Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has disclosed his country's ambitious plans for shipping and resource development in the frigid Arctic. At a meeting at Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, he told the audience that the Arctic shipping route would shortly rival the Suez Canal for trade between Asia and Europe. Russia is pushing for major integrated rail and port hub development at the port of Murmansk and research into resources in the Barents Sea. Along with a slew of other projects is a plan for a new self-contained city in the Arctic.
"The shortest route between Europe's largest markets and the Asia-Pacific region lie across the Arctic,” Putin said, hinting at the fact that this route is almost 4000 nautical miles shorter than the one through the Suez Canal.
There has been unprecedented interest in the Northern Route in recent times; a few ships have already made the passage in the last year, usually with icebreaker escort when needed. The Arctic thaw has meant that countries in the region have renewed moves to survey and develop mineral exploration in the area. Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, oil exploration and the opening of new sea routes have meant increased pollution risk, which will only escalate in future.
Russia has earmarked the equivalent of $733 million in the first tranche of funding for new icebreakers that will service the Northern Route. Russia plans to double the number of icebreakers deployed in the Arctic; three new nuclear and six new diesel icebreakers are planned over the next nine years. The Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin announced that one nuclear icebreaker would be rolled out as early as next year. "This will be installed with safety and rescue systems, it will carry out search-and rescue operations at sea."
Environmental concerns or not, analysts say that the high cost of fuel will make greater use of the Arctic route inevitable. Not is it four thousand miles shorter, they say, but it bypasses the need to go through dangerous pirate infested waters in Asia. In Putin's words, "I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality. States and private companies who chose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap economic advantages."