Nikolai Korchunov: Russia-China cooperation in the Arctic is of a purely peaceful, non-military nature
Nikolai Korchunov, Russian Foreign Ministry Ambassador at Large for International Cooperation in the Arctic and Senior Arctic Official at the Arctic Council, talked about what the Arctic’s inclusion in NATO’s zone of interests implies, how much cargo volume on the Northern Sea Route has increased, and whether the melting ice could influence Moscow’s right to exercise the special regulation of navigation in that zone.
Question: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg went on record as saying that Russia and China’s cooperation in the Extreme North was at variance with NATO interests and therefore the Alliance was expanding its presence in the region. What is Moscow’s response to this statement?
Nikolai Korchunov: Russia and China’s interaction in the Arctic is of a purely peaceful, non-military nature. I am primarily referring to interaction in the economy, investment, science and technology, research, and education. Any military alliance’s involvement in other countries’ economic and humanitarian cooperation is a matter of grave concern and creates risks for the region’s sustainable development.
China, an observer state at the Arctic Council, is pro-active in collaborating with other Arctic nations, including the United States, Canada, and Denmark, in trade and the economy. Moreover, the volume of investment cooperation between Beijing and these countries in a number of sectors exceeds the indices of its cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. This once again confirms the untenable nature of the claims made by the NATO Secretary-General.
Beijing, unlike the NATO countries, has traditionally followed a policy of military restraint in the Polar regions. China has not held military exercises in the Arctic region, which we cannot say about the non-Arctic NATO countries like the UK whose military presence in the high latitudes is sometimes provocative and enhances military tensions there. Including the Arctic in NATO’s zone of interests will only complicate the military-political situation in the region, enhance the propensity for conflict, and create serious challenges for other countries, including Russia, in the high latitudes.
Russia is well below the United States and NATO as a whole in terms of military facilities in the Arctic regions. Moreover, we are only restoring the military infrastructure in the North that was lost after the collapse of the USSR. Russia abides by its commitments to keep the Arctic regions a territory of low military tensions, it displays restraint and does not deploy foreign military contingents in its Arctic zone.
Question: Is Russia planning to take measures to prevent threats to civilian shipping along the Northern Sea Route, which could arise in connection with NATO’s putative activities in the Arctic?
Nikolai Korchunov: I can assure you that the military is taking all the necessary measures that take into account increased NATO activity in the Arctic in recent years and that make it possible to prevent threats to civilian shipping in the Northern Sea Route area.
Question: What is Russia’s attitude toward the US initiative to establish the position of Ambassador at Large for the Arctic to promote its interests in the region? Will Moscow cultivate relations with this ambassador?
Nikolai Korchunov: I will refrain from assessing Washington’s decision to have an ambassador at large for the Arctic. Obviously this is evidence of the Arctic region’s importance in the context of US foreign policy.
For our part, we are open to constructive contact with all Arctic countries, including the United States, in the interests of maintaining a low level of military-political tensions and ensuring sustainable development in the Arctic region.
Question: According to a draft law submitted to the State Duma, foreign warships will be required to notify Moscow via diplomatic channels 90 days prior to the presumed date of passage on the Northern Sea Route. Does the Russian Foreign Ministry believe that this initiative has prospects?
Nikolai Korchunov: I think it is premature to offer any comment while this draft law is still being considered.
Question: Is there an understanding as to when a Main Directorate for the Northern Sea Route will be established to organise traffic along this route?
Nikolai Korchunov: The Government of Russia has approved plans to establish the Main Directorate for the Northern Sea Route. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin broke the news on August 1, 2022. Currently, this directorate is in the process of being organized. The founder is the Rosatom Corporation, which should be addressed on details with respect to concrete timeframes and other things.
Question: How has this year’s freight volume on the Northern Sea Route increased in terms of percentage? Is Russia negotiating new projects with foreign businesses, specifically the effort to create a transit system for container shipping on the Northern Sea Route? Is there an increase in the share of foreign companies making more frequent use of the Northern Sea Route after the changes in traditional logistics chains thanks to the West’s sanctions?
Nikolai Korchunov: The trend of increasing freight volume on the Northern Sea Route has continued for several years now. In 2021, it reached a record high, over 33.5 million tons. During the first six months of 2022, over 22 million tons were transported, with the necessary measures being taken to further increase these volumes.
Many more states are interested in cooperating with Russia to develop the Northern Sea Route. This interaction plays a significant role in the context of efforts to ensure the steady functioning of the entire world economy. There is no need to prove the importance of diversifying maritime routes. This was clear from, among other things, the March 2021 incident, where a container ship, the Ever Given, blocked the Suez Canal for several days, causing a collapse in maritime shipping.
Let me note that while developing the Northern Sea Route and Arctic shipping in general, the Russian Federation remains open to cooperation with all countries who constructively approach interaction with this country, including extra-regional states.
Question: Can Arctic warming lead to new problems in the Northern Sea Route area? Will the melting ice create a situation where Russia will lose its right to special regulation of navigation in the NRS zone?
Nikolai Korchunov: Climate change, including the decline of the ice cover, is emerging as an everyday reality. As the ice melts, new opportunities for shipping are increasing, which were unavailable before due to low-cost effectiveness and high safety risks. This country’s rights to regulate shipping on the Northern Sea Route are based on a firm international legal foundation. I would like to stress that the ice melting has no effect whatsoever on the Russian Federation’s rights and obligations as the largest Arctic state.
Question: Is Russia continuing to cooperate with the Arctic countries on climate and the environment, given the anti-Russia policies of a number of Western countries? Specifically, are there still prospects for cooperation on lifting submerged radioactive items from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean?
Nikolai Korchunov: In responding to the well-known escapade staged by other Arctic countries in March of this year, the Russian Federation has suspended climate and environmental cooperation. As the current chair of the Arctic Council, Russia is dissatisfied with the situation where there is no action on the decisions of the Arctic Council’s 2021 ministerial session in Reykjavik. This has a negative effect on projects for preserving the fragile Arctic ecosystem, promoting scientific and regional collaboration, and enhancing the wellbeing of residents in the entire Arctic region, including the indigenous peoples in these areas.
As for the lifting of the submerged radioactive objects from the Arctic seafloor, the participation of foreign countries in these projects is not being discussed.