06.10.2019 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Northeast Passage: From the Past Into the Future


One strategically important project that Russia is currently working on is the Northeast Passage (NEP). NEP is a route along the northern coast of Eurasia (almost all of it is a part of the Russian Federation) that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Russia’s research expedition and commercial vessels began sailing in the seas of the Arctic Ocean in the Middle Ages. As the exploration of Siberia and the Far North continued, more and more information was gathered about the northern coast of Eurasia; the routes in this region became increasingly longer, and seasonal and permanent settlements were built on the shores. Russia’s explorers, such as Semyon Dezhnev, Vitus Bering, Alexander Kolchak and others, played an important role in researching the future NEP. Foreign voyagers who also made a significant contribution include: Hugh Willoughby, Willem Barentsz, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, etc. The first research expeditions along the entire NEP route were completed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. And in 1935, Russia’s first cargo ship sailed via the Northeast Passage.

The NEP became one of the most important transportation routes for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It was used to deploy ships of USSR’s Pacific Fleet to combat areas, and to deliver more than 4 million tons of valuable cargo, including stone coal from deposits in the Arctic, for fleet and industrial needs.

After the war, the USSR continued to actively explore and use the NEP, and add necessary facilities to it. The creation of USSR’s nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet in the 1960s made a significant contribution to this work. From the beginning of the 1970s, the NEP could be used 24 hours a day to deliver products made at the Norilsk mining and metallurgical combine.

In 1987, the volume of cargo transported via the Northeast Passage reached a peak of 6.6 million tons.

However, at the end of the 1980s, the Soviet economy began to slow down, and in 1991, the USSR collapsed. These developments affected the NEP. The fact that cargo volumes transported via this route decreased considerably had a negative effect on its infrastructure and on Russia’s Northern Fleet.

In 1991, foreign vessels were allowed to use the NEP in order to attract investments. Before that year, the USSR had used the route only for its own purposes. The NEP is significantly shorter than the customary route that runs along the southern coast of Eurasia and links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It would allow foreign freight carriers to save considerably on time and money, but the route is not truly in demand among them to this day. Due to difficulties associated with sailing in the Arctic Ocean, they prefer the usual routes.

Nonetheless, the NEP continued to be used in order to transport freight to settlements and industrial facilities in Russia’s Far North, and to deliver products of the nation’s mining industry there to their destinations. With time the economic situation in the country stabilized, and the NEP was no longer in need of foreign investment. Nowadays, it is used by industrial giants of the Russian Federation, such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Nornickel, Novatek and others. With each year, freight volumes transported via the NEP increase steadily. And in 2018, they reached 20 million tons thus surpassing the record set by the Soviet Union in 1987. The Northeast Passage is primarily used to deliver liquified natural gas (LNG) and other useful resources extracted in Russia’s Arctic region.

In May 2018, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin signed a number of decrees. One of these directed Russia’s Ministry of Transport and other relevant organizations to increase the volume of freight transported via the NEP to 80 million tons by 2024. To achieve this goal, LNG deliveries along this route are expected to go up. This will be possible once Novatek opens its liquified natural gas plant, Arctic LNG 2, in the Gydan Peninsula (in the Russian Federation), where significant deposits of natural gas are concentrated. The facility is expected to begin operations in 2023. In addition, cargo traffic along the NEP will increase owing to deliveries of coal and oil from the Taymyr Peninsula (in Russia).

Moreover, the Russian Federation is preparing to launch a project aimed at full-scale exploitation of its oil and gas resources in the Arctic region (including, undiscovered deposits), called Vostok Oil. According to estimates by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of the Russian Federation, total volumes of hydrocarbon deposits in Russia’s Arctic region could exceed 500 billion tons (with crude oil resources possibly accounting for 2/3 of global deposits). Hence, we may conclude that both the NEP and Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet will continue to be of use. The Russian Federation is successfully improving and utilizing the Northeast Passage, and earning substantial profits at the same time. It, therefore, does not need to find any foreign partners to collaborate with.

However, in recent years, there have been discussions about transforming the NEP into an international maritime route.

The conditions for doing so are very favorable at present. Global warming and the melting of Arctic ice have made sailing in the Arctic Ocean easier.

In addition, the current global conditions are such that because of the economic and political confrontation between the West and a number of nations in the Eastern Hemisphere (such as China, which is engaged in a “trade war” with the United States since 2018), the latter need an alternative sea route for transporting cargo. The traditional route that connects the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans runs along the southern coast of Eurasia via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Western nations and their allies exert a great degree of influence in these regions, and can, therefore, cause problems with freight transportation for their opponents if tensions continue to rise. Practically the entire length of the NEP, on the other hand, is monitored by Russia, which can allow its partners (who do not wish to seek a compromise solution with the West) to take advantage of this route.

Consequently, the aforementioned decrees, signed by Vladimir Putin in May 2018, do not only require that Russian cargo traffic along the NEP increases, but also state that everything possible is to be done to transform the route into an international one (linking the nations of Eurasia).

The Russian Federation intends to popularize the Northeast Passage all over the world by increasing freight traffic through it to a maximum, and building a network of ports, and ship maintenance and repairing hubs along its entire length so that even crews from warmer Asian nations who are not accustomed to sailing in the Arctic region could view the NEP as sufficiently convenient and safe. Once this is accomplished, the Northeast Passage may become a viable alternative to the route that passes trough the Suez Canal. If cargo from China alone were to be transported via the NEP, the Russian Federation would earn substantial profits (from transit payments). And this could, by and large, significantly alter the current political and economic map of the world.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”