By 2030 Russia plans to triple its Arctic fleet and increase transit along the Northern Sea Route by more than six times. With the construction of the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lider year-round navigation in the northern Arctic transport artery at commercial speed will be ensured, according to experts. But what other plans does Russia have in the North polar region? How realistic are they? At the international meeting “Safe Arctic 2021”, experts discussed the potential growth and safety issues for the Arctic environment.
The safety issue is the most acute for the Arctic region. That is why the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations EMERCOM conducted the first large-scale practical exercise on rapid response to possible emergencies in seven constituent Arctic entities of the Russian Federation. This was in response to the disaster in Norilsk and due to the rapid development of the Northern Sea Route project. To ensure safety in the Arctic, Russia is also building up its nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet.
“The main means of safety and rescue today is the nuclear icebreaker fleet,” says Sergey Balmasov, Head of the NSR Informational Center in Murmansk and Center for Hight North Logistics in Norway Nord University in an interview with PolarJournal. “They have special crews capable of delivering containment booms in case of an oil spill, helicopter support, and medical evacuation. If we talk about international transit, when Russia gets its nuclear-powered icebreaker Lider which will have been built by 2027, year-round navigation at commercial speed will be provided on the NSR”. According to the expert, the process is underway, and it has more to do with the technological process, rather than with global warming.
According to the speaker of the conference – Nikolay Korchunov, chairman of the Committee of Senior Officials of Arctic Council and Ambassador for Special Assignments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia: “The year-round navigation will start in 2023-2024. Of course, we can’t do it without icebreakers. By 2030 Russia will roughly triple the size of the Arctic fleet, it will be the most modern and the youngest in the world.”
Another point discussed at the conference was the successful economic development of the Northern Sea Route and the increase in its cargo traffic. In 2020, cargo turnover along the northern transport route was 32.97 million tons, which is almost 1.5 million tons more than in 2019.
“But 99% is freight of natural resources from the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation into the country, and about 1% is occasional international transit via the Northern Sea Route. All the development comes from the need for icebreaking support and infrastructure. This is a natural development of the NSR and so far, we can say that the NSR is a self-contained project with a great prospect. There is no competition to the Suez Canal in the nearest future. There are practically no major maritime hubs along the entire length of the NSR. To create them we need people and cities. As you know the Arctic zone is not rich in population, so it is mostly interesting for the transit,” states Sergey Balmasov.
In addition to the economic benefits, the environmental component is also important – a shorter transport route would reduce pollution. Russian officials stated at the conference that environmental monitoring will be ensured in the Arctic – from the living conditions of bacteria to polar bears. A monitoring system along the entire length of the NSR will control the pollution from NSR shipping in real time. Artificial intelligence will be used in the process, which will provide timely notification of detected risks.
In 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the Strategy for Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and Ensuring National Security for the Period to 2035. Today, the Russian Arctic is a geostrategic area with the world’s largest preferential zone. As a reminder, the Arctic has about 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources. A powerful signal has been given to economic agents. More than 200 companies have already become residents of this region with a large investment package of more than 270 billion of rubles (approx. US$ 3.7 billion).
“The Arctic – an area of huge money. At the state level there is already an interest in the NSR on the part of foreign states” explains Mikhail Konstantinov, General Director of the Electronic Trading Platform of GAZPROMBANK Group. “Interest on the part of international business has been confirmed. There are foreign companies which provide turnkey construction and bring their technologies. These are Chinese, French, German and other companies. Russia is not yet very active in talking about development of the Northern Sea Route, because it’s not in politics dimension, but in sound engineering and economic logic. And it prompts us that the required infrastructure has not been built along the NSR yet. Our digital technologies and investments are pushing the process of building infrastructure and vessels now. As an investor and as an agent, we control the clarity and coherence of the process.”
According to Mikhail Konstantinov, the global community and a wide array of Russians are interested in the Arctic, not because the topic has become fashionable, but because the Arctic is becoming a major employer and an obvious, public signal was given to everyone, that if something happens in the Arctic, the problem will be solved with maximum efficiency, professionalism and coherence.
Holding the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for two coming years, Russia has held “Save Arctic 2021” in seven its constituent entities with more than 20 international delegates in order to increase the efforts of the Arctic states to create a unified regional system for search and rescue, man-made disaster prevention as well as response and rescue force organizations.