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Arctic Yearbook 2012
Shipping and Resources in the Arctic Ocean
Unofficial Functional Definitions of the NSR
The official Russian definition operates with fixed geographical endpoints in the east-west direction
– the Bering Strait in the east and the Novaya Zemlya in the west. Functional definitions also have
geographical endpoints, but there are requirements as to what should characterize these ends. A sea
route, in the functional tradition, is a trading link between towns and cities – between ports with
loading, service and reception facilities, transport networks, sizeable populations, etc. Neither the
Bering Strait nor Novaya Zemlja meets any of these criteria. Those are desolate, environmentally
hostile places with no populations and capabilities to take part in trading – not even small-scale
trading. As a secluded part of the NEP, the NSR has no meaning in large-scale trading other than
securing Russia gateway-control over the main part of the NEP.
As has been pointed out: “If Vladivostok is the functional Russian eastern end point of the NSR,
then the neighbouring countries of Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China can easily become
functional end points as well” (Simonsen, 1996: 6). Given the fact that the Barents Euro Arctic
Region (BEAR), comprising the eleven northernmost counties of Russia, Norway, Sweden and
Finland, used to host a Working Group for the NSR, the southernmost boundary of the route can be
claimed to coincide with the Norwegian BEAR county of Nordland on the Atlantic (Østreng, 1999:
169-174). In functional terms, the NSR can be said to stretch from the ice-free portions of the North
Pacific to Norway’s Nordland County on the Atlantic. In this definition it is more appropriate and
even accurate to use the term the Northeast Passage rather than the geographically confined term of
the Northern Sea Route.
The Definition and Legal/Political Sensitivity of the NSR
Formally, Russia opened the NSR to international shipping on 1 July 1991 on the premise that the
users would comply with coastal state regulations. Since the archipelagos of the NSR are legislated to
become internal waters, Russia claims the same sovereignty over these parts of the route as over her
land territory. This stand provides Russian authorities with an unlimited regulatory power over the
NSR, which is challenged both by the United States and the European Union (EU). Their position is
that the NSR is an
international strait
open to international shipping on the condition of
transit passage
as defined in
Law of the Sea Convention of 1982
(UNCLOS). On the part of the USA the “…ability to
exercise these rights (freedom of navigation)” in the region concerns her ability to exercise the same
rights “…throughout the world, including through strategic straits” (US Presidential Directive, 2009).