Russian civil servants are touting a colossal infrastructure project in which Alaska and Siberia would be linked by the world's longest undersea tunnel.
A widely-reported "pre-feasibility" study by the Russian Academy of Sciences is to be considered by Kremlin, US, and Canadian bigwigs at a conference next week. The centrepiece of the proposals is a 60-mile tunnel beneath the freezing waters of the Bering Strait, which would surface twice on the Diomede islands and join Russia's Chukotsky Peninsula to the United States.
The tunnel, however, is only a small part of the whole plan. On its own, the sub-sea link would be somewhat pointless, as it would connect a pair of isolated wilderness locations with no other significant transport links. The majority of the mooted £32bn project cost would go on building rail and pipe lines from the ends of the tunnel. At least 3,700 miles of railway would be needed to join Yakutsk in Siberia to Fort Nelson in Canada's British Columbia, the two major railheads nearest to the Bering Strait.
Such a hookup could give the Russian Far East a direct freight connection to the huge markets of North America, permitting the largely untapped mineral resources of the region to be developed and consumed by the ever-hungry US economy. The proposals also offer options for oil and gas pipelines, comms fibre and electric power conduits to run from Russia to America. Suggestions have been floated for massive Siberian tidal plants which could power the new railways and flog gigawatts to the North American electricity grid.
All this would, of course, be a very tasty bit of business for the Kremlin, which to date hasn't managed to fully exploit its eastern possessions – though plans such as this one have been floated ever since the Czars were in charge.
The Muscovite hierarchy seems as keen as ever, though. Viktor Razbegin, deputy head of industrial research at the Russian Economy Ministry, said on Wednesday that "this is one of the very few projects that can cardinally change the development of Russia's far east". He told reporters in Moscow that "the chance for the implementation now is pretty good".
There was scepticism in some quarters, however. Mr Razbegin's baby would need approval not just from Moscow politicians, but also ones in Washington DC – and, as Alaska has access to the rest of the US only across Canadian soil, others in Ottawa too. It isn't clear how keen Americans and Canadians really are to develop a big European-style dependency on resources controlled by an increasingly confrontational Kremlin.
And it really isn't clear how keen they will be to pay for the infrastructure that could put them in the Russians' pocket. Thus far, nobody's saying who would fund the tunnel and all the rest of it, but the analysts' consensus seems to suggest that it won't be the North American private or public sectors. The Russian government would no doubt be happy to contribute some of the cost, but perhaps not the entire £30bn-plus. The rest might have to be made up by private Russian investors, and some big names are apparently interested, but even here there is a fair degree of scepticism.
Yevgeny Nadorshin, chief economist at Moscow's Trust Investment Bank, poured scorn on the idea. "We're going to send oil to Alaska," he said. "What, Alaska doesn't have oil?" He suggested that Siberia could be better developed by building sea ports and overland links to China's rapidly-expanding economy. Of course, some would say that Vladimir Putin would prefer to have influence over America than clout with the Chinese.
"For all we know, the US doesn't want to make Alaska a transport hub," added Mr Nadorshin, perhaps putting his finger on the problem. ®