Russia, Considers, but Declines, Expanding Arctic Boundaries of Northern Sea Route Over Concern it Would Stoke International Opposition

On June 22, a working group led by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev decided that the boundaries of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) will not be expanded, reportedly in order to avoid accusations of violating international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  The decision was taken after a meeting with representatives from Rosatom, the State Commission for Arctic Development, the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, the Ministry of Transport, the Foreign Ministry, and the State Atomic Energy Corporation.

Expanding the route had been proposed as a way of fulfilling a decree by President Vladimir Putin issued in May 2020, which called for freight traffic along the NSR to reach 80 million tons by 2024.  The decision not to expand the NSR was seemingly rooted in a risk assessment of the negative consequences for NSR that would come with potential international condemnation.  According to reports, Rosatom, which was given the lead among Russian state-owned enterprises on matters related to the Arctic by the Kremlin in January 2019, was particularly opposed to an expansion of the NSR’s boundaries.

The importance given by the Kremlin to minimizing potential international opposition to the NSR is a symptom of a broader challenge that Moscow faces in seeking to attract traffic to a route that it hopes will develop into a key strategic asset – i.e., a transit route linking Europe and Asia that is competitive with the Suez Canal.

The route, however, is not only more costly at present, requiring icebreaker escorts and elevated insurance rates for all but two to four months per year, but there are also powerful interest groups urging companies to swear off usage of the NSR due to environmental concerns. An initiative jointly organized by the Ocean Conservancy and Nike recruited a group of at least 20 corporations who have agreed not to use the Northern Sea Route,. The list includes some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, Mediterranean Shipping Co., and France’s CMA CGM.