyone who ventures into the NSR.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.