Russia’s Rosatom consolidates control over the Northern Sea Route

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. Credit: Still from Obama Administration White House video

President Vladimir Putin has signed off on giving full control of the coveted Northern Sea Route to Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation, a move that sidelines other government ministries that had been sharing the work of shaping one of the Kremlin’s biggest economic priorities.

Now that multi-billion-dollar task will fall to Rosatom alone, according to the official newswire RIA Novosti, which Monday carried a short, inconspicuous article on the power shift.

According to the state agency, Putin has ordered his cabinet to amend legislation from 2018, which codified Rosatom authority over the 6,000-kilometer sea artery through the Arctic, though left administrative control and the levying of tolls for traversing the passage in the hands of the Ministry of Transport.

The new orders from Putin demand the “centralization of [Rosatom’s] authority to administer the Northern Sea Routh and to organize navigation within NSR waters” –­which, without explicitly saying so, takes those duties out of the transport ministry’s hands.

The move would seem to settle disputes that have simmered over the 2018 legislation since its inception, with the Ministry of Transport demanding it maintain responsibility for issuing permits to vessels traveling through the passage. That ministry will now serve at Rosatom’s pleasure.

It would also consolidate greater power in the hands of Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads Rosatom’s board of directors – and whose name consistently arises when possible successors to Putin are discussed by Kremlin insiders as Moscow’s war on Ukraine drags on.

Indeed, Kiriyenko has proved himself to be an agile bureaucrat for nearly three decades, first coming to prominence as a short-lived prime minister to Boris Yeltsin, after which he survived countless Kremlin shakeups to eventually emerge as chief of Putin’s staff.

Between 2005 and 2015 he also served at Rosatom’s chief executive where he worked to recast a lumbering Soviet bureaucracy in the image of a slick, western tech goliath.

On Tuesday, Russian-language news site Meduza quoted unnamed Russian billionaires who are growing tired of seeing their fortunes vaporized by western sanctions over the ongoing war in Ukraine. In their telling, there are a handful of Russian politicians who could step into the presidency and mend fences with the west – most prominently Kiriyenko.

It’s impossible to say whether that will come to pass, but with Rosatom’s expanded oversight of the Northern Sea Route, a giant economic priority rests with the company Kiriyenko is charged with overseeing.

The Northern Sea Route runs between northern Norway and the Bering Strait, and, until recently, has remained largely impassable during all but summer months. But unusually high temperatures over the past decade have caused the Arctic ice sheet to shrink by some 13 percent, according to data from NASA.

Rosatom – which operates all of Russia’s nuclear power plants as well as its nuclear icebreaker fleet – will have full authority over infrastructure, access, security and shipping in the northern waterway as it seeks to open the Arctic for commercial navigation on a year-round basis – cutting in half, according to Moscow, sailing times between Europe and Asia.