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V. Petrovsky: Bering Strait Project - Russian Perspective Update


Dr. Vladimir Petrovsky

Chief Researcher and Academic Secretary for Public and Media Relations, Institute of Far Eastern Studies (IFES), Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Member, Russian Academy of Military Sciences, Member, Council on International Cooperation, Russian Political Science Association (RPSA), Professor, Chair of Global Politics, Higher School of Economics

This paper updates the Preliminary Report, submitted by the author earlier within the Project framework[1], and provides more information and argumentation related to the Project background and recent developments on the Russian sides, and also gives proposals on the Project sustainable development in the future. Related recommendations are given at the end of each chapter, as featured below.

Considering the Russian Project Rationale

The Russian Project rationale has been designed and consistently promoted by Russia's Council for the Study of Productive Forces (SOPS), a joint institution of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Ministry of Economic Development. SOPS is the successor organization of Academician Vladimir Vernadsky's Commission for Natural Productive Forces (KEPS), and was headed (until his death in August 2010) by Academician Alexander Granberg, Russia's leading specialist on integrated economic development programs for Russia's regions, particularly in Siberia and the Far East.

The research on the Bering Strait Project was also supported by administrations of Northern and Eastern regions of Russia, a number of the Russian government agencies (the Ministries of Railway, Fuel and Energy, Northern Development, Economic Development, Transportation, Construction development, etc.), as well as by the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian Academy of Engineering, and other research and project development institutions.

In 1990s SOPS headed by Alexander Granberg was working on the economic and technical justification of the Project, which included international air reconnaissance of the proposed railway tunnel route made by the aircraft laboratory of the Yuri Gagarin Space Center. SOPS was coordinating related activities of other research and development institutions, such as MOSGIPROTRANS, NIIOSP, Tunnel Association of Russia, Hydroproject, Moscow State University of Geodesy and Cartography, etc. By joint effort, they have undertaken preliminary research on mapping the proposed route, specifying geo-technical information, developing the fuel and energy concepts of the project, etc.

The Russian Project economic survey was jointly conducted by SOPS, the Institute for Transportation Project Development (GIPROTRANS), the Center of Complex Transport Problem Research, the Institute of System Analysis, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the Institute of Economic and Industrial Studies, RAS Siberian Branch, etc.

Arguments in support of the project proposed by Viktor Razbegin (deputy director, now acting director of SOPS) and by other project proponents could be summarized as follows:

  • Cargo flow within the triangle of Europe-North America-East Asia will increase substantially by 2030. The project will become economically sustainable if at least 15% of this cargo flow will be delivered by land (railways), not by sea. Land vs. sea transportation is better for container delivery, which is in big demand currently.
  • The geological conditions for the Bering Strait tunnel are rather good. The Bering Strait was a land connector in the past, and it came under water after the deflection of the tectonic plates. A flat bottom, rather shallow waters (up to 40 meters deep), two islands in between, the absence of seismic activity - all this makes the project technically feasible.
  • The proposed connection of Russian and North American energy systems via the Bering Strait transportation link could save 3%-5% of energy consumption, which is consumes several billion US dollars annually. Besides that, the project would allow linkage and thus increase the productivity of tidal electric power plants on both sides of the Bering Strait.
  • The project will boost technical innovation, as it will require totally new technologies for planning, project development, construction, the development of the adjacent territories, etc.

Russian academics and technical experts claim that the biggest advantage of land transportation over sea transportation is that it facilitates the development of the related territories. Railway connection would substantially increase the efficiency of natural resources development. New transport infrastructure will provide access to the vast resources of the North-Eastern regions of Russia. At an international conference sponsored by the Schiller Institute in Germany, Dr. Sergei Cherkasov presented his concept of Russian Infrastructure Corridors (see Map 1). These infrastructure corridors notably include the Bering Strait connection.

Map 1 Infrastructure Corridors in Russia

“To secure the success of such a transport infrastructure corridor, we have, first of all, to analyze how the existing resources are distributed along the route of this corridor. Also, we have to try—it is not very easy, but such work is being done by the United States Geological Survey, and some work has been done by the Russian Geological Survey—to evaluate the distribution of undiscovered mineral resources. Because not all the areas have been studied in great detail, there is still a lot to be found”[2].

Map 2. Trans-Continental Fuel Energy Route, as part of the global transportation system

Russian scholars and experts frame the Project within the ‘geo-strategic triangle’ of the European Union, NAFTA zone, and the Asia Pacific. The Bering Strait thus connects two global centers of economic and financial power (see Table 1).

Table 1. Estimated railway cargo delivery between Europe, North America and East Asia, million tons per year[4].





North America - Europe

30 – 47

62 – 92

42 – 140

Europe – East Asia

30 – 36

46 – 70

32 – 105

North America – East Asia

37 – 44

58 – 88

40 – 133

A single Project Operator is to be created, which will eventually become a contractor for all work to de done within the Project framework. To raise necessary funds, a Project Operator will have to post an IPO. Probably would offer low-interest long-term credit for such a project. This would allow preparations for the Project Operator to incorporate without necesseriraly involving strategic investors.

As soon as the project to construct a 180-km undersea tunnel linking the Republic of Korea and Japan is publicly announced, Russian experts claim that a 90-100 km Bering Strait tunnel would appear even more feasible, especially in view of the fact that the latter would be much simpler to build in terms of its depth and seismic safety.

Russian experts also consider that the proposed trans-continental railway route would cut in fourth the distance between North America and the geostrategic ‘triangle’ of the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and South Asia (see Map 2). If the trans-Korea railway link is restored and it is connected to the Trans-Siberia Railway Line in parallel with the Bering Strait project development, it would help to make the project financially self-sufficient.


The key arguments in support of the project, as mentioned above, should be summarized and published as a brochure and/or factsheet, to make it easier to win the public support for the project. To further elaborate on these arguments, an academic conference (e.g., in memory of Alexander Granberg’s contribution to the project), involving SOPS and its partner organizations in Russia, as also mentioned above, should be arranged.

Concentrating on the Railway Connections

However, to deal with the positive arguments about the project’s results is not enough. As the absence of railway connections to the proposed tunnel is the biggest problem, the issues related to this connection should be addressed in much more detail.

Map 3. Railway Routes

At present people at all levels of Russian authorities are well aware of the necessity of transport infrastructure to develop the economy of the remote Russian regions. In March 2007, Prime Minister of Russia Mikhail Fradkov, within the framework of the Federal program “On the Development of the Far Eastern and Trans-Baikal Regions,” authorized the building of a railway to connect Berkakit, Tommot, Yakutsk, and Magadan. Following that, in April 2007 President Vladimir Putin approved the Russian Railway Strategy system development up to the year 2030. The Strategy provides for building of the 3500–km long trans-continental railway Lena – Zyryanka – Uelen with a connection to the Bering Strait, which is an essential element of the ICL - World Link project in Russia.[5]

The Russian Railway Strategy explicitly mentions “Transport services for the complex development of Siberia and the Far East and mining of new natural resources deposits, including:

  • Building of new railways and highways to increase cargo delivery capacities from the North-Eastern regions of the Russian Federation;
  • Implementation of the key projects of the development of the related regions of Russia, including upgrade of the Baikal-Amur Railway, building the Berkakit-Tommot-Yakutsk Railway, etc.”[6]

These railway routes were mapped for the first time in the 1930s and 1940s, in an attempt to access the vast mineral resources of Yakutia. The first project of this kind was drafted in the mid-1940s to supplement the Trans-Siberian Railway and to increase transport accessibility of the remote regions. It was planned to extend the Salekhard-Nadym Railway to Uelen (on the Bering Strait coast of Chukotka), with sidelines to Yakutsk and Magadan, in 1950-54. It was also planned to build a sideline railway connection from Yakutsk to the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Amur region[7].

Special Russian literature on railway and tunnel building gives evidence of such attempts conducted later in the Soviet period. For example, a unique research monograph on ‘Underground Space Usage,’ published in 2005 in Donetsk (the capital of Russia’s coal mining industry) tells about the history of underground space usage, its role in the construction of underground tunnels, and the creation of a unified global railway road system connecting continents. A complex of questions such as the creation of new generation underground structures in the 21st century and the application of perspective technologies in underground structure construction are covered in the book based on factual Russian and foreign materials. Hydro-geological construction conditions and ecological economic ground for underground space usage are presented.

The abovementioned book Underground Space Usage, says that in 1985 the report of a special economic and technical survey on the Bering Strait tunnel, ordered by the Soviet Ministry of Construction Industry (GOSSTROI), was prepared by the group of Soviet experts. This report is quoted in the book with the conclusion that the overall conditions for tunnel building are favorable, since at least 75% of the 113-km tunnel could be bored through solid rocks with less water inside.

The volume layout of the tunnel was presented in the survey report of 1985 in two options: a single-gauge transportation tunnel and service tunnel, or a two-gauge transportation tunnel and service tunnel. The tunnel volume was estimated according Soviet railway and rail track standards (which differ notably from European and Japanese standards), keeping in mind that the route would be primarily used for cargo, not passenger transportation[8].

Based upon the survey report of 1985, the book Underground Space Usage estimates that, based on the ‘optimistic’ timeframe of tunnel building (15 years), the average speed of boring the service tunnel should be about 500 meters a month through solid rocks, and about 150 meters a month in rocks of weak stability. The average speed of boring the transportation tunnels should be about 310 meters a month, which will make the approximate total cost of the tunnel building $25 billion[9]

The Russian Railways Strategy does not provide any specific dates or timing for the railway connection to the Bering Strait tunnel to be built. However, in his recent interview to the British press, Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin emphasized that it would be feasible within a decade to link the world together by a Bering Strait tunnel between Russia and America.

"Vladimir Yakunin, the president of state-run Russian Railways and Prime Minister Putin's closest confidant, said his ambition was to connect more than half the planet by train." He said American investors had already approached him about boring a 64-mile tunnel under the famous Bering Sea that separates Asia and North America. "With new rail links planned through Alaska and eastern Russia, the tunnel would help enable freight and passenger trains to run from the U.S. to London on uninterrupted tracks.... Yakunin said he had been negotiating with potential partners from around the world to trigger a 'renaissance of railways."[10]


The logic of arguments in support of the Project should be shifted from the promising final results to the specific and routine questions of ‘how to get there,’ keeping in mind that the absence of railway connections to both ends of the proposed tunnel is the biggest problem. The general public and experts in Russia and other related countries should be briefed on the possibility of building all necessary railway connections in a reasonable time and at affordable costs. Direct contacts with Russian railway research centers and engineering companies, as mentioned above, should be established.

Responding to Reasonable Criticism

This recommendation is, in turn, not enough to persuade all those who do not believe in the Bering Strait project. They operate a set of factual information and logic conclusions, which is rather difficult to argue. Their key points include, as follows:

    1. Absence of Experience. The proposed Yakutsk-Uelen railroad provides for two optional routes, which differ in length by about 185 km. The total length of the route is 30% shorter than the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, it all lies the north of 62 degrees latitude, which makes the route extremely difficult in terms of climate and geographic conditions. Russian specialists lack proper experience; only five other railways operate to the north of the 62nd latitude.
    2. Lack of Preparation. As of now, skeptics say, nothing has been done to really start project implementation. The railway is supposed to go through the so-called "Cold Polar Region," where air temperature could reach minus 70 degrees Centigrade, through mountain ridges averaging 2500 meters high in Magadan and 1800 meters high in Chukotka, and also through terrain with permafrost and crossed by many rivers, etc. About 30% of these territories totally lack any kind of roads and settlements. The Magadan and Chukotka regions have rather poor seaport infrastructure. “So the reasonable question is: How do the project authors plan to deliver workforce, hardware, and supply materials to the destination point of the construction sites?” [11] To proceed with the project implementation, one should do at least some of the following: (1) build a whole network of settlements with housing for the workforce, airfields, warehouses, power generators, etc.; (2) provide for the total renovation of the seaports of Magadan, Pevek, and Anadyr, including building new powerful cargo terminals for construction equipment and supply materials; (3) link all of the construction sites with roads of any kind (e.g., winter roads); and (4) set up the initial stock of food, energy, and construction materials along the whole railway construction route.

Haste is the Biggest Enemy of Northern Projects. To build such a railway in Nordic conditions, one needs to very strictly adhere to all technical standards and guidelines. This had never been the case in these regions in the Soviet past. E.g., the Baikal-Amur Railways and other projects of the Stalin era constantly suffered from wrong calculations of supply materials and the deficit of these materials, which could not be delivered in time to the proper place because of the lack of roads and transportation means. To meet the established deadlines, technical standards were frequently abused to provide for ‘temporary solutions’ (steel or cement construction materials replaced with wooden ones, etc.). There is a high probability of the same things happening in case of the Bering Strait project.

    1. Snail’s Pace. To build a rather long railway in a rather short term, one should always do the same: to break the total route into 15-20 segments and to start construction work there simultaneously. Nothing of this kind is going to happen in the case of the Bering Strait project. At least no information is available about schedules of related supply deliveries, etc. While the average speed of construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was about 560 km a year, the average speed of construction of the Amur-Yakutsk Railway (with conditions rather similar to the discussed project) was only 15-12 km a year. Using this projection, it would take 200 years to complete the railway to Uelen.
    2. How to Fight ‘General Moroz.' Russia is the only country in the world with the experience of building and operating railways in northern conditions. But the conditions of the Yakutsk-Uelen Railway are so unique that they do not match this experience. The average air temperature in Yakutia, Magadan, and Chukotka in January is minus 50 degrees Centigrade, with the extreme of minus 72 degrees in the "Cold Polar Region." When air temperature reaches minus 60 degrees Centigrade, steel and other metals become fragile and could fracture. When it is minus 50 degrees Centigrade, the oil in a tank become solid and any other materials (coal, wood, etc.) become blocks of ice. Are the authors of the project aware that they would a need very special steel for the railway gauge, railway cars, and other construction hardware?
    3. What Kind of Cargo to Deliver? The proposed railway would deliver such cargo as oil and oil refinery products, timber, mineral resources, etc., from Russia to the USA and also deliver grain, coal, machinery, and food (and even 1-2 mln tons of radioactive waste a year) from the U.S. to Russia. The problem is that all of these could be delivered cheaper and easier by sea, not by land.
    4. The Speed of Delivery Matters. The average speed of Russian railway traffic is 45-50 km per hour. Assuming that nobody is planning to provide higher speed for the Yakutsk-Uelen route, it would be roughly the same. Even if the Russian Railway Strategy is completely implemented, the average railway traffic speed in Russia would be raised to 60 km per hour by 2030. But this will still be not enough for such a lengthy railway jounrey. Ideally, it would take 240 hours, or 10 days, to cover the 14,408 km from Fort Nelson [in Canada] to Moscow by railway. Considering that the whole trans-continental route is about 20,000 km, trains would would need to travel at least 160 km per hour for railway delivery to compete with air or sea freight – which seems totally unrealistic for Russia.
    5. Shall Eastern Siberia be Colonized? Experts from SOPS and their collaborators promote a colonial model of development for Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. A trans-continental railway is needed to pump resources out of Russia and to bring to Russia foreign goods. So why Russia should invest hundreds of billions of US dollars to make life for Chinese and the US producers easier?”
    6. Ill-Conceived Project. Skeptics and pessimists call the project ‘totally ill-conceived.’ They conclude that the project proponents ignore the real difficulties and talk only about good project results in the future. Even if all necessary preparations were to begin immediately, the construction itself would start no earlier than 2030. With an annual construction speed of 100 km, and following all technical standards and guidelines, the railway to Uelen could be completed by 2070. The completion of a trans-continental railway and the start of its operation would then happen in 2085-2090[13]. 


The project proponents should address these ‘difficult questions’ and not avoid their public and professional discussion. They should elaborate on the specific arguments to counter these accusations in a proper way. It is recommended herein to draft a ‘FAQ of Difficult Questions on the Bering Strait Project’ brochure and/or fact sheet, published in Russian and English, and to distribute it among the public and specialists.

Getting Russian Regions Involved

In November 2005 Russian President Vladimir Putin convened a special conference with the regional leaders to discuss the creation of a joint transportation system that would link the Republic of Yakutia-Sakha, Magadan, and Chukotka (including a Yakutsk-Magadan railway). The leaders of these respective regions expressed their support for these projects and promised to finance all necessary preliminary technical surveys. As a result of this meeting, a special task force on the railway linkage to the Bering Strait was created, which included representatives of the regions of the Russian Far East, Russian federal agencies, and the Russian Railways Company.

This task was supposed to present the concept of building the Yakutsk-Magadan railway. However, the Russian Railways Strategy, which was approved later, did not give any specific details or time frame for this project. The same goes for the Federal program “On the Development of the Far Eastern and Trans-Baikal regions," which substantially increased the budget financing of these regions development but did not suggest any holistic program for their joint development (including joint transportation routes).

However, a review of the recent government documents and press coverage from Russia's Far East regions demonstrates that officials there are indeed planning for the Bering Strait crossing and the related railway connection. Russian regional leaders are eager for the United States to join in the real economic development of the country's northeastern frontier.

The Magadan Region, famous for its gold mines and brutal prison camps in the mid-20th century, is situated on Russia's Pacific Coast, north of Khabarovsk Territory and south of Chukotka, the province which borders on the Bering Strait. The Territorial Planning Scheme for the Magadan Region includes the Bering Strait project as follows: "The Magadan Region Territorial Planning Scheme takes into account the strategy for the development of both the Far East and Russia [as a whole]. It includes, for example, such a 'megaproject' as the Transcontinental Railway BAM - Yakutsk - Uelen [BAM stands for Baikal-Amur Mainline], with a line through the Magadan Region and a tunnel across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

In the long term, completion of this Transcontinental Railway to Alaska will make it possible to diversify the raw-materials orientation of the Magadan Region's economy, with the creation in the city of Magadan of a new, multimodal transportation node, through which freight connecting Canada and the USA with the Pacific nations will pass. This means the railway, first and foremost, but also a role for the Magadan Region in a Transarctic Air Corridor, connecting America, Southeast Asia, and Australia by the shortest routes; and it means the development and rebirth of the importance of the Port of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk.

On December 25, 2009 the local Internet news portal carried a year-end feature on the operations of the Republic Investment Company (RIK) of Yakutia-Sakha Republic, the huge East Siberian region which reaches up to the Arctic Ocean, based on an interview with its director Alexander Fedotov. It reported that the first leg of the planned northern rail line, the segment from the existing BAM up to the city of Yakutsk, is already under construction: "The RIK [this year] spent almost half the funds they invested - 10 billion 535.4 million rubles [about $350 million], to be precise - on a project of strategic importance not for our republic alone: construction of the railroad line Berkakit - Tommot - Yakutsk. Despite the world crisis and other upheavals, the builders have already laid 266 km of track, built 45 railroad bridges, moved [about 29] thousand cubic meters of earth for the roadbed, and cut 2564.6 hectares of right-of-way through the forest."

RIK's total investment in this part of the project will be 14.8 billion rubles out of the 49.4 billion rubles cost of construction. The RIK also financed the design development for the rail bridge across the Lena River. The bridge itself will cost 50 billion rubles and be financed out of the federal program Development of the Russian Transport System.

The article continued, "As is well known, the Strategy for the Social and Economic Development of the Far East and Baikal Region up to 2050 calls for construction of the railroad to continue in the direction of Yakutsk (Nizhny Bestyakh) - Moma - Magadan. ... And then the idea of building an underwater tunnel across the Bering Strait in the not too distant future already seems less fantastical. At a certain point, it will suddenly become clear that our Yakutsk is sitting on the most economically advantageous route from Europe to America. And among those who will have brought this almost unbelievable moment closer, with their labor, the Republic Investment Company will have to be counted."[14]

The invitation to invest in the Far East was clearly stated by a Kremlin representative to the Russian-American Pacific Ocean Partnership (RAPOP) forum, held on Sakhalin Island. The 14th annual RAPOP forum was held September 29-30, 2009, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, capital of the island Sakhalin Region off the Pacific coast of the Russian mainland and north of the Japanese archipelago. Under the headline "Investment Projects in the Far East Can Breathe New Life into Russian-American Relations," a September 30 Federal Press ( wire reported statements made there by Alexander Levintal, Russia's deputy presidential representative to the Far East Federal District, who enunciated the invitation to the United States and American businesses to be part of Russia's economic development of the Far East region and Siberia.

Levintal said this cooperation can achieve a qualitatively new level through the participation of American business and investments in the major investment projects, being implemented under the government strategy for developing the Far East of the Russian Federation. 'Investments of $8 billion annually are going into development of the Far East, but American investments are mere hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not the proper level for cooperation between our countries.' quoted Levintal as saying, this could "breathe new life into the development of Russian-American cooperation in the Far East of the Russian Federation, using the unique opportunity of the restart, declared by the Presidents of the U.S.A. and Russia, with a new content."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also attended the RAPOP meeting of 100 government, business, and academic people from seven western U.S. states and eleven eastern Russian regions. From the U.S. side, Levintal's speech was also heard by Kyle Scott, the director of the Russia Department at the State Department, and a Department of Commerce representative, as well as Thomas Armbruster, the American Consul General in Vladivostok.

In November 2009 Khoroshavin also met with Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin during a visit by the latter to Khabarovsk. A press release from the governor's office said that Yakunin had pledged to support the Sakhalin government in promoting the project of a multimodal bridge or tunnel connection between Sakhalin and the mainland. On December 18, Russian Presidential Representative for the Far East Federal District Victor Ishayev (the former Khabarovsk governor, who, in November of 2000, sponsored a report on the need for government-sponsored infrastructure projects to kick-start the Russian economy) told reporters that he, too, advocated the Sakhalin-mainland tunnel project as "economically beneficial and appropriate."

It looks like at present the regions of the Russian Far East are more interested in the Bering Strait project than the Russian federal agencies. The Russian government decision-making process involves reaching consensus between agencies by any means, even if it means sacrificing the most essential elements of a decision to be made. The top government officials (like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) are always reluctant to take a side in an inter-agency dispute. This means that the more related Russian regions are involved in the decision-making process on the Bering Strait project, the better chances for success are.


To establish direct contacts with the regional governments of Republic Yakutia-Sakha, Magadan, and Chukotka with the aim of preparing special regional conferences on the Bering Strait project. The special task force on the railway linkage to the Bering Strait, as mentioned above, should be also approached by Russian and international experts in an attempt to revive its work with the focus on the Yakutsk-Magadan railway project development.

Lobbying for Canadian Railway Connection

Although the support base for the Bering Strait project is rather solid in Russia and the U.S., in Canada (which is an essential part of the project) it is not established yet, despite numerous efforts made by the American business circles. For more than a hundred years the State of Alaska has  been trying to persuade the Canadian neighbors to build a railway linkage to the mainland US.

The reluctance of the Canadian side can be explained by their perception that the proposed Fairbanks - Fort Nelson railway could damage the environment and lifestyle of Canadian indigenous people in the North.

A special inter-government commission was created to discuss this issue. Finally, after three years of deliberations it gave the final approval for the project in March 2005. The government of Canada agreed to join the building of a 1800-km long Alaska – British Columbia railroad (with the total estimated project cost of $4 billion US).

However, nothing has been done so far. The journal of the Russian Diaspora in Europe Kontinent published the story of a group of Russian engineers and technicians based in Germany who tried to lobby the project through the Canadian Embassy in Germany. They approached the staff of the Department of Science and Technology of the Embassy (Bruno Wiest, Technology Officer, Business Development Officer, Canadian Embassy, Tel. +49-30-203 12 363 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

The Russian engineers explained to the Embassy staff new environment-friendly technologies for building railroads which are less harmful to the nature of the North than traditional highways. They asked the Embassy to send the packages of project documents and explanations to the governments of Yukon, British Columbia, and to then Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (Washington, DC).

The same package, which also included the description of the project of a railroad and a pipeline in a single transportation corridor, was sent to the President of the Canadian Arctic Railway. But as soon as the new technology excluded the possibility of transporting oil to the US Atlantic sea ports by railway tanks, the Company did not respond. The governments of the provinces of Yukon and British Columbia did not show interest in the project either.

The Russian engineers and technicians in Germany conclude, “At present the Fairbanks-Fort Nelson railroad project could be revived only as part of an inter-continental route between Eurasia and America. But convincing arguments of environment-friendly technologies are needed to implement the Canadian part of the project”[15].


A continued and coordinated lobbying effort is needed to persuade the Canadian side to join the Bering Strait project. Embassies and business circles of Canada in the US, Russia, and elsewhere should be approached for this purpose. The project group should facilitate dialogue between the NGOs of indigenous people in the USA, Canada, and Russia (e.g., the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North – RAIPON). A special conference on ‘Canada and the Bering Strait project' should be set up.

Getting China Involved

China may become a serious stakeholder in the Bering Strait project in a foreseeable future. If China weren’t already halfway through the construction of the world’s largest high-speed rail network, it would be difficult to take this proposal seriously. But the most populated country on earth has shown no deficit of skill recently in undertaking massive public works projects, and its ambitions - and willingness to finance them - show no sign of slowing.

The Chinese press report that China is planning a series of transcontinental high-speed rail lines designed to connect London to Beijing in just two days. The proposal, which is mapped out above according to preliminary information about proposed alignments, would likely be the largest infrastructure project ever. Taking the growing Chinese rail network as the starting point, new 200-mph lines would extend south towards Singapore, north and west into Siberia, and west through India, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, with the eventual goal of linking into the growing European high-speed train system.

Exact routes are not yet determined, but the general goal of the plan is to increase the region’s mobility through fast rail networks and to join together the mostly disconnected Asian and European systems. Government officials in China plan to use this project to expand the country’s base of natural resources. Negotiations are already underway with 17 countries, premised on the idea that China would spend its own money building the rail links in exchange for resources it currently lacks. According to Wang Mengshu, a consultant working on the project, We would actually prefer the other countries to pay in natural resources rather than make their own capital investment.[16]

China has certain experience of building undersea tunnels. Major digging finished last year on an undersea tunnel linking the east and west parts of Qingdao, a coastal city in east China’s Shandong province, said local authorities. It is China’s second undersea tunnel, with the first, which was opened to traffic, connecting Xiamen Island and the mainland in southeastern Fujian Province.

Qingdao’s Jiaozhou Bay Undersea Tunnel, running 7.8 kilometers with 3.95 kilometers undersea, linked the urban Tuandao district and Xuejia Island of Huangdao District, said Xue Qingzeng, spokesman for the publicity department of Qingdao City Government.

The construction of the tunnel started in December of 2006. The tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in the first half of 2011 [it opened July 30, 2011], which will help cut travel time from one side of the bay to the other from one hour to ten minutes. The cost of the tunnel is 3.3 billion yuan (about US$485 million)[17].

All these news reports prove the Chinese willingness and ability to join the Bering Strait project. Notably the idea to link Eurasia with North America by a transport tunnel under the Bering Strait won the Grand Prix Award at an innovation projects competition held during the 4th Civilization Forum at the World Expo-2010 in Shanghai.

"Transport connection between Eurasia and [North] America through the Bering Strait with the simultaneous economic exploration of huge northern territories in Russia, the United States, and Canada is a unique opportunity to crucially strengthen transcontinental and inter-civilization integration," said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, at an awards ceremony in the Russian pavilion. The project would boost the economic power of the Asia-Pacific region and the role of Russia's east in the regional economy, he said.

More than 100 projects participated in the innovation projects competition at the World Expo, which was held in five categories such as system innovations, new materials and nanotechnologies, energy efficiency improvement and ecology, social and educational innovations, and regional and trans-border cooperation projects.

The competition was organized by several Russian scientific and research organizations, including the Pitirim Sorokin/Nikolai Kondratieff International Institute, International Strategic Innovation and Technology Alliance, and Kazakhstan's scientific and technology holding company Parasat.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Co-Chairman of the Russian-Chinese Chamber for the Promotion of Commerce in Machinery and Innovative Products Zhang Yujing stressed: 'Demand for innovation technologies is enormous in the world and in China, so the presentation of innovative projects at the Russian EXPO pavilion was of great importance. Our joint Chamber with Russia will be active in promoting innovation-oriented cooperation between our two countries, closely interacting with all interested Chinese and Russian organizations and institutions.[18].

Receiving the award for the Bering Strait "intercontinental multimodal transport tunnel" design was Dr. Victor Razbegin, deputy chairman of the SOPS. The event was also joined by Igor Rogachev, member of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) and the former Russian Ambassador to China, Alexander Bgatov, head of the SOPS complex project department, Sergei Sharapov, deputy director of the Institute of Technical Projects and Economic Planning of the Railway Transport (GiprotransTEI), etc.

On November 25, 2010 a high-level Russian-Chinese business meeting was held in Moscow. It was attended by 70 representatives of government, business enterprises, development assistance agencies, etc. The Chinese delegation included representatives of six provinces of China. The Bering Strait project was introduced to the forum by one of the SOPS leaders.


Following the EXPO-2010 success, the lobbying of the Bering Strait project in China should be continued on different levels: central government, provinces and regions, business companies, academia, NGO, etc. A special conference on ‘China and the Bering Strait project’ should be set up (ideally, in China).

Considering the U.S. and Russian National Security Implications

As is known, the Bering Strait area is extremely remote and sparsely populated. Air is the main mode of travel in the area, and across the strait there are very few chartered flights by small private airlines such as Bering Air, located in Nome. There is no existing car or rail ferry service as there are no roads or railways for it to serve.

Russia’s national security concerns could be a major explanation for this. So far, tourism in Chukotka is hindered by the international border controls and visa requirements. In Russia, a special visit permit is required because of military restrictions.

Besides that, the Russian authorities may be reluctant to develop the Bering Strait project because of the unresolved border issue between Russia and the United States exactly in the Bering Strait waters.

Russia's current boundary with the USA in the Pacific and the Arctic Oceans was established by the exchange of diplomatic notes in 1977 and the Agreement on the Maritime Boundary of 1990. The USA has consented to these agreements. As to the Russian side, the first agreement was not criticized, but the second was. Two sets of documents published by the Russian Parliament in 1977 and 2002 reflect the reasons why the Russian legislators are against the ratification of the 1990 Agreement. Some of them even demanded that the Agreement be denounced.

E.g., the media reported in 2002 that the Committee on International Affairs of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) considered a question on revising the Agreement. The debate was joined by the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, State committee on fishing, members of the working group created during parliamentary recess by this committee together with the Committee on affairs of the North and small peoples (Chairman Alexander Nazarov).

Discussion about territorial waters between Alaska and Chukotka inflamed in the heat of "cold war" between the USA and the USSR. Officially, the question was an establishment of sovereign rights to water spaces in Bering and Chukotka seas. But actually each side hoped to legalize the right to possess the bigger part of the Bering Sea bottom, where stocks of petroleum and gas were found.

On negotiations which have begun in 1977, the USSR insisted on mapping the sea border on "the middle line." However, the USA was not satisfied with such approach, and on June, 1, 1990, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Eduard Shevardnadzeand the US State Secretary James Bakersigned "The Agreement on Differentiation of Sea Spaces in the Bering and Chukotka Seas."

Under the Agreement, the USSR transferred to the USA a part of the waters in their area of Bering and Chukotka sea passage. As a result, a historical line of differentiation of sea spaces between Russia and the USA, established in 1867, was changed. In turn the USSR received certain areas (in Chukotka sea, etc.), which already belonged to Russia under the Russian-American Convention of 1897.

The productivity of a 200-mile coastal zone of Russia is estimated by experts of the Russian State committee on fishing in 200 thousand tons of pollack; therefore, according to the experts of this department, the Russia's annual loss comes to about 200 million dollars. On estimations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the cumulative losses of the Russian fishing branch for the 12 years between 1990 and 2002 reached about 2.8 million tons of fish worth more than 1.4 billion US dollars.

At the hearings, as mentioned above, Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of the Federation Council, declared that "we do not want to arrange any political performances to spoil the relations between our countries" and expressed hope, that "it will be possible to find an interesting, mutually acceptable solution."

The agreement of 1990 was not ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR or the Supreme Council of RSFSR or the State Duma of all three convocations.

The point of view of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation was expressed by one of its representatives participating in the session of the committee. Having noticed, that the discussed document was not an agreement between Baker and Shevardnadze but was "carefully studied since 1977," he expressed a wish that it will "live henceforth, added by the agreement on indemnification to the Russian fishermen."

The Russian senators addressed the government of Russia with the request to create a special interdepartmental commission under the ‘Baker-Shevardnadze Agreement’ which, in particular, could develop acceptable offers for the senate of the USA[19].

Some Russian experts stress that the agreement under review has for the first time established a treaty-based frontier between the USSR and the USA. Its conclusion is a matter of great importance to both sides in many respects. In the legal sense, it specifies the territorial limits of the sovereignty of the parties concerned, their sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and also removes the possibility of either presenting any territorial claims whatsoever to the other. In the political respect, the agreement removes tension and friction between the parties concerned over the issue, thereby creating more favorable conditions for advanced cooperation. From the actual economic point of view the agreement creates effective rights for the exploitation of the natural resources of the respective sea expanses.

The way to agreement was neither easy nor quick. Official negotiations on the subject began in 1984. As a matter of fact, the issue of delimitation had arisen earlier on from the development of fishing in the maritime areas where the economic zones of the USSR and the USA, which had not been demarcated, overlapped.

At the same time, when the maritime border with Russia in the Bering Sea is concerned, the U.S. finds it more advantageous to apply the delimitation line stipulated in the March 1867 convention. The median line will be more appropriate for Russia there. The latest research shows that the median line principle might also be quite advantageous for Russia if applied to delimitation with the U.S. in the Arctic Ocean.[20]

Other experts rather skeptically conclude that “Legal reading of these materials, in the context of relevant facts and applicable law, confirms that the US-USSR Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1990 is bad for Russia and good for the USA in the Bering Sea. Nevertheless, it is even worse for Russia to destroy this Agreement now, after 20 years of its provisional application.[21]

Russian experts on the Arctic, few as they are, think that Russia lost rather than gained from the signing of the 1990 agreement. Political scientists believe the agreement was underpinned by the Soviet government’s willingness to consolidate relations with the U.S., while experts specializing in international legislative regulations for the Arctic Ocean say Moscow thus sought to exert influence on the progress of talks on the division of maritime areas with Norway. Neither hope came true, however[22].

Map 4. ‘State Department Watch’ argument over the ‘eight islands giveaway.’

Although the 1990 Agreement is being viewed as a beneficial to the USA, it caused a heated debate in the United States, as well. American NGOs concerned, such as the ‘State Department Watch,’ argue that the Agreement places on the Russian side eight American Alaskan islands along with their 200-mile sea-beds. “It amounts to a giveaway of not only the land territory, but also hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea-beds to the Russians.

There is no quid pro quo for the American public or for the State of Alaska. These sea-beds are rich in oil, gas, fisheries, and other resources worth billions of dollars. The oil and gas potential is measured in the billions of barrels. The fisheries are in the hundreds of millions of pounds per year, reflecting that Alaska is the number one fishing state in the nation. The strategic military significance can be seen in their location in any flight path of missiles from the Asian mainland toward North America, and in their advantageous positions for strategic defense initiative (SDI) installations.” [23].

State Department Watch’ launched a public campaign of opposition both to the ‘immense giveaway’ involved, and to the power of the State Department to adopt such a maritime boundary as an executive agreement and not as a treaty. The NGO aided the Alaska Legislature in passing several resolutions protesting the ‘giveaway’. In particular they challenged the unconstitutional denial of the state government's right to participate in the negotiations and to consent to the terms that affect the state's territory, property, and sovereignty[24].


The high degree of public tension and national security concerns on both shores of the Bering Strait require the Bering Strait project to be framed in the national security dialogue between Russia and the US. The project group should facilitate the dialogue between Russian and American legislators, regional governments and NGOs of Alaska and Chukotka, academics, military, human rights activists, indigenous people, etc. The aim of this dialogue is to present the Bering Strait project as something that can ease the tensions and bring better understanding, cooperation, and shared prosperity to the peoples of Russia and America.

Framing the Project in the Arctic Debate

The Bering Strait should not only be framed in the US-Russian national security debate. As is seen from Map 4, the Bering Strait and adjacent districts are definitely part of the bigger Arctic region, which has become a big issue on the global agenda recently.

The Russian government adopted a new Arctic strategy in September 2008. The document entitled “The fundamentals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic in the period up to 2020 and beyond” was published on the Russian Security Council’s website in the end of March 2009. It clearly emphasizes the region’s importance to Russia’s economy as a major source of revenue, mainly from energy production and profitable maritime transport. The document set the main goal “to transform the Arctic into Russia’s top strategic base for natural resources by 2020, and preserve the country’s role as a leading Arctic power.”

Map 5. The Bering Strait as part of the Arctic region

The Russian authorities consider the region to be crucially important for Russia’s further wealth, social, and economic development and competitiveness in global markets. Defining the limits of the country’s continental shelf by 2015 is listed as a top priority. Among other strategic goals, the document points at developing the transport and communication infrastructure in the region, particularly connected to the Northern Sea Route as a national, wholly integrated transportation route and a central element in maritime connections between Europe and Asia.

The strategy reveals that one of Russia's major goal is to establish special Arctic military formations in order to protect the county’s national interests in various military and political situations.

The Russian authorities underscore, however, that the main purpose of such military preparations is to combat terrorism at sea, counter smuggling and illegal migration, and protect aquatic biological resources. Hence, the FSB (Federal Security Service) will get a central role in protecting national interests in the region. The Russian authorities clearly underscored the document’s cooperative character by emphasizing the need to preserve the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation, and underlining the role of regional bilateral and multilateral cooperation[25].

The Russian Geological Survey’s first Arctic summit was held in Moscow on September 23, 2010. Nearly three hundred delegates, including 58 from the Scandinavian countries, Canada, and the United States, met to discuss climate change and the future exploitation of the Arctic’s natural riches. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressed the convention.

Three years after Russia planted its flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole, the Kremlin reportedly regarded the summit as an opportunity to forward its claims in the region. In his speech, Vladimir Putin struck a conciliatory tone, however. “Even though the Arctic is at the juncture of geopolitical and economic interests,” he said, “all Arctic-related issues, including the continental shelf, can be settled by negotiation on the basis of existing international agreements.” Putin envisaged the region as “a venue for establishing true partnership on economic and security issues, education, and science and for preserving the cultural legacy of the North.”[26]

Under the current UN Law of the Sea, the eight Arctic states have jurisdiction over waters extending twelve nautical miles from their shore, while their exclusive economic zones stretch up to two hundred miles into the Arctic Ocean. Russia counts for the bulk of Arctic land and has made its designs rather clear in recent years. It has resumed patrolling the region with bomber planes and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk, which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States all claim parts of the polar region as well, which is rapidly becoming accessible to shipping and mining activity due to global warming. The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and as much as 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22% of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80% of these resources lie offshore.


As the Bering Strait lies in a junction of the geo-strategic and economic interests of major Arctic powers, the Bering Strait project should be presented as a real project of peace and cooperation, which could help the Arctic States to reach agreement over the vast natural resources there. Governments, business circles, expert community, and NGO of the eight Arctic States should be briefed on the Bering Strait project, with the final goal of making these respective countries the project shareholders.

[1] Promoting Bering Strait International Cooperation Framework on the Russian Side. Preliminary Report, Moscow, 2011.

[2] Developing Siberia’s Raw Materials: An Adventure for the 21st Century, by Dr Sergei Cherkasov, Executive Intelligence Review, Vol. 37, # 40, October 15, 2010, p. 30.

[3] Ibid: Корнеев А.В., 2007 г.

[4] Корнеев А.В., (2007 г.) по данным: Комарова К.Л., Кибалова Е.Б., Герасимова С.И. Российская Азия: транспортный мост или макрорегион устойчивого развития? – Санкт-Петербург, Тезисы докладов, представленных на 6-й международной выставке «Транспорт и международный транзит – ТРАНСТЕК-2003», 2003 г.

[5] Гранберг, А. За лучшее будущее России. / А.Г. Гранберг // Forum International. – 2007- № 7. - С. 4-6.

[6] Концепция долгосрочного социально-экономического развития Р.Ф. на период до 2020 года, утверждена Распоряжением правительства РФ от 17 ноября 2008 г. № 1662-р, с. 63.

[7] Dr Konstantin Minin, Deputy Director General, LENGIPRPTRANS Company, On Problems and Perspectives of the Development of Russia’s Railway System,

[8] Лысиков Б.А., Каплюхин А.А., Использование подземного пространства, Норд-Пресс, Донецк, 2005, p. 227-229.

[9] Ibid, p. 230.

[10] Sunday Express, December 20, 2009.


[12] Ibid.


[14] Russia Seeks to Develop Far East; Invites U.S. Role, by Rachel Douglas, Executive Intelligence Review, Vol. 37, # 2, January 15, 2010, p. 34-37.


[16] China Promotes its Transcontinental Ambitions with Massive Rail Plan, by Yonah Freemark,

[17] China Daily, June 12, 2010.



[20] Boris Klimenko, The Maritime Boundary between the USSR and the USA, International Affairs, No. 10, Vol.36, 1990, pages 148-152.

[21] Alexander N. Vylegzhanin, 20 Years of Provisional Application of the Agreement between the USA and the USSR on the Maritime Boundary,

[22]Alexander Oreshenkov, Arctic Diplomacy, Russia in Global Affairs # 4 October/December 2009.


[24] Ibid.