UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Northern Sea Route (severoput)

Russia insists on using the Northern Sea Route in its own interests, since it runs through Russian territory. This was announced by the commander of the Northern Fleet, Admiral Alexander Moiseyev, at a briefing 13 May 2021 for Russian and foreign journalists aboard the Peter the Great nuclear-powered missile cruiser. "At present, the issues of freedom of navigation along the Northern Sea Route and the internationalization of its management are being discussed very intensively. The position of the Russian Federation on this issue has been repeatedly expressed by the leadership of the state, including the leadership of the military department. in Russian territorial waters, or in the country's economic zone, it is in difficult ice conditions, which requires the organization of safe navigation. Therefore, Russia insists on a special procedure for using this communication ", - said the admiral.

The icebreaking fleet allows Russia to own the Arctic Ocean de facto, considering its water area as inland waters. As Igor Kral noted "And if someone believes that the prohibition on foreign ships passing through the northern sea route without Russian escort violates international law, then this is his problem. People without an icebreaker can have no rights in principle." Russia seems to have some idea of being able to extract arbitrage from the cost savings of shipping via the Arctic Ocean North Sea Route, compared to traditional Suez Canal routes. Ships using the North Sea Route, escorted by Russian icea breakers, would be charged a fee for this service that would be some fraction of the savings resulting from using the North Sea Route. China is developing icebreaker capabilities to avoid such Russian surcharges.

The minimum seasonal level of Arctic sea ice has receded by 9 percent per decade since satellite observations began in 1979. The prospect for an (even seasonally) ice-free shipping route from Europe to Asia, would reduce the distance of a voyage from Europe to Asia by 40 percent (if compared to a route through the Suez Canal). These savings in shipping costs to Russia and to Europe are potentially huge, even if the voyage could only be made in the summer months.

Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov is convinced that limiting the passage of vessels of foreign construction along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is planned to be introduced from January 1, 2019, is a natural security measure for shipbuilding and will stimulate the loading of Russian shipyards. He stated this in an interview with the program "To conduct on Saturday with Sergei Brilev" on the TV channel " Russia 1 " 15 September 2018.

Previously, the Ministry of Industry and Trade suggested amending the RF Merchant Shipping Code, which presupposes the priority use of Russian vessels on the Northern Sea Route, while the draft law allows for the operation of vessels built outside the Russian Federation.

"The Northern Sea Route is purely Russian coastal waters, so we protect our shipbuilders in this regard," Borisov said, commenting on the planned innovation. "We are not pioneers in this regard: America in the 1920s introduced such a measure in order to protect its producers and shipowners," the Deputy Prime Minister reminded, noting that before the carriage of goods in the coastal waters of the United States only a vessel of American manufacture and under the American flag.

Borisov stressed that he does not consider such measures anti-market, they fit into the logic of shipbuilding protection. "I believe that there is no direct anti-market measures here, this is a normal defense of the Russian manufacturer," the deputy prime minister said.

Borisov added that the Northern Sea Route would not be completely closed to foreign-made vessels. "There is a reservation that by the government's decision it will be allowed to pass to the courts of another building, other countries, in order not to restrain business processes, because, of course, we will not be able to immediately block all types of ships. it will work, "- said the Deputy Prime Minister.

Speaking on 01 March 2018 with a message to the Federal Assembly of Russia, President Vladimir Putin said that the NSR would be "the key to the development of the Russian Arctic regions of the Far East." According to the head of state, Russia faces the challenge of making it a "global, competitive transport artery" and will increase its cargo traffic by 10 times to 20 million tons, up to 80 million tons a year. In 1991, the Northern Sea Route was open to international shipping, but in official Russian documents it was defined as a "historically established national transport communication". The length of the route from the Kara Gates to the Providence Bay is 5.6 thousand km, this route is almost twice as short as other sea routes from Europe to the Far East.


In the 1920s, efforts to study the northern regions of the European and Asian parts of the Soviet Union began. For this purpose, the Government of the Soviet Union provided significant funds. A portion of these funds was used to build a network of meteorological stations along the ship route, from the Atlantic Ocean to America and Asia via the Bering Strait. Formerly known as the Northeast Passage, this route became identified as the Northern Sea Route.

Four routes through the Russian Arctic are theoretically possible. The first is the most southerly and conventional coastal route. A second is a mid-route through ice massifs following diagonal cracks from Cape Zhelaniya (Novaya Zemlya) to Dikson and from Novaya Sibir' Island to the port of Pevek. A third route, which is useful only for through traffic, stays to the north of Cape Zhelaniya, Cape Arkticheski (Severnaya Zemlya), and Novaya Sibir' Island. A fourth route, 700 miles shorter than the coastal route, is the great circle route, by way of the Pole. This fourth course is not economically feasible at the present time, but it may in the future be viable as transportation technology improves.

In 1920, the Soviet agency the Committee of the Northern Sea Route (Komseveroput, in Russian) was established to "equip, improve, and study" the entire route from Arkhangel'sk to the Bering Strait. The first damage-free transit in a single season was not accomplished until 1934: the icebreaker Fedor Litke claimed the title. Soviet resolve and experience in ice navigation were unrivaled, and traffic in the Arctic continued to grow.

In 1932, a new and more powerful government department, the Glavnoye Upravleniye Severnogo Morskogo Puti (Glavsevmorput), or Chief Administration of the Northern Sea Route, assumed the role to "develop the NSR from the White Sea to the Bering Strait, to equip it, to keep it good order, and to secure the safety of shipping along it". Various translated names for Glavsevmorput have appear in the literature. Arikaynen (1991) gives "Chief Northern Sea Route Agency," Armstrong (1992a) gives "Chief Administration of the Northern Sea Route," Barr (1991) gives "Directorate of the Northern Sea Route," Ushakov et al. (1991) give "Main Department of the Northern Sea Route", while North Naval Ways Management is also derived from Glavk Severnogo Morskogo Puti.

From 1932 to 1953, the administration of the Russian marine Arctic rested with Glavsevmorput (CANSR), which was a direct arm of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR. This special affiliation afforded it greater status and power for carrying out its mission to develop the Northern Sea Route. During this period large strides were made in organizing regular navigation and developing the fleet and port infrastructure.

At Glavsevmorput's head was Otto Schmidt, the senior editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. Glavsevmorput was in control of all the economic development in Siberia north of 62 degrees as well as the sea route. it took over the other Arctic enterprises such as Artikugol (coal), the Reindeer-Breeding Trust, the Taimyr Trust (for development in the Taimyr) and the Arctic Islands. Its central office was divided into separate departments. It also controlled fishing, mining, whaling etc. It used forced prison slave labour to build towns like Tiksi on the Arctic coast, and also instead of skilled labour in the mines. Even the new icebreaking steam ships had problems navigating the North-East passage in time to deliver cargoes before the ice was impassable.

In 1940 Soviet icebreakers broke the way through the Arctic's northeast passage for a German armed merchant cruiser en route to the Pacific. Courtesy of the Russo-German Pact," the Soviet icebreakers Lenin and Stalin opened parts of the passage for the German armed merchant cruiser Komet. The German government paid the Soviet government the equivalent of $300,000 "for the service." The Komet, an armed raider, was the first foreign ship in over 20 years to be granted passage, and it would be the last foreign transit for more than 50 years.

When the USSR entered the war in 1941, the Northern Sea Route became important for bringing Allied supplies into the country. The NSR did become an alternate supply route from West Coast ports of the U.S. through the Bering Strait to Russia's northern ports. In the four seasons of 1942- 1945, 120 ships transported approximately 450,000 tons of relief supplies. Most of these voyages offloaded in Tiksi at the Lena River, but 13 were able to reach the Yenisey delta, and one even travelled as far west as Arkhangel'sk (Barr, 1991).

Glavsevmorput was gradually reduced in size and responsibilities, so that by 1953 all that remained was the Arctic Shipping Division of the Ministry of the Merchant fleet in Moscow. For 17 years the infrastructure was improved to provide the capability for both summer and autumn shipping. Since 1970, when CANSR became the Administration of the Northern Sea Route (ANSR), the emphasis has been on achieving year-round trafficability. When it was established, the agency was staffed with 35 people. By 1981, that number had been reduced to 16 and, later still, had further dwindled to nine.

The Soviet offer to open the Northern Sea Route to foreign shipping and provide icebreaking support for a fee was first extended in 1967. A demonstration voyage took place that summer in which a Soviet ship transported cargo from western Europe to Yokohama. Although the transit was successfully accomplished in only 27 days, foreign shippers never seized upon this initiative. Possibily the offer was tacitly withdrawn so that the Soviets would not offend their Arab allies by proposing an alternative to the Suez Canal.

In 1977, the Soviets powered the first surface vessel to the geographic North Pole. The nuclear icebreaker Arktika departed Murmansk on August 9 and reached the pole on the 17th. The return to Murmansk, by way of Franz Josef Land, was completed on August 23rd. The 14-day experimental voyage, more than half of which was spent breaking through ice, covered 3852 miles at an average speed of 11.5 knots. In 1978 another historic voyage occurred: the first complete high-latitude passage of surface ships, which travelled from Murmansk through the Bering Strait to Magadan. The nuclear icebreaker Sibir' led the Amguema-class transport ship Kapitan Myshevskiy, which was loaded with oilfield equipment bound for the Kolyma region. They passed to the north of all the major island groups (except Wrangel Island), shaving many miles off the standard coastal route.

Even with the technology available, the Northern Sea Route sometimes presented unexpected challenges. As late as 1983, an early October cold spell trapped approximately 50 ships in the East Siberian Sea. Thirteen icebreakers were dispatched to the scene to effect the rescue operation. By late November, the ships were freed (except for one that was crushed by ice), but 30 suffered damage of varying degrees.

Foreign response to the international activities to promote utilization of the Northern Sea Route began with the leasing of cargo space aboard Soviet SA-15 Noril'sk-class icebreaking carriers. In 1989, there were several transits from Hamburg to Osaka. In 1990, six more voyages took place, each requiring about 25 days to complete the route. This was approximately 10 days faster than the Suez Canal route.

That same year, the nuclear icebreaker Rossiya (75,000 shaft horsepower) also made the third visit to the North Pole by a surface ship. (The second visit, by the Sibir', was in 1987). The unique feature of this nine-day cruise was the fact that the ship was adapted to accomodate 40 foreign tourists, who paid $20,000 each for the trip. The cruise was considered such a success that the Sovietskiy Soyuz made two similar tourist trips in 1991 and 1992.

With the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1990, total jurisdiction over the route passed to the Russian Federation. The non-controllable transition to the market economy led the whole national economy to crisis. The volume of cargo transportation on the Northern Sea route was reduced more than by 4 times. The northern transport system turned out to be demanded on the level of 25-30% of its potential. The economic difficulties in post-Soviet Russia sidelined a portion of the available transport and ice-breaking capacity on the route. Cargo turnover in the region peaked at 6,578,000 tons in 1987 and has progressively declined since then to 4,903,000 tons in 1991.

The "Regulations for navigation on the seaways of the Northern Sea Route" (NSR) were officially published on 13.07.1991 in the Notices to Mariners ? 29". The permission to pass through NSR, dates, region of navigation and conditions of ice-pilotages could be issued by Russian Northern Sea Route Administration experts upon completion of survey of the ship on her compliance with "The Requirements for the Design, Equipment and Supply of Vessels Navigating the NSR". Such survey could be conducted at any port. This permission for navigation on the seaways of the NSR would not give the right to conduct any scientific research in the Russian arctic, neither tourism nor fishing for these purposes operators must send a special request to the Ministry Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federations.

The divisions and economic objects of the Northern Sea route were transformed into various forms of property that lacked a unified economic and transport policy as well as a corresponding program. In 1991, the Ministry of Merchant Marine was downsized to a department and placed under the Russian Ministry of Transport. This consolidation was accompanied by reduced state subsidies, which then were followed by additional manpower cuts.

The nuclear powered icebreaking fleet (taking into account the nuclear powered icebreaker "50 Let Pobedy"), will allow to carry out the transportations on the Northern Sea route in the volumes exceeding 5 7 million tons annually. By 2015, it is planned to build four two-draught icebreakers of "LK-60" type that will enhance the carrying capacity of the Northern Sea route up to 10 15 million tons of cargoes transported annually. At the same time, the Arctic ports are still the weak point of the Northern Sea route. No renewal of ports has been carried out since 1990.

The Northern Sea Route is a highly important factor in developing hydrocarbon deposits on Russia's Arctic shelf, which contains an estimated 62.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, nine billion metric tons of crude oil in offshore deposits and 3.5 billion metric tons of oil on shore. This accounts for 25% of global hydrocarbon deposits. There are plans to produce up to seven million metric tons of oil at the Prirazlomnoye deposit in the Pechora Bay, in the south-west part of the Barents Sea. The Shtokman gas-condensate deposit in the Barents Sea and deposits in the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea also contain tremendous amounts of natural gas.

Increasing foreign use of the NSR can more fully utilize the Russian fleet and provide revenue toward its operation and maintenance. The Northern Sea Route can become a major Eurasian trans-shipment route because the distance between Murmansk and Yokohama, Japan along this route is just 5,770 nautical miles. The longer route via the Suez Canal, in contrast, is 12,840 nautical miles. The distance between Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Yokohama via the Northern Sea Route and the Suez Canal is 7,350 and 11,250 nautical miles, respectively. A special expedition financed by northern European countries said that the Northern Sea Route is a cost-effective transport passage.

Russia must maintain its icebreaker fleet and also build special-purpose ships to transport hydrocarbons. The Russian government said that 40 ice-resistant oil platforms and 14 off-shore gas platforms will have to be completed by 2030 as part of programs for developing hydrocarbon deposits on the continental shelf. This country will also have to build 55 ice-resistant tankers and storage tankers, as well as 20 gas carriers of the same class for delivering fuel to Russian and foreign customers. The government decided to set up the United Shipbuilding Corporation because Russia lacked the civilian shipyards necessary to build all these vessels.

Russia's leaders planned to rectify the situation by establishing three major holding companies within the framework of the corporation by late 2016. One of them, the Northern Holding Company, will be expected to master the production of ships and floating platforms for continental shelf deposits.

Russia appeared to be extending its NSR regime, based upon UNCLOS Article 234, ice-covered areas, westward to Kolguev Island in the Pechora Sea. There are certain elements of consistency in the common interpretation of existing law and behaviour of the large Arctic littoral States, Russia, Canada and the U.S. surrounding this regime. These elements seem to have put in action the process of formation of a specific customary international law with respect to the passage of vessels, including State vessels, through the Arctic area in general and its international straits in particular. This means that Russia enjoys substantial support from the large Arctic littoral States, the U.S. and Canada, for its legal regime regulating Arctic navigation.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 13-09-2021 17:24:29 ZULU