Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury's Blog

India, Russia and the Northern Sea Route

October 5, 2023

India and Russia have recently discussed the possibility of exploring new transport corridors like the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Eastern Maritime Corridor (EMC) between Vladivostok and Chennai. Both sides also agreed that Indian seafarers will be trained on Polar and Arctic waters at the Russian Maritime Training Institute in Vladivostok, which is equipped with simulators.

The meeting was held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in the far-Eastern city of Vladivostok. The Indian side was led by Sarbananda Sonowal, Minister of Ports, Shipping & Waterways, while Russia was represented by Alexei Chekunkov, Minister for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic. On the occasion Sonowal said, “India-Russia Joint Maritime Commission to facilitate constructive discussion on various issues regarding development of the NSR was held.” He added that India is keen on collaborating for a partnership on the NSR, recognising the potential it holds for enhanced connectivity and trade.


Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, India

India has a significant stake in the Arctic and, more specifically, in trade through the NSR. It is one of the thirteen nations holding Observer status in the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic.

India’s engagement is premised on the fact that all human activity should be sustainable, responsible, transparent, and based on respect for international laws. In 2022, India released an Arctic policy titled ‘India and the Arctic: building a partnership for sustainable development’. This policy is based on six pillars, including strengthening India’s scientific research and cooperation, climate and environmental protection, economic and human development, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building in the Arctic region. India’s Arctic Policy underscores adherence to UN Sustainable Development Goals in the region’s economic development.

From a strategic perspective, engagement with Russia as well as other EU countries with a stake in the Arctic makes sense in view of growing international interest, including that shown by China in the Arctic region, which is known to have considerable reserves of natural resources and freshwater.

Sonowal informed his Russian counterpart that India remains committed to maintaining strong ties and fostering strategic cooperation across various sectors. He said the Indian team visited the ports of Vladivostok, Vostochny, Nakhodka and Kozmino in May 2023 with the assistance of Russia, and this had helped them gain “insights” and the collaborations forged during visits to these ports contributed to “understanding of requirements” for the “full-scale operationalisation” of the EMC.

Inviting the Russian side to participate in the forthcoming Global Maritime India Summit 2023 in October, the minister noted that “…proposed workshop in Chennai will discuss the operationalisation of the EMC, and we envision involving pertinent stakeholders who trade and transport commodities such as coking coal, oil, and liquefied natural gas along this corridor”.

Chekunkov said, “Cooperation with the Republic of India is one of the priorities of the international activities of our Ministry; we intend to develop relations with Indian partners in the Far East in all areas of mutual interest.” He referred to the potential cargo base for the alternate routes will be coking coal, oil, LNG and fertilizers which are present in sufficient quantities in the Far East.

Considering the specialization of the Far Eastern ports, the project should be implemented with an expanded geographical scope, including other regions in addition to Primorye, primarily the Khabarovsk Territory, Chekunkov added.

Recent reports indicate that the melting of Arctic ice has revealed new shipping avenues along Russia’s northern coast, leading to a significant increase in Indian cargo in the region. Chekunkov added that the Russian delegation is prepared to visit Chennai in October 2023 to develop mutually beneficial solutions for initiating these shipping routes. Chekunkov said that the NSR is not just a Russian transport project but added that “its development can benefit both Russia and non-regional states. For India, it represents an opportunity to increase sales of shipbuilding products and participate in the logistics business in northern latitudes.”

India’s engagement with the Arctic can be traced to the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920 in Paris. Since then, the country has been engaged in several scientific and research activities in the region. However, more recently, India has engaged with Russia to participate in the NSR, which has recently witnessed an increase in cargo traffic. Reports suggest that India got 35% of the eight million tonnes handled at Murmansk Port in the first seven months of 2023. India’s interest in the NSR stems from the fact that it is the shortest shipping route for freight transportation between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, with a 2011 paper assessing that distance savings along the NSR could be as high as 50% compared to the current routes via the Suez or Panama.

Significantly, the growth in cargo traffic along the NSR has been on the rise and during 2018-2022, the growth rate was around 73%. The volume of cargo traffic last year was 34.117 million tonnes. As there has been an uptake in India’s imports of crude oil and coal from Russia recently, the NSR gains greater salience as a supply route. The NSR is also important as India’s geographical location gives it the advantage of using sea transportation on both sides of its seaboard.

One aspect of the bilateral maritime cooperation between India and Russia is revival of the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (CVMC) project. This project is the outcome of a MoU signed between the two countries in September 2019. The CVMC is 10,500 km long and will bring down transport time to 12 days, almost a third of what is taken under the St. Petersburg-Mumbai route of 16,000 km.

Chennai Port Trust had commissioned a study which revealed the coking coal, crude oil, LNG and fertilisers are some of the cargos that can be imported from Russia through this route. India’s burgeoning involvement in the Arctic, underscored by its significant role in the NSR’s cargo traffic, exemplifies a strategic pursuit to diversify energy resources and trade corridors. As India forges new partnerships with Russia and navigates the challenge of a changing Arctic landscape, it’s role in shaping the future of Arctic trade could well be enhanced in the coming decade.

Author: Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury is Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Economic Times, India. An earlier version of the above article had appeared in The Economic Times.

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