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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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Global warming won’t impact Russian-Chinese shipping

Apr 25

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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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The seas above Russia’s northern coastline are too frozen for shipping, but some have wondered whether global warming might change that in the decades to come. If those seas were to become navigable for commercial shipping, new direct routes between Russia and China could theoretically open up.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan throws more cold water on that idea, and summarizes the reasons why he thinks those routes are unlikely to open up whether or not the ice melts.

Below is an excerpt from Peter’s April 25 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

As the ice begins to melt in the Arctic, will the Russians be able to establish a shipping route to the north? While establishing a northern sea route is possible, it won’t be the gold mine it’s been made out to be.

There are several factors that make the Russian’s northern sea route impractical: the need for navigational aids, limited search and rescue capabilities, lack of development and population centers along the route, and a high cost per mile given the absence of stops along the way. That’s before we even mention the unreliable military presence in this region and the financial constraints on projects like nuclear-powered icebreakers.

While this idea has some merit, I wouldn’t plan on shipping anything via “Russian Northern Express” anytime soon.

Everybody Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado. Take another entry from the ask Peter forum specifically about Russia’s northern passage. The idea is that if the ice in the Arctic melts, won’t it be possible for the Russians to allow shipping from Europe to China and back on a shorter route that doesn’t have to go through the South China Sea and around India, and through the Middle East and the Suez around Africa and blah, blah, blah, basically a much shorter route, there’d be much cheaper, much safer, and much better from a geopolitical point of view for the Russians, and maybe even the Chinese. Theoretically, there’s something to say about that the travel times, as opposed to going around Africa, if you went around the northern part of Eurasia, would be about a week cheaper. So you’d be having lower operating costs and less fuel required. But there’s a few problems number one, you need aids to navigation, all ships use NATO aids to navigation, so they don’t hit things like reefs, they don’t hit each other. And that requires things that are basically anchored to the seabed. And you can’t do that in the Arctic, because there’s moving sea ice. So step one, you would have to wait until such time as the Arctic is ice free in the winter, not just the summer. So because if you went seasonally in the summer, you could theoretically do that in a lot of places now, but you have no aids. If you’ve got no aids, you need to have some excellent search and rescue capability. Well, here’s another problem. The northern Russian coast is largely unpopulated, and with one exception, there is not a single community that’s on the coast that is connected to the rest of Russia by road or rail everybody has to fly in. That means you’ve got almost no capacity within the Russian state to provide assistance to anyone who gets into trouble. And that’s before you consider that the Russians are basically incompetent when it comes to navies. And their best ships have been sunk or damaged as part of the Ukraine war. So there’s even not much of a military presence except for around, say, archangel and Murmansk in the extreme northwestern section. For the rest of the coast, it’s largely unpopulated, so if anybody gets into trouble, there is no one who can get to you in anything less than several days, probably a couple of weeks.

 

The third problem is that there’s nothing here to develop. So one of the reasons why the routes go, the way they do is that there are population centers along the way, you don’t just have the Egyptians, you’ve got the entire North African coast, you’ve got people in the Persian Gulf, of course, the mega populations of India, and to a lesser degree Southeast Asia. So these routes, you’ve got ships that stop along the way to kind of in transit deliveries, which drops the relative cost of the long haul. That’s how containerization works. These days, ships generally make lots of stops along the way. And each one of those is a profit margin. If there’s no population, there’s no place to stop. Basically, once you get around the southern tip of Norway or out of London, you know, you’re going around the north coast of Norway, which is empty, and then you hit Russia, which is empty, and then there’s more Russia that is empty, and then there’s more Russia that’s empty, you finally get through the Bering Strait, where you get to more Russia and it’s still empty. So the cost might seem cheaper in terms of the amount of fuel that you’re going to burn. But at the end of the day, it’s a more expensive route per mile, because there’s no way to recoup your costs along the way. So the soonest soon as soon as soon as that this might theoretically work is like 2050. That’s the soonest we might have an ice free Arctic in the winter. And that’s kind of a reach that’s using projections that no one’s really agrees on. And by that time, there’s not going to be a China anyway due to demographic collapse. So you know, kudos for the thought the Russians have been pushing this from time to time, but at the end of the day, it’s not gonna work. The only technology that might might might might allow this to speed up as the Russians are big fans of nuclear powered civilian icebreakers. But with the Ukraine war going on, the funding for that project has basically dropped to zero. So no.

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