NORTHERN SEA ROUTE: AN INTERNATIONAL TRANSIT CORRIDOR A ZONE FOR EXPORT OF RUSSIAN NATURAL RESOURCES?

Aleksandr R. Melnikov

Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok

Marina A. Melnikova

Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok

Elizaveta Yu. Baranova Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok

Abstract: The article analyzes the prospects for integrating the Russian Northern Sea Route into the global transit system for the delivery of consumer goods from Asia to Europe in the context of global competition of international transport corridors and geopolitical standoff of the great world powers in the Arctic Region.

Key words: international transport corridor; transit; container ships; ice escorting; icebreaker fleet; competition in the transportation market; geopolitical standoff; Russian territorial waters In 2018 a historic event took place in world shipping industry: the first specialized vessel, an ice-class container feeder with a reinforced hull of the Danish shipping company Maersk Line “Venta Maersk” with a capacity of 3,600 TEU, made a voyage to Europe along the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Pic. 1. Ice-class container feeder “Venta Maersk”

On August 23, 2018, the ship took on board 1,400 containers of frozen fish products at the container terminal of Vostochnaya Stevedoring Company LLC in Nakhodka and on August 25 left for Busan, South Korea. On August 28, in the port of Busan, 600 additional containers with electronics were loaded onto the ship and then the container ship headed for the Arctic [3].

The safe passage from the ice edge of the East Siberian Sea to the ice edge in the Laptev Sea was provided by the Russian nuclear icebreaker “50 years of Victory”, which on September 8, 2018 took the “Venta Maersk” under the escort, the average speed of which was 11 knots. The caravan took the shortest route through the Sannikov Strait (joins the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea) and on September 11, the escort was completed, “Venta Maersk” then continued its route independently.

On September 22, 2018, the ship reached the port of Bremenhafen (Germany), where part of the cargo (South Korean electronics) was unloaded, and on September 28, 2018, the container ship arrived at the final point of the route – the seaport “Big Port of St. Petersburg”, the terminal “Petrolesport” [8].

As a result, the full sea route of the container ship “Venta Maersk” took 28 days. The test journey was completed successfully, but the management of the Danish company noted that at present they do not consider NSR as a commercially viable alternative to other routes. Is such decision a result of anti-Russian sanctions and an attempt to discredit the route across the Russian Arctic? Or is “Maersk “eyeing” NSR with plans for distant future, and in case competitors: shipping companies Cosco, MOL etc. begin to develop this route?

Currently, in the field of transit transportation of non-primary goods (consumer goods), the Northern Sea Route cannot compete, for example, with the traditional Southern sea transport “corridor” along the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea and further, around Europe to the Baltic Sea, where world shipping leaders (including “Maersk”) are engaged in transportation between the world’s largest ports in Asia and Europe. So, for 10 months of 2020, the volume of transit traffic through the Northern Sea Route amounted to 1.28 million tons. At the same time, more than 1 billion tons a year pass through the Suez Canal.

In addition, there are limitations when using the NSR. This route may not be used all year round, only relatively small container ships can pass through it, necessarily accompanied by icebreakers or ice-class vessels. Naturally, this leads to an increase in transport costs (freight etc.). The current state of the NSR ports and various security systems also causes high insurance rates [5].

Nevertheless, the Northern Sea Route is well appropriate for the transportation of raw materials, oil and gas. The volume of raw materials transported along the Northern Sea Route is increasing. Moreover, almost half of the cargo volume is export oil transported by “Sovcomflot” tankers from the Novoportovskoye field (Yamal Peninsula) to Northern Europe.

And what about Asian direction?

On July 2018, two Russian Arc7 ice class gas tankers “Vladimir Rusanov” and “Eduard Toll”, arrived in Chinese port of Jiangsu-Zhudong from the port of Sabetta (Yamal Peninsula, Russia), having delivered the first batch of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Yamal LNG enterprises to China under a long-term contract. Both vessels passed through the Northern Sea Route without an icebreaker escort – the ice situation allowed, all journey to China took a little more than three weeks [8].

On January 2021 Russian gas tankers of the same class “Christophe de Margerie” and “Nikolai Evgenov” delivered through the NSR from Yamal enterprises to the consumers in Asia-Pacific nearly 140 thousand ton of LPG [6] .

At the end of 2020, “NOVATEK Gas & Power Asia Pte. Ltd.” (NOVATEK’s subsidiary) and Japanese company “Saibu Gas Co., Ltd.” carried out successfully test transportation of LNG in ISO-containers, produced by Chinese “Tiger Gas”, for further realization in China.  The sea transportation was made under the spot contract from Japanese container terminal Hibiki to Shanghai, China [7].

Here it makes sense to remind that ISO-Container is a standardized multi-turn container designed for the transport of goods by road, railway, sea and air transport and adapted for mechanized reloading from one vehicle to another. It can be made of various materials and have a variety of shapes. For safe and convenient transportation and long-term storage of LNG, cryogenic vessels or tank-container in the form of a vessel are used. NOVATEK has signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with “Saibu Gas Co., Ltd.” on terminal Hibiki for optimization of LNG export to Asia-Pacific in December, 2018.

Pic.2 The sea transportation in ISO-containers

On September, 2018, Chinese universal ice-class ship “Tian En” completed its first journey along the NSR. Commercial Japanese company “Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) also shows its interest to develop Russian polar route, because it participates in the project “Yamal LNG”.

As for PRC, the Chinese leadership announced its intention to become a “polar power” in 2014. Chinese ambitions are connected, first of all, with the “New Silk Road”. The plans include promoting multi- billion-dollar projects abroad to improve trade routes between China and the rest of the world.

(End of introductory fragment)

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