MOSCOW: Russia has seized on the Suez Canal blockage to promote its northern shipping route as a reliable alternative, part of a broader push by Moscow to develop the Arctic and capitalise on climate change.

President Vladimir Putin has made Russia’s Arctic region a strategic priority and ordered investment in military infrastructure and mineral extraction.

The development of the Northern Sea route is closely linked to that push and Moscow has channelled large sums into a fleet of icebreakers and ice-class tankers.

Russia redoubled efforts to promote the Arctic route after a giant Japanese-owned tanker became wedged this week in the narrow Suez channel, barring some 200 ships’ passage.

A senior Russian diplomat said the jam underscored the importance of developing the Arctic route.

“The appeal of the North­ern Sea Route will grow both in the short- and long-term. It has no alternative,” said Nikolai Korchunov,Moscow’s point person for international Arctic cooperation.

“Obviously it’s necessary to think about how to efficiently manage transportation risks and develop alternative routes to the Suez Canal, first and foremost the Northern Sea Route,” Korchunov, Russia’s ambassador-at-large, told the Interfax news agency.

The Northern Sea Route is one of several Arctic shipping channels and lies within Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

Russia has invested heavily to develop the route, which allows ships to cut the journey to Asian ports by 15 days compared with using the Suez Canal.

Transit of the eastern Arctic usually ends in November, but Russia hopes climate change means the commercial benefit of the route will increase.

Moscow is planning to use the route to export oil and gas to overseas markets while companies including Russia’s biggest LNG producer Novatek already navigate the northern route.

In August 2017, the first vessel travelled along the Northern Sea Route without the use of ice breakers.

‘Surprising? No’

Russia’s weather monitor said this week that the northern route was “in some years almost completely free of ice” towards the end of the summer and last year reached a “record low level” of ice cover.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2021

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