Op-Ed: Russia, China and the Geopolitics of the Northeast Passage

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks to Nikolai Evmenov, Commander of the Northern fleet, center, Vladimir Korolev, Commander-in-Chief of Russian Navy, second right, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, while visiting Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic, Russia, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Military.com | By Joseph V. Micallef

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

The Northeast Passage (NEP), along with its western twin the Northwest Passage (NWP), is an Arctic sea route that connects Europe and Asia. The NEP runs across the northern coast of Siberia, while the NWP traverses the island strewn Canadian Arctic. Both routes reduce the distance between Asian and European ports by up to a third, depending on the combination of ports.

For most of their history, these sea routes were more theoretical than practical. The rapid disappearance of the Arctic ice pack, however, has made these passages potentially viable alternatives to existing routes utilizing the Panama or Suez canals. The utilization of these new routes, however, raises far reaching geopolitical consequences. This is the first part of a two-part series exploring the geopolitical consequences of the NEP and NWP. Today we examine the geopolitics of the NEP.

The Search for a Northeast Passage

The search for a northeast passage dates back some five centuries. By the mid-16th century, Spain had pioneered an Asian trade route that ran from Europe through the Caribbean and across Panama and the Pacific to Asia. In the process making the Philippines a center of Asian trade.

Portugal had been equally successfully in establishing a Euro-Asian trade route around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to India and across the South and East China seas to Japan.

In response, other European nations, principally the English and the Dutch, launched a series of voyages of exploration to search for an Arctic passage between Europe and Asia. That exploration took them both east and west, in search of either a NEP or a NWP.

In 1553, the English explorers Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor sailed to the Barents Sea before being separated by a storm. Willoughby and his crew got as far as Novaya Zemlya before they were ultimately trapped in Arctic ice and perished. Chancellor penetrated the White Sea and entered the Dvina River where he found a small Russian trading post.

At the time, Russia was landlocked. Its access to the Baltic blocked by a powerful Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. It was not until the 17th century that Russian Tsar Peter the Great would expand Russia's frontiers to the Baltic Coast.

Tsar Ivan IV, anxious for a trade outlet with Europe, offered the British a monopoly on Russian trade. The British concession was the basis for organizing the Muscovy Company to exclusively conduct Anglo-Russian trade. The port of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) was later built at the mouth of the Dvina River to facilitate that trade.

Chancellor was followed by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. He discovered Spitsbergen and Bear Island and rounded the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya to enter the Kara Sea.

Henry Hudson explored the region in 1607 and 1608, on behalf of both the East India Company and the Muscovy Company, getting as far east as Novaya Zemlya before being forced back by sea ice.

Other significant explorers, among others, included Jonah Poole, Nicholas Woodcock and Willem Cornelius van Muyden. After 1619, fearing that European exploration in the Arctic might threaten Russia's hold on Siberia, Moscow declared the area off limits. For the next several centuries, further exploration was entirely Russian.

Several historians have suggested that the Portuguese ship Pai Eterno under captain David Melgueira traversed the Northeast Passage from Kagoshima Japan to Porto Portugal in 1660-62. The evidence is not definitive, however. In 1878, the Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld made the first recorded transit of the NEP on the ship Vega.

The Northern Sea Route

The Soviet government, and later the Russian government, has drawn a distinction between the Northeast Passage and what they call the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR extends from Novaya Zemlya in the west (168 degrees 58 minutes 37 seconds west) to the Bering Strait (66 degrees north).

The NSR is the main part of the NEP, but as it begins and ends in Russian territory, the Russian government argues that it is under its direct jurisdiction. In other words, that it is an internal waterway and is not considered an international passage.

If the passageway was defined as a route from say East Asian ports to Western Europe, then its multinational character would raise demands that it be administered as an international waterway and be subject to the provisions of the UN Law of the Sea Treaty.

Russia has argued that the NSR consist of a series of passages "along coastal, marine, high latitudinal and near polar routes." The latter two routes, however, are well outside Russia's 200-mile exclusive zone.

The polar route from the Barents Sea to the Bering Straits follows the great circle route across the geographical North Pole and would be entirely in international waters. It is about 700 miles shorter than the coastal route. The latter two routes have been traversed by military vessels accompanied by icebreakers but, to date, have not been a viable route for commercial shipping.

The coastal route is made up of a series of different sailing lanes ranging from 2,200 to 2,900 nautical miles. It connects the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi seas via some 50 different straits across three archipelagos: the Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya and the New Siberian Islands.

The eastern end of the NSR is shallower, limiting the maximum size of ships traversing the NSR. The average depth of the Chukchi Sea is 286 feet/88 meters and that of the East Siberian Sea is 188 feet/58 meters. In the straits connecting the two seas, however, the minimum depth is 26 feet/8 meters.

In addition, the Arctic ice pack tends to persist longer and can block the entrances to navigational straits, including the Long Strait and the Vilkitsky Strait.

Currently, the western portion of the NEP is ice-free for about five to six months of the year, while the eastern portion is open for the three summer months.

Russia opened the NSR to international shipping on July 1, 1991. Prior to that date, only Russian ships were permitted to use the NSR. At the same time, Moscow organized the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA). Ships wishing to transit the NSR are required to obtain a permit from the NSRA.

As the extent of Arctic sea ice has retreated, Moscow has stressed the economic advantages of using the NSR. At a conference in 2011, designed to highlight the benefits of the NSR, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared, "The Arctic is the shortcut between the largest markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region...It is an excellent opportunity to optimize costs."

Historically, the NSR played an important role in resupplying the approximately 100 Russian military bases, research stations and towns along Russia's Arctic coast. At its peak, the USSR maintained a fleet of 38 powerful icebreakers, six of which were nuclear powered.

This was more ice breakers than the rest of the world combined. In addition, a commercial fleet of around 700 vessels with ice-strengthened hulls operated on a year around basis conducting coastal trade.

In 2009, two German cargo vessels, the Beluga Fraternity and the Beluga Foresight, traveled from the South Korean port city of Uslan to Rotterdam across the NSR. They were the first international ships to traverse that route.

The number of foreign ships increased to 71 in 2013. Since then the number has varied between two and four dozen. In 2016, approximately 7.5 million tons of cargo were shipped on the NSR, although a significant amount of this was internal Russian shipping.

The NSRA issues several hundred permits a year, but the majority of these are for Russian ships traversing a portion of the NSR. Most of these ships are bringing supplies to various hydrocarbon development projects in the Russian Arctic. They are not traversing the entire length of the NSR.

Ships traveling from Norway to China can make the journey via the NEP in 21 days versus 37 days traveling via the Suez Canal. A typical cargo ship would save between $15,000 and $20,000 a day. In the example above, that would represent a savings of around $300,000 per voyage. The cost of being accompanied by a Russian icebreaker is several hundred thousand dollars, which means small convoys of two or three ships would have a significant savings.

In February 2018, Teekay's newly built ice breaking LNG carrier Eduard Toll traversed the NSR from the Sabetta LNG terminal on the Kara Sea in the Yamal peninsula to Montoir, France, unescorted. The voyage was a milestone. It was the first independent passage in winter without the support of an icebreaker. For video of the voyage go here.

The Sovcomflot LNG tanker made an unescorted trip from Norway to South Korea in August 2017. The journey took just six and a half days.

The Geopolitics of the Northern Sea Route

The NSR is more than just a sea route across arctic Russia. It is a critical part of a broader transportation infrastructure across Siberia, which links the region to the rest of Russia and the rest of the world.

Siberia's major rivers all run north-south, emptying either in the Arctic Ocean or in the freshwater seas of Central Asia; the Caspian and Aral seas. The three principal rivers that flow into the Arctic are the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena.

All three rivers offer access into Siberia's interior. Ocean going vessels, for example, can travel from Igarka, 400 miles south of the estuary of the Yenisei, all the way to Yakutsk, 700 miles further south.

The Ob, Yenisei and Lena all intersect the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs parallel to the Arctic coastline some 1,400 miles further south. The Kolyma, a smaller river in the Russian Far East also intersects the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The major Siberian rivers have east-west trending branches. Many of those branches are also large enough to take commercial sized vessels, even though they may not be ocean going.

Before the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the fastest way across Siberia was by sled in winter across the frozen rivers. By portaging between the major rivers and their tributaries, it was possible to travel from the Volga to Okhotsk on the Pacific coast.

In addition, the Lena River connects with the Baykal-Amur Railway, which in turn connects the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Russian rail system with China's rail network.

Viewed from this perspective, not only is the NSR a passageway between Asia and Europe, it is also part of a larger more complex transportation grid across Siberia. It has the potential of becoming a maritime superhighway that can dramatically open up the mineral resources of Siberia.

The fact that may of Siberia's major hydrocarbon deposits are found along the major river valleys is an added bonus that will facilitate their exploitation.

What is also intriguing about this transportation network is that in many ways it is a rudimentary, mirror image of China's One Belt, One Road Asian infrastructure development program.

China's program is designed to meld a transport network of pipelines, roads and railroads across central Asia, with a parallel maritime route across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The maritime and land networks are intended to both supplement each other as well as provide alternative routes. Additional north-south transportation routes connect the land and maritime transportation belts via major new ports, like Gwadar in Pakistan, on the Indian Ocean.

Viewed from this perspective, Russia could theoretically offer its own version of the One Belt, One Road strategy. One that is a mirror image of the Chinese effort, except that it funnels trade to an Arctic sea route rather than a maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean.

From a practical standpoint, however, this is probably a non-starter. Russia lacks the capital resources to compete with China's deep purse for developing transportation infrastructure.

Moreover, the band of geography that runs between the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic belt includes between four and five billion people, roughly two-thirds of the world's population. By comparison, the comparable region in Russia only has about 100 million people.

On the other hand, were Russia's transportation infrastructure across Siberia and the Northern Sea Route to be fully integrated with China's One Belt, One Road strategy, it would offer two maritime routes between Asia and Europe. Moreover, the NSR is a far shorter link from China's coastal cities to Europe than the Maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean and, via the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean.

China is aware of the advantages offered by the NSR. In January 2018, Beijing outlined its interest to extend the One Belt, One Road initiative to the Arctic to create a "Polar Silk Road" by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming.

A northern maritime component of China's One Belt, One Road strategy has one other advantage that wouldn't be lost on Beijing. It is a sea route that the U.S. Navy would find extremely difficult in which to operate in on a sustained basis and in which to project military power.

Despite U.S. claims that the Northeast Passage, including its Northern Sea Route component, is an international waterway, the fact is that the route is virtually entirely in Russian hands. It is all Russian territory from the western half of the Bering Strait to the eastern Norwegian Sea.

Should the NSR ever become a major maritime trade route, the U.S. Navy could avail itself of facilities in Alaska and Norway. But it would have little else to draw from.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a Norwegian group studying the Arctic, forecasts that within 30 or 40 years the entire Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer. Other forecasts have placed that event up to 80 years away. That assumes of course, that current warming trends in the Arctic continue at the present rate. That's possible, but not certain.

If the entire polar region was to become open water or the polar ice cap gets sufficiently thin to permit unhindered transit, either just in summer or year around, the closest basing facilities would be in Arctic Canada and Greenland. Such bases would be on the other side of the North Pole, thousands of miles away from the NSR.

A fully developed NSR would have far reaching consequence for west coast and northern ports. Remote Arctic ports like Kirkenes in Norway and Adak in Alaska, could be transformed into major logistics hubs. Even established northwest coast ports like Vancouver or Prince Rupert in British Columbia, could see sizable increases in shipping traffic.

There's are a lot of "ifs" in that scenario. Long-term, China is a major competitor to Russia for influence across Central Asia. The success of Beijing's One Belt, One Road initiative will undermine Russia's influence in the region, especially among the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

It's unclear whether linking Russia's transport infrastructure closer to the One Belt, One Road infrastructure net would enhance or further diminish Russia's influence in the area.

Moreover, while Russia has lobbied heavily for Chinese investment in developing Siberia's mineral wealth, it has usually insisted on retaining control of any resulting infrastructure. Moscow might well end up playing a subordinate role to Beijing in Eurasia, but it is not a role that it is likely to embrace willingly or anytime soon.

Moreover, recent successes notwithstanding, the potential of the NSR as a major maritime shipping route is still largely theoretical. Only a handful of foreign ships are using the NSR versus the roughly 15,000 ships that currently travel yearly from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal.

The marine communication system across the NSR is still incomplete. VHF-Radio, MF and HF systems, and satellite communications are generally adequate for the coastal routes but they are problematic in the higher latitude and polar routes. The region's search and rescue infrastructure is rudimentary and could be easily overwhelmed by multiple accidents. Ice reinforced tugs, for example, are in short supply.

Port infrastructure is designed for coastal shipping traffic and not for the ultra-large ocean-going vessels currently utilized for Euro-Asian trade. There are no ship repair facilities.

Even basic prerequisites like accurate navigation charts and regular meteorological reports are lacking. The Soviets carried extensive marine surveys of the area beginning in the 1930s. The U.S. used submarines to map the region during the 1950s and 1960s. Both governments, however, have opted to keep much of that information classified.

The Northern Sea Route is a long way from becoming a major maritime shipping route. Even if the levels of Arctic sea ice continue to diminish over the next several decades, there is a huge amount of infrastructure development, amounting to tens of billions of dollars, that must occur along Russia's Arctic coast before the NSR could handle significant shipping volumes.

Still, the development of the NSR would have wide ranging geopolitical consequences on the international trade and diplomatic relations of central Asia. How the NSR would impact China's One Belt, One Road strategy remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that if present climate trends in the Arctic continue, the U.S. Navy will find itself tasked with conducting naval operations in a new marine theater--one for which it currently lacks both the ships and the infrastructure to undertake.

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