The conflict in Ukraine is straining the political and economic situation in the Russian Arctic, and the dream of free movement, summer and winter, on the Northeast Passage, is likely to remain one. Hervé Baudu, author of the book “Les Routes maritimes arctiques”, member of the French Academy of Marine and expert of navigation in icy areas, explains the situation.
One year after the start of the war in Ukraine, the opening of sea routes during the winter between Russia and Asia is a highlight of the evolution of the Northeast Passage. “This was already a goal of Russia, but I think the conflict in Ukraine is rushing things a bit. There was already a project to rejuvenate the nuclear class fleet to escort convoys before 2020, but two weeks ago, two new nuclear icebreakers have just been ordered,” said Hervé Baudu, author of the book Les Routes maritimes arctiques, published by L’Harmattan.
Remember that there are two types of maritime traffic in the Eastern Arctic. “The first is a transit between China and Europe that does not stop in Russia, reducing distances and operating costs. Then a so-called “destination” traffic, generated by exchanges between Russian ports and Europe in winter and Russian ports and Asia in summer, when the Russian Arctic is free of ice. “describes the expert.
The interest of opening a road even in winter to containers is unlikely. “Even the transit of metal or bulk will continue to pass through Suez. It is more for LNG tankers and oil tankers, ensuring Russian needs and the export of hydrocarbons from Siberia,” he explains.
The “destination” traffic continues despite Western sanctions, “Long-term contracts with Total, on liquefied natural gas have not been cancelled, to England, Spain and France, from the Yamal LNG 2 plant on the Yamal peninsula. But the distribution of gas volumes is being reversed, bought by China in particular; India is interested, but has not yet signed long-term contracts,” he adds.
Russia is making progress in building this fleet of icebreakers on the opening of a summer and winter route. “It could have worked well for all transits if there had not been the war with Ukraine. Right now, it’s a big gamble, we’ll never know if it’s really profitable, because it’s a state investment,” he observed.
European sanctions and the withdrawal of Western expertise in Russia have impacted the development of hydrocarbon extraction and demand. “Vladimir Putin was communicating his political goals and expected, by 2024, 80 million tons of cargo. In 2022, there were only 34 million tons, and the objectives will not be reached because the projects in which he had invested, such as Novatek, will not be completed in time. The other mining projects will not see the light of day before 2026,” he notes.
The global and European energy trajectory is changing. “Gas and carbon-based energy in general will no longer be a priority. The Western world is moving towards alternative means of production. This loss for Russia will not be compensated by China and India. In the long term, we can envisage a domination of hydrogen powered by an energy mix: wind, solar, nuclear or biomass… The Russians have taken a big gamble, in the medium term I think it can pass, but in the long term, it could be an economic disaster” he adds.
A passage made difficult
However, Russia does not remain a spectator to the sanctions. “Vladimir Putin has reaffirmed his willingness to control the passage of cargo ships through maritime law. In the Arctic, a coastal state can exercise control over maritime traffic within the 200 nautical mile limit provided that these waters are covered with ice. Passing ships must request permission to transit repeatedly between Bering and the Barents Sea, for example at the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The request must sometimes be made 45 days in advance, which complicates the procedure,” he notes.
“In the future it is possible that the Russian authorities will require the ships to be escorted by one of their icebreakers at about 5 dollars per ton. This is not even possible in winter because they are all booked and work near the Yamal Peninsula. Conversely, China could benefit from privileged agreements with Russia, which would be favorable to their old icebreaker project, but would be very badly seen by the United States,” concludes the expert on Arctic routes.
Camille Lin, PolarJournal
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