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Russia promotes Arctic route after Suez Canal debacle. Is it even viable?

Tai Hai Chen

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As the Arctic cap thaws thanks to global warming, Russia seeks to promote an alternative trading route after the recent blockage in one of the world's most strategic waterways.

As some of the world's shipping lanes ground to a halt over the last week due to a tanker vessel blocking the Suez Canal, Russian authorities used the opportunity to promote their preferred route.

In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, Vladimir Panov, a special representative of the Rosatom state nuclear corporation, touted the benefits of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a potential alternative to the Suez Canal.

"The Suez precedent has shown how fragile any route between Europe and Asia is. Therefore, the development of alternative routes is essential to guarantee sustainable international navigation. This increases the role of the Northern Sea Route, which has been ever more competitive from year to year," Panov said.

But how viable is the route?

"To be 100 percent honest, the NSR is a terrible fantasy," says Professor of International Politics Laleh Khalili.

In August 2018, the Venta Maersk, a large container ship specially reinforced to traverse the icy conditions to the NSR, made its maiden voyage to see if the route is viable. The voyage at the time was only a trial and meant to see if the route was commercially feasible.

Melting ice has made Artic lanes, previously unpassable, more accessible in recent years.

"For it to work year-around, rather than only through the summer, the climate should have been warmed to a degree that the Arctic has completely melted and does not freeze in the winter," added Khalili, speaking to TRT World.

The Center for High North Logistics, a foundation based in Norway seeking to collect information on opening up the Northern Sea Route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, found that between 2016 to 2019, the number of voyages increased by 58 percent.

Over the last few years, the cargo volume on the NSR increased from 7.5 million tonnes to more than 31 million in 2019.

Those numbers, however, pale in comparison to what passes through the Suez Canal. In 2018 the Canal handled almost a billion tons of goods from shipping containers. The Suez Canal, by any measure, is not in danger of being usurped by the NSR.

One advantage that the NSR has is that it could slash journey times between South East Asia and Europe. A container ship from China or South Korea can take around 34-40 days to reach the Netherlands, Europe's central trading hub.

In contrast, the NSR route can take ships around 23 days. Russian authorities believe that the route could become viable by 2035.

Research by the Center for High North Logistics has found the vast majority of shipping through the NSR route is carried out between July, August, September and October, falling dramatically for the rest of the year.

Russia, for its part, hopes that the development in the coming years of the NSR route could provide the country with lucrative shipping fees. The NSR shipping route is currently mainly used by Russian ships, followed by European ones, with Asian companies still slow on the uptake.

"The Northern Sea Route's development hedges logistical risks and makes global trade more sustainable. Undoubtedly, such Asian countries as China, Japan, and South Korea will take the precedent of the Suez Canal's blockage into consideration in their long-term strategic plans," said Vladimir Panov to Interfax in a bid to convince boservers.

The Suez Canal route, however, has some other advantages that NSR can’t compete with. One such advantage is that container ships can stop along the route several times, picking up and dropping off goods to countries along the way, which wouldn't happen along the Russian route.

While the NSR passage may never fully compete with the Suez Canal, experts believe that it could become a lucrative route for ships looking to get Russian resources to European markets, which wouldn't require ships stopping along the way.

The fate of NSR invariably depends on the Suez Canal experiencing frequent accidents like that seen in recent days or increased piracy activities around the Horn of Africa, which spiked between 2010-14. Both situations are now increasingly rare.
 
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hyperman

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not viable without ice breakers, and other arctic hazards. There is also no consistent traffic there, the suez accident was an anomaly, its far more problematic going through the arctic from a risk assessment, unless the arctic route somehow become dramatically cheaper, its not worth it for most companies. Sea shipping is already fairly cheap its not like they would save much time and money through the arctic.
 

GumNaam

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its a good idea but the problem is the freezing temperatures. many sailors may not wanna suffer the subzero temperatures PLUS it may prove to be detrimental and damaging to certain types of cargo it could be carrying including cars, food products and chemicals.
 

denel

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magra

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Arctic route is economically viable only for countries near North Pole, that too only in summers.
However, commercial activity on this route is detrimental to climate as this would lead to faster melting of Arctic ice.
 

PeaceGen

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i'd say this is increasingly becoming a more and more viable alternative to the Suez canal route..
 

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