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The door to the icy Northeast Passage is finally opening – and Russia holds the keys

The long sought route around Eurasia to the North is being opened by Russia

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(bne IntelliNews) – It’s so cold on Russia’s northern coast that in winter the sea freezes into meters-thick sheets of ice. But the Northeast Passage is also the shortest shipping route from Europe to Asia. The alternative is to steam thousands of kilometres south all the way around the horn of Africa or through the Suez canal. After investing heavily in nuclear powered icebreakers, Russia has opened the Northeast Passage to commercial shipping and the volumes of cargo using the route are rising fast.

During the first ten months of 2017, nearly 8mn tons of cargo was shipped via the Northeast Passage, already surpassing last year’s record volume by 8.3%. One of the key port facilities in the Russian Arctic, the port of Murmansk, saw an increase of cargo volume by 60.1% year-on-year, according to the Russian Association of Commercial See Ports.

The amount of cargo shipped along what some call the “Russian Suez Canal” has been growing steadily since 2013, with the last years in particular seeing a surge in freight tonnage. For example, in 2015, the volume of cargo transported along the route surpassed the previous year’s volume by 36%, only to grow by another 33% the following year.

However significant this recent increase might appear to be, it is still far below the alternative route’s full potential. The Northeast Passage has been in use since the early days of the Soviet Union, originally intended to be used as a blockade-free exit route during World War 1. Its utilization peaked in the late 1980s, when the annual cargo volume reached 6.5mn tons, only to see a significant slowdown in 1990s.

The Soviet record was already beaten last year, which saw the total amount of 7.3mn tons of cargo shipped along the Northeast Passage. But even last year’s number represents a fraction of what the full potential of the icy northern route might be. According to Vyacheslav Ruksha, the head of Atomflot, the Russian company and service base that maintains the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, the figure will eventually increase ten-fold. The plan is to reach 40mn tons of cargo by 2024 and double that number by 2029.

The new route is in keeping with the Kremlin’s “pivot to the east” where Russia puts more emphasis on building up trade with China and SE Asia and lets trade with Europe atrophy. Russo-China trade is on course to hit $80bn this year and is planned to reach $200bn by 2020, whereas trade with Europe has already fallen by €100bn in three years to €228bn as of the end of 2016.

In order to reach the Northeast Passage’s full potential, Russia has been allocating large amounts of money to the development of its nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. According to some estimates, eight more nuclear-powered icebreakers will have to be built if the Kremlin is to reach its ambitious increases in shipping tonnage volumes goal by 2029.

Currently, Murmansk-based, state-owned Atomflot operates two nuclear icebreakers with twin-nuclear reactors, and two icebreakers with single-reactor nuclear facilities. These icebreakers are used to ensure the security of commercial ships traversing the Northeast Passage.

In addition to the icebreakers already in operation, a total of 14 diesel-powered ships are also currently under construction, all of them are being built at shipyards in the St Petersburg area in the western part of the country.

Atomflot’s Arctic ambitions go far beyond just servicing Russia’s Arctic fleet. Earlier this month, Atomflot’s parent company, Rosatom, drafted a bill that would grant it full control over infrastructure and navigation along the Northeast passage. This would basically give the Russian state nuclear corporation the exclusive right to manage everything to do with Russia’s Arctic region, leading to a consolidation of the country’s Arctic policy.

Moscow sees a chance

The Russian government plans to build a unified transport system that includes the Arctic that would be used as a sort of a national maritime super highway, connecting several different ports along the Northeast Passage to a system of railroads and rivers in the northern parts of Russia, including several important mining settlements such as Norilsk, that are cut off from the “mainland,” as the rest of Russia is known to the locals of these towns. Improved infrastructure would bring the periphery closer to the centre, allowing it to benefit from the economic interaction.

Currently all the supplies, from food to fuel, has to be flown into these towns, vastly increasing the costs, especially for social groups like pensioners, who are trapped in these settlements thanks to their inability to sell their apartments.

Apart from investing in the new generation of icebreakers, the Russian government has pledged to modernize existing Arctic ports and build new ones. One Russian Arctic region that is of particular interest to Moscow, and many other international investors for that matter, is the Yamal region on Russia’s northern coast, which harbours vast reserves of oil and natural gas. In December Russia’s second liquid natural gas (LNG) plant went online that was built by the privately owned Novatek and opens up new Asian markets for LNG tankers steaming east through the Northern Passage. And there are already plans for a second plantw fed by the Yamal gas fields.

There are currently over 200 gas and oil fields in Yamal. Moreover, the region boasts proven hydrocarbon reserves of 44.5 trillion cubic meters of gas and nearly 5bn tons of oil. The first Yamal LNG plant has a output capacity of around 16.5mn tons per year that already almost triples Russia’s LNG production and has made it a major player in the business overnight.

Arctic ice retreats

Russia is taking advantage of the rapid Arctic sea decline that has in recent decades brought new possibilities for Arctic marine navigation. The debate about the potential replacement of the conventional Suez or Panama Canal routes for international shipping between Atlantic and Pacific regions has been motivated by these far-reaching changes.

The Northern Passage shortens the transport distance from northern Europe to northeast Asia and northwest North America by up to 50% relative to the alternative southern routes through the Suez or Panama canals. By extension, it is assumed that the increasing traversability of the Arctic route will naturally lead international freight companies, eager to push down expenditures, to reconsider their shipping lanes choices.

The seemingly irrevocable Arctic sea ice retreat during the last couple of decades has already gravely impacted the Arctic marine transport systems and shelf exploration, and a lots of studies seem to support the claim that this trend will continue in the years to come.

There are multiple variations of climate models, all projecting a slightly different view of what the future will hold. Nevertheless, most of these models are cantered on the proposition that the 21th century will see further decrease of sea ice cover. This doesn’t mean ships that are not accompanied by cie-breakers will be able to use the route any time soon, but open water conditions will prevail longer making the route easier and cheaper to traverse.

For example, in his recent paper, Vyacheslav Khon from the Institute of Geosciences at Kiel University calculated accessibility along the whole route for each day of the year. According to the models he selected for his study, the ice-free Northern Passage transit navigation period will grow from 3.5 to 6.5 months per year, but only by the end of this century.

Moreover, even if the Arctic ice continues to melt, there will still be several risks that could prevent many international freight companies from abandoning the Suez option. Multiple studies of the Arctic warn about high risks due to waves and accompanying storm surges and coastal erosions. And that is not to mention the icebergs that will pepper the northern seas. Most of these natural problems forces are expected to be particularly prevalent in the Northern Passage.

In any case, all debates about the presumed threat that the Suez Canal Authority could potentially face by the advent of the opening up of an alternative northern route are still rather premature. The numbers speak for themselves: if the 2016 throughput of the Suez Canal was 819mn tons of cargo, the corresponding figure for the Northern Passage 7.3mn tons – a hundred times smaller.

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Constantinople: Ukrainian Church leader is now uncanonical

October 12 letter proclaims Metropolitan Onuphry as uncanonical and tries to strong-arm him into acquiescing through bribery and force.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The pressure in Ukraine kept ratcheting up over the last few days, with a big revelation today that Patriarch Bartholomew now considers Metropolitan Onuphy “uncanonical.” This news was published on 6 December by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (running under the Moscow Patriarchate).

This assessment marks a complete 180-degree turn by the leader of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it further embitters the split that has developed to quite a major row between this church’s leadership and the Moscow Patriarchate.

OrthoChristian reported this today (we have added emphasis):

A letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine was published yesterday by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in which the Patriarch informed the Metropolitan that his title and position is, in fact, uncanonical.

This assertion represents a negation of the position held by Pat. Bartholomew himself until April of this year, when the latest stage in the Ukrainian crisis began…

The same letter was independently published by the Greek news agency Romfea today as well.

It is dated October 12, meaning it was written just one day after Constantinople made its historic decision to rehabilitate the Ukrainian schismatics and rescind the 1686 document whereby the Kiev Metropolitanate was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby, in Constantinople’s view, taking full control of Ukraine.

In the letter, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that after the council, currently scheduled for December 15, he will no longer be able to carry his current title of “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.”

The Patriarch immediately opens his letter with Constantinople’s newly-developed historical claim about the jurisdictional alignment of Kiev: “You know from history and from indisputable archival documents that the holy Metropolitanate of Kiev has always belonged to the jurisdiction of the Mother Church of Constantinople…”

Constantinople has done an about-face on its position regarding Ukraine in recent months, given that it had previously always recognized the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as the sole canonical primate in Ukraine.

…The bulk of the Patriarch’s letter is a rehash of Constantinople’s historical and canonical arguments, which have already been laid out and discussed elsewhere. (See also here and here). Pat. Bartholomew also writes that Constantinople stepped into the Ukrainian ecclesiastical sphere as the Russian Church had not managed to overcome the schisms that have persisted for 30 years.

It should be noted that the schisms began and have persisted precisely as anti-Russian movements and thus the relevant groups refused to accept union with the Russian Church.

Continuing, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that his position and title are uncanonical:

Addressing you as ‘Your Eminence the Metropolitan of Kiev’ as a form of economia [indulgence/condescension—OC] and mercy, we inform you that after the elections for the primate of the Ukrainian Church by a body that will consist of clergy and laity, you will not be able ecclesiologically and canonically to bear the title of Metropolitan of Kiev, which, in any case, you now bear in violation of the described conditions of the official documents of 1686.

He also entreats Met. Onuphry to “promptly and in a spirit of harmony and unity” participate, with the other hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in the founding council of the new Ukrainian church that Constantinople is planning to create, and in the election of its primate.

The Constantinople head also writes that he “allows” Met. Onuphry to be a candidate for the position of primate.

He further implores Met. Onuphry and the UOC hierarchy to communicate with Philaret Denisenko, the former Metropolitan of Kiev, and Makary Maletich, the heads of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” and the schismatic “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” respectively—both of which have been subsumed into Constantinople—but whose canonical condemnations remain in force for the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The hierarchs of the Serbian and Polish Churches have also officially rejected the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian schismatics.

Pat. Bartholomew concludes expressing his confidence that Met. Onuphry will decide to heal the schism through the creation of a new church in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Onuphry’s leadership is recognized as the sole canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine by just about every other canonical Orthodox Jurisdiction besides Constantinople. Even NATO member Albania, whose expressed reaction was “both sides are wrong for recent actions” still does not accept the canonicity of the “restored hierarchs.”

In fact, about the only people in this dispute that seem to be in support of the “restored” hierarchs, Filaret and Makary, are President Poroshenko, Patriarch Bartholomew, Filaret and Makary… and NATO.

While this letter was released to the public eye yesterday, the nearly two months that Metropolitan Onuphry has had to comply with it have not been helped in any way by the actions of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Ukrainian government.

Priests of the Canonical Church in Ukraine awaiting interrogation by the State authorities

For example, in parallel reports released on December 6th, the government is reportedly accusing canonical priests in Ukraine of treason because they are carrying and distributing a brochure entitled (in English): The Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Relations with the State. The Attitude Towards the Conflict in Donbass and to the Church Schism. Questions and Answers.

In a manner that would do any American liberal proud, these priests are being accused of inciting religious hatred, though really all they are doing is offering an explanation for the situation in Ukraine as it exists.

A further piece also released yesterday notes that the Ukrainian government rehabilitated an old Soviet-style technique of performing “inspections of church artifacts” at the Pochaev Lavra. This move appears to be both intended to intimidate the monastics who are living there now, who are members of the canonical Church, as well as preparation for an expected forcible takeover by the new “united Church” that is under creation. The brotherhood characterized the inspections in this way:

The brotherhood of the Pochaev Lavra previously characterized the state’s actions as communist methods of putting pressure on the monastery and aimed at destroying monasticism.

Commenting on the situation with the Pochaev Lavra, His Eminence Archbishop Clement of Nizhyn and Prilusk, the head of the Ukrainian Church’s Information-Education Department, noted:

This is a formal raiding, because no reserve ever built the Pochaev Lavra, and no Ministry of Culture ever invested a single penny to restoring the Lavra, and the state has done nothing to preserve the Lavra in its modern form. The state destroyed the Lavra, turned it into a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for infectious diseases, and so on—the state has done nothing more. And now it just declares that it all belongs to the state. No one asked the Church, the people that built it. When did the Lavra and the land become state property? They belonged to the Church from time immemorial.

With the massive pressure both geopolitically and ecclesiastically building in Ukraine almost by the day, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.

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Ukrainian leadership is a party of war, and it will continue as long as they’re in power – Putin

“We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

RT

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Via RT…


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has branded the Ukrainian leadership a “party of war” which would continue fueling conflicts while they stay in power, giving the recent Kerch Strait incident as an example.

“When I look at this latest incident in the Black Sea, all what’s happening in Donbass – everything indicates that the current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this situation at all, especially in a peaceful way,” Putin told reporters during a media conference in the aftermath of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This is a party of war and as long as they stay in power, all such tragedies, all this war will go on.

The Kiev authorities are craving war primarily for two reasons – to rip profits from it, and to blame all their own domestic failures on it and actions of some sort of “aggressors.”

“As they say, for one it’s war, for other – it’s mother. That’s reason number one why the Ukrainian government is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Putin stated.

Second, you can always use war to justify your failures in economy, social policy. You can always blame things on an aggressor.

This approach to statecraft by the Ukrainian authorities deeply concerns Russia’s President. “We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been soaring after the incident in the Kerch Strait. Last weekend three Ukrainian Navy ships tried to break through the strait without seeking the proper permission from Russia. Following a tense stand-off and altercation with Russia’s border guard, the vessels were seized and their crews detained over their violation of the country’s border.

While Kiev branded the incident an act of “aggression” on Moscow’s part, Russia believes the whole Kerch affair to be a deliberate “provocation” which allowed Kiev to declare a so-called “partial” martial law ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election.

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When Putin Met Bin Sally

Another G20 handshake for the history books.

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Via Zerohedge


In the annals of handshake photo-ops, we just may have a new winner (much to the delight of oil bulls who are looking at oil treading $50 and contemplating jumping out of the window).

Nothing but sheer joy, delight and friendship…

…but something is missing…

Meanwhile, earlier…

Zoomed in…

And again.

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