Putin has described the Arctic as “the most important region that will provide for the future of Russia” and created a new Ministry for Far East and Arctic Development. In a presidential decree issued shortly after his 2018 inauguration, Putin ordered a tenfold increase of shipping traffic via Northern Sea Route by 2024.
Russia is also tightening its grip on the Northern Sea Route, which falls into the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone and cuts the shipping time from Europe to Asia by 40% compared to Suez Canal route. This month, Moscow announced that foreign ships transiting through would be required to submit a 45-day notice, take a Russian pilot aboard and pay increased transit fees.
The Russian race to the Arctic relies heavily on Chinese investment, and fast-track shipping via the Northern Sea Route is especially attractive to Beijing. Today, China is Moscow’s biggest client for Northern Sea Route shipments: Russia sent liquified natural gas tankers to China via Arctic waters for the first time in July 2018, and lent Russian icebreakers to escort a convoy of Chinese cargo vessels to Europe that fall.
Most vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route risk being stranded in thick ice and require an icebreaker to guide them through the Arctic waters. Russia is currently the only country with an operational nuclear icebreaking fleet. However, that might change soon: China announced last month plans to build its own nuclear-powered icebreaker
to change its “near-Arctic state” status.
The US is taking notice
The US government is now taking notice of Russia’s activity up north. Washington has seen recent discussion about the need to advance its own Arctic strategy, and the US Coast Guard is also making a new heavy icebreaker a funding priority.
“I think we are starting to finally pay attention,” Navy Rear Admiral David W. Titley told CNN in a phone interview. “[The Arctic] was basically ignored in the last couple of years. But our rivals have serious plans with serious resources behind them for understanding how to operate up there. So as we see now, I’d say belatedly there is some interest in the US.”
Last year, NATO staged Trident Juncture drills with 40,000 troops, its biggest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade. In January, US Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the Navy is working out a plan to reopen Adak base in Alaska and send surface ships into the Arctic waters for the first time in the summer.