It was going to be the advent of a new and cost-effective route for global trade, one that would cut through the Arctic ice, bypass the longer Suez Canal route, and conveniently sail from China to Finland and onwards from there. And considering that the vast majority of goods are transported by sea, and that many of them are made in China for consumption in Europe, the Northeast Passage—which stretches along Russia’s northern coast, linking China with Europe and the Atlantic Ocean—is indeed very conveniently located.
Six years ago, the German company Beluga Shipping sent one of its vessels on a journey along the passage to great fanfare. Though it wasn’t the first time a vessel had crossed the Northeast Passage, the cargo ship’s journey was seen as the unofficial inauguration of the critical passage that follows Russia’s coast. So what if the journey required an icebreaker? It was still closer and more convenient than having to sail around the Eurasian continent. And in 2011, 41 vessels from countries including Norway, Spain, and Singapore made the journey along the Arctic Ocean, delivering goods such as frozen fish and iron-ore at their destination. Two years later, 71 ships made the journey.
Last year, however, the number dropped to 53. Since the Ukraine crisis resulted in an EU ban on Russian goods, there have been fewer products to send to Europe, and the new super-cargo ships sometimes used by Chinese companies are at any rate too large to fit into the travel path through the ice. The Russian government usually takes a long view, so a decline from 71 to 53 passages isn’t going to cause alarm. With some 17,000 ships passing the Suez Canal each year, the Northeast Passage has a lot of catching up to do anyway.
But will Russia be able to keep paying for this very quiet passage? Ships don’t just require water, they need law and order as well. That’s one reason behind Russia’s reopening of military based in the Arctic, though there are, of course, less peaceful reasons as well. As Arctic researcher Duncan Depledge of RUSI in London recently told me, “All activities in the Arctic need some sort of security aspect. In much of the Arctic, the military is the only institution that can perform that constabulary function.” At one ship a week, the Northeast Passage becomes very expensive indeed.