No extension of the North-East Passage | Polarjournal
In the opinion of some experts, an extension of the North-East Passage (red) would be of use for the expansion of capacity. (Map: Heiner Kubny / Google)

The Russian government has changed its mind about modifying the boundaries of the North-East Passage (NOP) due to possible contradictions with international law. Thanks to the extension of the NOP to new areas, the growth of cargo flow should reach 80 million tons.

For safety reasons, the route along the north-east passage is usually accompanied by Russian icebreakers. (Photo: Alexander Ryumin)

At the beginning of June 2020, the Ministry of Eastern Development, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Rosatom decided at a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev, who heads the State Commission for the Arctic, not to extend the borders of the North-East Passage (NOP) so that there would be no contradictions with international law. This was reported to the Moscow-based news agency RBC by three sources of participants in the meeting.

Yuri Trutnev has been Deputy Prime Minister and Representative of the President in the Federation District Far East since August 2013 (Photo: Aleksey Danichev)

The current boundaries of the NOP, from ‘Kara Gate’ in the West to ‘Cape Dezhnev’ in Chukotka, are defined in the Russian Federation’s ‘Code of Merchant Shipping’ and are related to the ice situation in these areas. Special shipping rules apply to the North-East Passage. Russia has the right to establish these in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In May 2020, Trutnev commissioned the Ministry of Eastern Development, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with Rosatom to discuss the idea of extending the NOP limits by including the waters of the five seas – Barents, White, Pechora, Bering and Okhotsk – within the exclusive area. Rosatom is the operator of the NOP and responsible for the safety of the transport route. This would guarantee the implementation of President Vladimir Putin’s “May Decree,” who instructed to ensure the annual transport of 80 million tons of cargo through the North-East Passage by 2024. According to the 2019 results, the cargo through the NOP amounted to 31.5 million tons.

The seaport of Murmansk is ice-free all year round. An extension of the North-East Passage to Murmansk would fail due to the contradiction of international law. (Photo: GoRussia)

The government discussed the expansion of the Northeast Passage

According to a source of the participants of the meeting, Rosatom mainly refused to expand its borders. In a letter to the Ministry of Eastern Development, the state body said this would cause problems at international level. As the newspaper Kommersant wrote, it is technically possible to make changes to the merchant shipping code, but then the operation of the navigation rules on the NOP will automatically be extended to new waters and there will be contradictions with international law. Under Article 234 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states have the right to establish special rules for ships within the exclusive economic zone only in ice-covered areas. These rules are intended to help prevent pollution of the seas and the environment when particularly harsh climatic conditions and the presence of ice during most of the year pose an increased risk to shipping and pollution can ‘irreversibly disturb’ the ecological balance.

Under the conditions of global warming, it is difficult to prove the presence of ice in new waters. A number of ports to be included in the NOP are not freezing at all, explains the source of RBC.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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