Andrew Revkin, the DotEarth blogger over at the New York Times, posted a lengthy entry on September 4 about the Northern Sea Route, which is finally nearing completion. The two German heavy-lift ships navigating the route are being led by a Russian nuclear icebreaker and have Russian pilots on board to supervise the transit. There’s a link to this helpful map so you can chart the progress of the ships.

But do shipping companies really just need a little more ice to melt in order to ply the NSR, or are there other challenges?

Revkin quotes Lawrence Brigham, a retired sea captain and Arctic shipping expert, who observed that “it is Russian bureaucracy more than sea ice or icebergs that is impeding international use of the Arctic route along its coast, which has in theory been open to such transit since 1987.”

Thus, it is the labyrinthine bureaucracy, in combination with a lack of facilities, which together present the greatest obstacles to the commercialization of the NSR. Russia has been trying to update its ports, customs facilities, and marine checkpoints for a while now, but whether its bureaucracy can be streamlined is an entirely different question.

Caitlyn Antrym, the executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, commented on the blog entry that Russia’s commercialization of the NSR would facilitate the country’s integration into the global market.

However, it seems as of there are several contrary forces at work in Russia over whether or not the country should further globalize its economy. Joining the WTO has been a goal of Russia’s for sixteen years, following its first attempt to join the GATT in 1993. In 2000, President Vladimir Putin made Russian membership in the WTO one of his primary goals. But nearly ten years later, Russia still hasn’t acceded into the organization. The rise of the price of oil, whose sale is not governed by WTO rules, reduced the importance of membership for economic growth. And last year, Russia rescinded its single-country application in order to apply as a bloc with Belarus and Kazahkstan. This move will likely further complicate Russian membership in the WTO, but increase Russia’s economic and political ties with the former Soviet states, which was probably the intended goal. It appears then that achieving WTO membership and global economic integration are now second to strengthening ties with nearby neighbors.

So why would Russia want to open up its waters to international shipping?

The Northern Sea Route is a transportation corridor Russia which can develop on its own terms. It will not have to increase transparency or the rule of law in order for it to carry out its plans, unlike with the WTO. Russia has the upper hand here, and it can charge levies and board ships at will if they are travelling in Russian waters. So for Russia, developing the NSR wouldn’t entail harmonizing with global standards of marine transportation and turning itself into a hub for international trade, but rather the rest of the world submitting to Russian rules in the cold waters of the Arctic.

Categories: Russia


The Northern Sea Route and Russian economic integration

  1. One reason that Russia has to open the NSR to foreign shipping is simple economics. Maintaining 6 heavy nuclear icebreakers to open the NSR from Kara Sea to Bering Strait on a per ship basis will be reduced the more traffic there is to escort as will the costs of improving the electronic aids to navigation and the search and rescue capability that will need to accompany development of the NSR. Additionally, WTO or not, Russia has import needs and export opportunities as demonstrated by the delivery of heavy equipment to Novvy Port for transshipment by barge inland along the Ob river. Opening the vast arctic watershed via the north-flowing Lena, Yenesei and Ob river systems is akin to opening the equivalent of three mississippi rivers with the potential benefit of opening central Russia to development. As the Arctic warms, these rivers will be open more of the year, initially with the assistance of river icebreakers.

  2. I also want to point out that Russian waters only extend to 12 nautical miles from shore, and those are subject to the right of innocent passage. From the edge of the territorial sea to the outer boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone and in most cases the routes of the NSR run through the EEZ. Russia, like other arctic nations, has the right to establish non-discriminatory regulations governing passage of vessels in ice-covered areas (including areas seasonally covered and continuing to be threatened by ice the rest of the year) to protect the marine environment from harm. Russia already has regulations for passage along the NSR that are being updated to incorporate guidelines from the IMO and major insurance companies.

    Nor can Russia “charge fees and levies at will” since the Law of the Sea Convention requires that treatment of foreign vessels be non-discriminatory, and Russia has made strong and repeated commitments to abide by the LOS Convention.

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