PORT SERIES: MURMANSK

The world's first Arctic-kitted container ship is slated to reach St. Petersburg any day now, signaling better days ahead for Russia's northernmost port of Murmansk.

A general view shows the city of Murmansk, the Barents Sea port in the Arctic Circle, Russia August 3, 2017. Picture taken August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin


Though talk of an Arctic trade route has excited Russophile geostrategists as much as it's terrified environmental activists for years now, only in late August did the world's first Arctic-equipped container ship set out to cross what Russians somewhat stoically call the Northern Sea Route.

Departing from Russia's far east port of Vladivostok en route for St. Petersburg, the estimated month-long Arctic voyage is being undertaken by the Venta Maersk, a brand new ice class vessel built by Danish shipping giant Maersk, the world's largest shipping company since 1996.

One of the world's largest ice class ships, the Venta was first loaded with Russian fish before stocking up on electronics in Busan, South Korea and rounding the Bering Strait around September 1. A one-off trip for now, Maersk told Reuters it will also collect scientific data.

The inaugural Arctic voyage is nothing if not a symbolic coup for Moscow.

Eager to tote the newfound significance of its Northern Sea Route, Russia has (momentary) reason to celebrate the hellish summer that befell much of the northern hemisphere this year and helped bring Arctic ice levels to the lowest point in recorded history.

For trade heading from northeast Asia to Europe, the Arctic corridor is significantly shorter than passing through Suez. The catch? It is accessible at its widest point for just three months a year, with peak ice accruing in March, and receding in September.

More than murmurs

Though Maersk told Reuters it does not intend to use the Northern Sea Route as “an alternative to our usual routes," the journey could be great news for Russia's northernmost port of Murmansk.

The chief port and departure point for Russia's Northern Sea Route, Murmansk has had nothing if not a colorful past.

The last city founded during the Czarist era, the Barents Sea railway settlement of Romanov-on-Murman, as it was first known, had barely existed for a year before it was occupied by Admiral Thomas Kemp's British North Russia Squadron in 1917.

First occupied to protect Allied stockpiles and convince the Russian Empire to remain in the First World War, the British were later joined by American and White Russian forces in occupying the city for most of the ensuing Russian Civil War.

Long the largest human settlement north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk retained a critical role throughout the Cold War as the only Soviet military outpost to border NATO. But 107km from the Norwegian border, it has housed the Northern Fleet since 1933.

At its peak in 1989, Russia's Arctic sea region boasted a population of 1.16 million brave souls working a variety of well-paid jobs in fishing, defense, and mining. Its workforce alone was 743,000 that year, the equivalent of the region's total population (753,000) today, according to Rosstat, the national statistics agency.

Nor has the post-Cold War decline of Murmansk been kind.

Akin to its sister cities in the American Rust Belt, the city has shed 36% of its population since 1989, shriveling from nearly 470,000 people in 1989 to just under 300,000 in 2015.

The impetus for the city's demographic crisis is part regional and part national. Since the mid-1980s, Russia's birthrate has plummeted from 2.4 births/woman to barely 1.62 (the replacement rate being around 2.1).

With 5 million fewer people today (144m) than in 1989 (149m), Russia's population is roughly the same today as it was in 1986. Compare this with the US, whose population has grown by 85 million since that year, from 240 million to 325 million, or with tiny Bangladesh, which sprouted from 94 million to 147 million during that same period.

From a regional perspective, Murmansk's reliance on mining and heavy industry was hit hard by the market reforms of the 1990s, a period that was accompanied by low commodity prices. Both of these led to huge net outflows of the labor force.

Though commodity prices picked up in the 2000s, these were not accompanied by the requisite infrastructural investments needed to spur on economic growth.

Ceci est quand même une pipe

The long-term challenges notwithstanding, industrial giants such as Novatek, Russia's largest natural gas producer, are still pushing through with major works in Murmansk.

Having broken ground in August 2017, Novatek is fast at work on a massive new LNG platform at Belokamenka, a few miles upstream from the city of Murmansk. Slated for completion by 2023, it will be the firm's largest processing plant in the Arctic and help Novatek boost its annual production to more than 34 million tons once completed.

For a country growing more economically dependent on extractive industries by the year—an increasing proportion of which are in the Arctic—the fate of Murmansk may once again be in the ascendant.

Having already moved three million tons of rock and soil for the plant, the project's deputy director of the LNG projects department, Norwegian industry veteran Bjørn Gundersen, told The Barents Observer in January that Murmansk was fast becoming the “biggest oil and gas development area in the world."

And that's hardly all. Novatek's colossal USD25 billion Arctic LNG 2 project in the Gydan Peninsula of northwestern Siberia, a project in which France's Total has a 10% stake, will also have a major impact on the city.

Slated to consist of three LNG trains that will each handle 6.6 million tons per annum, or 535,000 barrels of oil per day, Arctic LNG 2 will make use of gravity-based structures (GBS) that can be towed to the shallow Arctic waters and used as production platforms.

Each of these will be built in Murmansk.

Wrangel out of this one

Whether or not the opening of the Northern Sea Route takes decades or merely years to materialize, Murmansk is getting a more immediate injection of cash, labor, and political permanence through Russian efforts to bolster their Arctic military presence.

As the country's next great frontier for resource extraction, it was not going to be long before the boots followed the pickaxes.

Since 2014, when Putin announced the creation of the Northern Joint Strategic Command, a Murmansk-based command center to coordinate all Russian military units in the Arctic theater, the country's military presence in the region has ballooned.

With plans to reestablish 13 Soviet-era air bases and ten radar stations and establish air, surface, and underwater monitoring systems across the Arctic, Moscow is not simply refitting old bases but building a network of entirely new ones.

Apart from the Arctic Trefoil base on the barren ice rocks of Franz Josef Land, a remote series of islands stranded at the northernmost tip of Arkhangelsk oblast in the middle of the Barents Sea, the Murmansk-based Northern Joint Strategic Command is also establishing bases at Rogachevo, Cape Schmidt, Wrangel, and Sredniy.

Apart from deploying anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense forces, Moscow also has plans to open 20 border outposts and ten emergency rescue centers across the Arctic, each of which will report to the Northern Joint Strategic Command.

The Finns and Norwegians have already established diplomatic missions in Murmansk. It mightn't be long before the US follows suit.