Russia Lacks Infrastructure for Northern Sea Route, Analyst Says

Russia has recently been developing the Northern Sea Route, which is supposed to shorten the time needed for shipping between East Asia and Europe as global warming is lengthening the season during which ships can use this Arctic passage.

But the project, seen by many in the West as another Russian geopolitical victory, will be much harder to push than it seems, says Eurasia expert Paul Goble in an article published by the Eurasia Daily Monitor.

According to Goble, the upbeat predictions concerning the Northern Sea Route ignore two realities.

“First, Russia does not have the necessary infrastructure to make the Northern Sea Route work as a Russian waterway and will not for at least another decade. And second, it lacks sufficient numbers of seamen and officers to man the ships it has announced it will be building over the next 20 years. And those, in fact, may not be built because of rising prices and budget cuts,” the expert wrote.

“As a result, Russia will either take a back seat to China in the development of the NSR as it grows, something certain to change the geopolitical balance in the Arctic, or Moscow will have to strip resources from other projects to develop both ships and coastal facilities in support of its hopes to be the dominant player. At present, all hype notwithstanding, the first outcome seems far more likely than the second,” Goble says.

According to Moscow journalist Andrey Belenky, the Russian expert community seems convinced that the country lacks the infrastructure needed to make the Northern Sea Route popular with shippers. At the current rate of development, the transit corridor could remain logistically deficient for at least another decade or more.

On the northern coast of Russia, along the NSR, for example, there are only seven ports, “and at only one of them—at Dudinka, where the Yenesei [River] flows into the Kars Sea—does the amount of trade exceed a million tons a year.” The rest of the area is vacant, and building needed infrastructure there is incredibly expensive.

“For at least two decades, Moscow will have to choose: maintaining control and seeing the amount of carried cargo be less than would otherwise be the case, or acknowledging that Moscow has no ability to impose such control and allow China and other countries to emerge as the dominant players along a route Vladimir Putin has described as a key to Russian security,” Goble concludes.