‘Icebreaker Diplomacy’: Russia’s New-Old Strategy to Dominate the Arctic

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 87

Ceremonial launch of the Russian icebreaker Ural, May 25 (Source: AFP)

Russia’s Baltic Shipyard (St. Petersburg) held a grand ceremony, on May 25, to celebrate the launching of the nuclear-powered Project 22220 (LK-60Ya) icebreaker Ural (Geoenergetika.ru, May 27, 2019). Following the festivities, Russian Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina stated that the event would be further commemorated by issuing a special coin hailing the new Project 22220 icebreakers (Vpk-news.ru, May 26). The development of this and other classes of icebreakers is seen by Moscow as a crucial step toward ensuring that the Northeast Passage (NEP) can be turned into a source of wealth and sustainable economic growth for Russia as well as preserving Russia’s status as a main stakeholder in the Arctic. As President Vladimir Putin noted earlier this spring, Russia must increase the transportation capacity of the NEP—the shortest maritime route through the Arctic region (14,500 kilometers from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, compared to the Suez Canal route of 23,000 kilometers)—to 80 million tons of cargo per year by 2024, and icebreakers should become the main driver. For now, the Russian icebreaker fleet in the NEP area consists of 8 vessels, which is clearly not enough to fulfill this objective in full; therefore, by 2035, the overall number should be increased to 13 (Vpk-news.ru, April 23, 2019). Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared, on November 28, that the “creation of new icebreakers is the main precondition for Russia to keep up with plans pertaining to the development of the NEP” (Arctic.ru, November 28, 2018).

Russian sources claim that “Russia’s technological supremacy in the Arctic region will remain total and unchallenged for at least next fifteen years,” despite its present-day shortage of icebreakers (RIA Novosti, February 27). But to maintain this edge over the long term, Moscow has embarked on an ambitious program to modernize its Arctic icebreaker fleet. The following key initiatives are worth pointing out:

– The aforementioned Project 22220 icebreakers (LK-60Ya) are to replace two main classes of vessels that Russia has been relying on to date: Arktika- (Projects 10520 and 10521) and Taymyr-class icebreakers. Much more advanced than its predecessors, the LK-60Ya combines the operational qualities of both types and may be used on both the high seas and in Siberian river estuaries, thereby decreasing exploitation costs and increasing operative effectiveness (Technogies.ru, May 29). Currently, the Baltic Shipyard is working on three nuclear-powered icebreakers of the new type (procured by the Rosatom): Arktika (to operate in Arctic waters in 2020), Sibir (2020) and Ural (2021) (Arctic.ru, March 11, 2019).

– As noted by the director general of the Murmansk-based FSUE Atomflot (Rosatomflot), Vyacheslav Ruksha, Project 10510 (LK-110Ya) icebreakers will be an indispensable element in securing Russia’s firm presence on the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market. Specifically, he noted that the Lider—which gives this nuclear icebreaker class its name—“is primarily designed to secure our [Russia’s] direct access to the markets of the Asian-Pacific region. China, Japan [and] South Korea are the main consumers of LNG. The US is on track to monopolize this market within the next ten years.” Therefore, he added, the Lider will effectively help define “Russia’s future posture on the LNG market” (RIA Novosti, June 28, 2018). Lider-class icebreakers are said to have unique characteristics, including the ability to break through ice up to 4 meters thick and create canals up to 55 meters wide as well as a lifespan of up to 40 years. This will allow these vessels to conduct year-round navigation along the entire NEP, while leading convoys (TASS, February 18, 2019);

– The highly maneuverable next-generation icebreakers Andrey Vilkitsky and Aleksandr Sannikov (both procured by Gazprom Neft) are already operating in the Arctic region in an integrated way. According to officials, their tandem has fortified year-round logistical transportation networks, allowing the delivery of oil from the Vorota Arktiki terminal (in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug) to a floating oil terminal in the Kola Bay, “and from there, to global markets via standard oil tankers” (Vpk.name, January 25).

Aside from the icebreakers, the Russian side is working on two additional projects that could have serious potential and impact:

– The Malachite design bureau has been developing an 82-meter-long ice-breaking nuclear-powered submarine, which is expected to be able to navigate through 1.2-meter-thick ice under all weather conditions. Its primary tasks will assist the operations of oil/gas subsea installations and mineral resource extraction. Designers also claim that the submarine will be capable of carrying mini-submarines that could work independently (Rusvesna.su, January 17).

– The Project 00903 is a unique, non-freezing self-propelled platform (“Severniy polus”), whose expected completion date is 2020. Its construction is an integral part of the state-sponsored program pertaining to the socio-economic development of the Russian High North, aiming to “fortify Russia’s national position in the Arctic region as the global leader in Arctic studies.” The range of tasks and functions to be performed by the platform is broad, but perhaps most notable is its announced capability to “conduct geological exploration of the Arctic basin” (Korabel.ru, February 20). Most likely, Russia will try to use this capability in order to increase its exploration of the Arctic seafloor, thus solidifying Moscow’s claims over many of the most resource-endowed but disputed offshore areas north of the Polar Circle.

Based on these developments, two main conclusions should be drawn. First, Russia has made reliance on icebreakers a key foundation on which to cement its leading position in the Arctic. This trend was (re)initiated in 2007, when an expedition conducted by the Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya performed major exploration of Russia’s Arctic continental shelf. It now seems to have been further reinvigorated and is likely to continue with new impetus. Second, Moscow’s confrontation with the West, sparked by Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014, has tilted Russian priorities toward the High North to an even greater extent (Periskop.livejournal.com, December 12, 2017). Exploration of the Arctic region is thus becoming a central part Russia’s national idea—not merely an economic project.