Putin decrees an increase in Arctic traffic

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. (Photo: Still from Obama Administration White House video)

President Vladimir Putin has issued a demand that the amount of traffic flowing through the Arctic Northern Sea Route reach a towering 80 million tons a year by 2024, a figure that exceeds even the most ambitious projections of his government’s ministries.

The decree was issued shortly after Putin’s fourth inauguration as president after a March reelection campaign in which he was essentially unopposed.

The presidential demand for more traffic, however, would seem to insist on the impossible. Current traffic through and within the northern sea route is only about 10 million tons a year, which means the Kremlin is calling for an eight-fold increase in shipping in only eight years.

Even Putin’s own Natural Resources Ministry doesn’t think that goal is reachable. Last year, in a government memo, the ministry predicted figures along the icy 6,000 kilometer route would reach only about 72 million tons by 2030, much of that natural gas shipments between mid-Siberian ports and Asia.

Boosting traffic along the arctic route between Europe and Asia, which spans 11 time zones across Northern Siberia, and building the infrastructure to service it has been a goal of Moscow’s since Soviet times, when the government established vast and remote industrial settlements along the permafrost shore.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the money keeping them alive dried up. Soviet era traffic figures of 6.58 million ton in 1987 dropped to  just 1.46 million tonnes in 1998. They have yet to recover much: 2016 was the first year Russia managed to break the record of its Soviet past, with 7.3 million tons of cargo flowing through the route.

Putin has made aggressive arctic development a centerpiece of his of his long rule. In 2016, Moscow presented the United Nations with a claim to the Arctic seabed, including the North Pole, and has backed that claim up with more military patrols.

And while it will take years for the UN to adjudicate that claim, Putin has predicted that the Northern Sea Route will become a commercial shipping passage to rival the Suez Canal.

In Moscow’s vision the icy span, shrouded in darkness for half the year, will emerge as a lucrative toll road between Murmansk and the Chukchi Sea, through which Russia’s nuclear icebreakers will shepherd commercial shipments of oil, gas, coal and other minerals.

Climate change is lending an ironic hand as melting polar icecaps open waters for less robust vessels. Last summer, the Christophe de Margerie, a non-icebreaking gas tanker, made the journey from Hammerfest, Norway to Boryeong in South Korea in 19 days without nuclear icebreaker assistance.

Still, year round navigation on the scale demanded by the Kremlin will require beefing up nuclear icebreaker escorts, something the government may accomplish by turning nearly all arctic development over to Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation.

The nuclear industries hold over the future of the Northern Sea Route is already apparent from the billions Russia is spending on new icebreakers. Last year, the hulls of two new icebreakers, the Arktika and the Sibir, were floated in St Petersburg, and are expected to be commissioned by 2021.

None of this is doing anything to mitigate the climate change that is making much of it possible. Much of the traffic increase Putin is pushing for would ferry coal from Siberian ports. Huge coal mining developments on the Taymyr Peninsula are expected to add about 10 million tons to shipping figures along the route by 2025.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no