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Two Nations Are Challenging Russia’s Arctic Shipping Dominance

Two Nations Are Challenging Russia’s Arctic Shipping Dominance

  • China and Turkey are spearheading the construction of Arctic ice-breakers.
  • The Ukraine war has shifted priorities for the Kremlin, and there is less budget available to fund Moscow’s Arctic programs.
  • Some in Russia are alarmed by the prospect that China is on its way to becoming not only the dominant power of the NSR but also across much of Russian territory.

In a development with enormous consequences both for international trade and for Moscow’s control of its far-flung regions across the country’s northern third—places not linked to the center by roads or railways—the Russian Federation is rapidly losing its historical dominance over the Northern Sea Route to China and Turkey. Indeed, these two countries are now building icebreakers at record rates, as the Kremlin has had to delay, or even cancel, its plans for new Russian icebreakers due to budgetary shortfalls arising from President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, corruption and other problems in the Russian shipbuilding industry. Additionally, the industry is hampered by the competing demands of Russian admirals who want a new aircraft carrier rather than icebreakers and security officials who are more concerned with ensuring Moscow’s links to locations across the Russian North than with keeping the Northern Sea Route (NSR) open (Topwar.ru, November 20, 2020; Window on Eurasia, May 30, 2021). This development has caught many observers off guard, as they assumed that changes in climate, something that has reduced ice coverage in the Arctic, has reduced the importance of icebreakers as the key element of control for the NSR. But that assumption rests on a misconception about the nature of climate change. It does not proceed everywhere at the same pace and in the same direction. Consequently, while much of the planet is warming, some places are growing colder, at least for the time being. And thus, while much of the NSR has become ice-free in recent years, parts of it now suffer from more rather than less ice. That is the case in the eastern half of this Arctic route, where many of the most important sites of natural resources are located, and Russia does not have the icebreakers or ice-capable ships necessary to cope (The Barents Observer, November 16, 2022).

Three years ago, in the hopes of addressing this problem, the Kremlin announced a new icebreaker construction program that called for the building of three super-sized icebreakers capable of breaking through up to 4 meters of ice—something that no icebreaker currently in service can do. The prospects of such gigantic ships appealed to the Russian imagination, but it soon became obvious that Moscow could not afford to build such vessels anytime soon. In this regard, not only does Russia not have the money, but Moscow lacks the shipyards needed to construct them. As a result, plans to build two of the three vessels have been canceled, and the scheduled delivery date for the third has been pushed back from 2027 to sometime in the 2030s. One reason for the delay is an ironic self-inflicted wound: Russian forces destroyed the Ukrainian factory where parts for the vessel were being made. Now, some Russian observers doubt that the ship will ever be built (The Barents Observer, March 1, 30; Kommersant, March 28).

These Russian problems have opened the way for China and Turkey, two countries with large shipbuilding industries, to become involved in a new race to build icebreakers and thus dominate the NSR—a race in which Russia finds itself at a particular disadvantage because it will not be able to catch up to China or Turkey anytime soon. As a result, Russia almost certainly will have to make concessions to Beijing and Ankara in hopes of convincing them to cooperate on the use of the NSR. These concessions will likely take the form of barter arrangements in which Beijing and Ankara will help the Kremlin maintain some control over the NSR’s eastern half in exchange for long-term access to and control of raw materials in Russia’s north. And these two countries have particular leverage given that the effects of Western sanctions mean that neither China nor Turkey has sent ships across the NSR in recent months (The Barents Observer, August 22, 2022; Newsite.gecon.ru, accessed April 3).

As the recent Moscow summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin showed, Beijing is fully prepared to put pressure on the Kremlin, with the expectation that China, not Russia, will be the dominant player in the NSR’s eastern half almost immediately and over the entire route eventually. This position has been underscored by Chinese announcements that its third icebreaker will soon be operational and that others of the same class will follow in short order (The Barents Observer, December 10, 2021; see EDM, March 28). Furthermore, China has been involved in the construction of Chinese docks in five of the most important ports along Russia’s Arctic shoreline—Murmansk, Sabetta, Arkhangelsk, Tiksi and Uzden—along with Chinese rail lines into the region (see EDM, March 9; Sovsekretno.ru, accessed April 3).

Not surprisingly, some in Russia are alarmed by the prospect that China is on its way to becoming not only the dominant power of the NSR but also across much of Russian territory. They hope that Moscow can rein in Beijing through a combination of carrots—access to resources—and sticks—opposition to any grander Chinese designs in the region. Yet, at present, Beijing has the upper hand, and the Kremlin appears to be going along because its officials do not see any effective alternative if Russia is to maintain close ties with China—a status required by Putin’s pivot from Europe to Asia (see EDM, March 28).

If China’s moves have attracted attention, the actions of Turkey, and Russia’s support for them, have not, something all the more remarkable because Turkish shipyards may be in a position to produce more, yet smaller icebreakers than their Chinese counterparts. Maksim Kulinko, the deputy director of Russia’s NSR agency, says that Turkey, like China, will build smaller non-atomic icebreakers for the route. In reporting his words, Russian news agency Rex says Moscow has no choice but to work with the Turkish and Chinese firms because it cannot produce the needed ships on its own. At the same time, however, the outlet adds that the Kremlin must ensure that it can hold the political ambitions of these two countries in check. That will be no easy task—either along the NSR or within Russia’s North—especially as challenges are now coming from two directions, instead of only one (Iarex.ru, March 28).

By the Jamestown Foundation

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