The Northern Sea Passage Between Europe and Asia – Russia’s Developing Arctic Ports

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CDE Op-Ed Commentary

As global warming becomes a reality, inevitable implications for the opening up of the Russian Arctic are beginning to take shape. There are eight Arctic nations, all members of the Arctic Council and including Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom are all observer nations. Of these, Russia’s coastline onto the Arctic Ocean is the second longest, after Canada, and the only one that covers territory that reaches into Europe and Asia at its western and eastern points, respectively. For this reason, the development of the Northern Passage, long practically ice bound, and unfeasible for navigation, is now becoming reality.

Russia has developed a series of port facilities over many years along this route, stretching from the northwest at Kandalaksha near the border with Finland, Severomorsk, a closed city and home to Russia’s Northern Fleet,  Murmansk, the Port of Arkhangelsk, Vitino, Naryan-Mar, Belomorsk, Dikson, and Dudinka on the Yenesei River Gulf, Igarka, Tiksi, and Pevek, the northernmost town in both Russia and Asia. From Pevek, the Russian land mass heads south, through the Bering Straits and wraps around northern China until reaching Vladivostok.

Related: Russia To Issue Eight Day Electronic Visas For Vladivostok

Of these, several are relatively small, and support local fishing industries, but Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok are significant players. The Northern Passage also holds the attention of China, keen to use it to both gain access to Russian oil and gas fields throughout Siberia and believed to exist within the Arctic Ocean itself, and to gain trade access to both Russia, and Northern Europe.

Russia’s Arctic boundary is 24,140 km long and its closest point to the North Pole is Cape Fligely Rudolf Island, 911 km from the Pole. There is, however, the potential for conflict with the US over the Northern Passage, as Russia claims this as within its territory, a claim contested by the US, which considers it an international route despite it not having ever been viable. It also remains to be seen what actions the US could take along Russia’s own Arctic coastline.

Arctic security, potential shipping routes and energy resources are all areas of interest for Moscow and Beijing. Gas and oil reserves would be a valuable political tool for Russia in the European energy market, with an estimated billion barrels of oil in the Trebs and Titov deposits alone. Russia is also working towards developing its oil and natural gas reserves, of which 70 percent are within its continental shelf.



Arkhangelsk Port sends and receives lumber, pulp, coal, machinery, metals, industrial and consumer goods, and is the operating base of the Northern Company, performing the maritime transport of the White, Barents and Kara seas, the Northern Passage and overseas lines. There are regular passenger liners from Arkhangelsk to MurmanskDiksonOnegaMezenKandalaksha and Novaya Zemlya.

The Port itself has three cargo areas, a container terminal, and a passenger shipping company terminal. The total wharfage is 3.3 km, with berthing suitable for vessels with a draft of 9.2m and a length of 175–200 m. It also has 292,000 m² of warehousing facilities and a 2000m² Bonded Warehouse facility. It can handle 5,762 TEUs at the same time, including up to 200 reefer containers and 2,200 containers with dangerous goods. Bandwidth container terminal 75,000 TEUs per annum.

Related: China’s Arctic Passage Ambitions Grow With Arkhangelsk Port Development 


Murmansk port ranks fourth in Russia in terms of processed goods and is the second largest in the northwest of Russia, after St. Petersburg. Murmansk is one of the largest ice-free ports in Russia, has 13 berths and is equipped with the modern handling facilities: 52 gantry cranes with the capacity up to 40tn, one shiploader for handling of apatite concentrate with the capacity more than 1000 th tn/hour, 113 units of fork trucks with the capacity from 1.5 to 32 tonnes. The entire city is classified as a Free Trade Zone and it is Murmansk that is expected to develop as a major hub for the Northern Passage. Current cargo turnover is about 16 million tonnes with this set to double by 2025.


Vladivostok is very close to Russia’s border with both China and North Korea, and is Russia’s main Port opening onto the Pacific Ocean. It is also linked directly to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian railway. It is a Free Port, with low tax incentives for investors (instead of CIT at the usual 20 percent, the Vladivostok CIT rate is 5 percent for the first 5 years, then 12 percent during for the next 5 years), and has been heavily invested in by China’s Fesco. It is an increasing center for auto production, as well as containing several casinos, while the Port has all the expected services in place, and has a 200,000 TEU capacity per annum.

Northwest Arctic coastline: operational for regular shipping by 2025

The Russian Regional Governor for Arkhangelsk Oblast Igor Orlov has stated that Russia’s northwest Arctic coastline will be operational and handling regular shipping by 2025. Chinese investment is already going into Arkhangelsk and Murmansk to further develop the existing facilities. Both are expected to be among the worlds top 50 ports in terms of overall capacity, with them equally capable of handling 30 million tonnes per annum. The involvement of the Chinese is especially interesting as the Chinese are currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Should this happen, bilateral trade between China and Russia, as well as the other members of the EAEU will massively increase. If so, then the capabilities of the Russian Sea Ports from northwestern Europe to the Russian Far East will see a dynamic shift in how Eurasian shipping is serviced and handled. Shipping, warehousing, and logistics companies in both Europe and Asia will need to start thinking about developing a strategy for the Northern Passage – that 2025 operational goal is only seven years away.


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