Temperatures are rising inside the arctic circle. Earlier this month, the Russian government irked Washington by claiming sovereign rights over the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The waterway, which stretches from Russia’s border with Norway to the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, is one of the world’s emerging trade arteries.
A new law will require all foreign warships using the route to seek Russia’s permission at least forty-five days in advance, with requests to be approved or denied at Moscow’s discretion. In the event of an unsanctioned passage, Russia may arrest intruder ships or even destroy them.
Much of the NSR passes through Russia’s “exclusive economic zone”—a two-hundred-mile stretch of water where Moscow can set the rules. But other parts, notably the Bering Strait, lie in international waters, where safe passage for foreign warships is usually guaranteed.
The law shows how Russia is laying down the gauntlet to other regional powers. When U.S. Naval Commander James Foggo declared the arctic was “nobody’s lake,” he was mocked by Russian politicians.
As climate change melts the ice sheet, commercial opportunities are opening up. Thawing seas will help arctic countries develop the region’s vast hydrocarbon resources. The NSR also has potential to become a major shipping corridor, halving journey times from China to Europe. Providing ships with rights of passage and escorting icebreakers could help Moscow collect lucrative transit fees.
Concurrently, the region is becoming a major geopolitical flashpoint. In recent years, Russia has dramatically expanded its presence in the far north, where it boasts a slew of new military and air bases. The country’s armed forces have new submarines, aircraft and tanks—all specifically designed for arctic combat. In addition to a forty-strong fleet of icebreakers, Russia is building another eight, including two ice-capable warships armed with cruise missiles. These vessels allow the Russian navy to respond to security threats, facilitate emerging commercial activities and defend its Exclusive Economic Zone claims.