Northern Sea Route isn’t About to Replace Suez Canal, Russian Analysts Say

Arctic Map

(Paul Goble – Window On Eurasia – Staunton, March 29, 2021)

As the world watched as a single ship blocked the Suez Canal this past week, some in Moscow suggested that this even suggested that the world would now turn to Russia’s Northern Sea Route as a better alternative (rg.ru/2021/03/25/chp-v-sueckom-kanale-stalo-signalom-dlia-mirovoj-logistiki-v-polzu-sevmorputi.html).

The Nezygar telegram channel agreed that the accident in the Suez canal highlights the dangers of relying on any single route but suggested that a single accident is not enough to reroute shipping between Europe and Asia completely as Moscow may hope (https://t.me/russica2/36936 reposted at newizv.ru/article/general/27-03-2021/postroim-porty-uglubim-prolivy-pochemu-sevmorput-ne-zamenit-suetskogo-kanala).

The reasons for Russian expectations lie both in the fact that its favored Northern Sea Route is both shorter and far wider than the Suez Canal, but declining fuel prices, on the one hand, and the greater costs arising from the need for icebreakers, on the other, mean that the Russian route is not as advantageous as Moscow analysts think, the telegram channel suggests.

Moreover, the Northern Sea Route has its own risks because of ice, something that could delay passage far longer than the Ever Given has blocked traffic on the Suez Canal. But the Northern Sea Route has another disadvantage, one that there is little chance the Russian side will be able to correct anytime soon.

“The most important element as far as the attractiveness of a sea route is concerned is well-developed port infrastructure,” the outlet continues. It isn’t time at sea that is critical in financial calculations but the ability to arrive “just in rime” and offload quickly onto land-based transportation.

On both sides of the Suez, there are many such ports with that ability. “But today, along the Northern Sea Route, there is only one deep-water port, Murmansk,” and it is not connected via highway and train in ways that make it an attractive option for shippers, given the likelihood of bottlenecks on land even if the sea route is traversed more quickly.

As ships carry more containers, they can use only those ports which have sufficient depth. But as of now, the ports for ships using the Suez Canal are already deeper, while nearly all those along the Northern Sea Route must be significantly deepened and expanded if they are to be competitive.

Over time, Russia might be able to correct this situation, the channel says; but there is another factor that Moscow seems to have ignored at its peril as far as trade is concerned. At present, most Chinese exports go not to Europe but to the United States. Thus, the number of ships Beijing might want to send via the Northern Sea Route will be smaller than Moscow hopes.

And that of course means that even if Russia adopts policies intended to deepen its ports and build on-land transportation infrastructure to service them, it may discover that it will not see any return on such investments at anything like the rate or in the amount that many in Moscow now assume is inevitable.

[article also appeared at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/03/northern-sea-route-isnt-about-to.html]