On July 6, the Russian shipbuilding complex Zvezda, LLC started construction on a Project 10510 (Lider) icebreaker. Upon its completion (scheduled for 2027), the first ship of this class, named the Rossiya and commissioned by the Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation (Rosatom), will become the most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker ever produced. Reportedly, the future vessel’s main task will be to guarantee uninterrupted commercial transportation along the Northern Sea Route (NSR)—the maritime shipping corridor off Russia’s Arctic coast that connects the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Moscow routinely stresses the NSR’s geo-economic/political value to the Russian Federation (Ridl.io, May 8). The icebreaker is said to have unique technical characteristics, including a 120-megawatt engine, that will allow it to cut through ice up to 4.5 meters deep and create water canals 50 meters wide (Gazeta.ru, July 6). According to Rosatom subsidiary Rosatomflot’s General Director Mustafa Kashka, “[T]he vessel has no analogues in the world. This unique icebreaker has outstanding technical characteristics that will guarantee year-round operations in the eastern Arctic” (RIA Novosti, July 6).
The expected launch of Project 10510 icebreakers has two strategic objectives. First are Moscow’s geo-economic calculations. Rosatom argues that, as the only country in the world with a nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet, Russia is able to maintain a year-round presence in the Arctic region. And when combined with the already operating Arktika-class icebreakers (Rosatom.ru, accessed July 9), Project 10510 vessels will be specifically concerned with various transportation missions to and from China, Japan and South Korea. According to Russian sources, this will raise the importance of the NSR in the surging competition for dominance in the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market. Specifically, the Russian side hopes to win the race against the United States in becoming the main LNG supplier to energy-hungry Asian markets (Atomicexpert.com, accessed July 8). In a speech earlier this year, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin specifically highlighted the role of icebreakers as a key factor allowing Moscow to “fully unravel the transportation potential of the NSR artery and increase the interest of the international business to this new corridor between Europe and Asia […] to guarantee Russia’s supremacy in the Arctic region, which is strategically vital to us” (The World News, June 15). Importantly, the Russian vision of commercializing the NSR—inseparable from the development of icebreakers—is premised on two pillars: 1) capitalizing on the vast natural resources concealed in the Arctic region (currently, 83 percent of natural gas and 17 percent of Russian oil are extracted there), and 2) the transformation of the NSR into an integral part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative linking China with Europe. According to estimates of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, by 2034, Russia plans to increase annual cargo flows via the NSR to 157 million tons (Vedomosti, November 13, 2019) primarily contingent on Chinese trade activities.
Leading Russian experts have linked the further development of a powerful icebreaker fleet to the country’s ability to commercialize its Arctic potential. As noted by the leading subject-matter scholar from the Foundation of the National Energy Security, Stanislav Mitrakhovych, Russia’s potential in the northern polar region is far from maximized. In this regard, “projects concerned with the development and support of the domestic shipbuilding industry and the realization of the import-substitution strategy” is instrumental for the development of the Arctic region and the High North. In turn, Vera Smorchkova, a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), also underscored the strategic importance of icebreakers for the development of the NSR, since “icebreakers—which can operate on Siberian rivers—can also secure the uninterrupted supply of vital commodities to critical far-flung areas of the NSR.” Oleg Filippov (likewise of RANEPA) saw a somewhat different need for increasing Russia`s capabilities in the Arctic region: in addition to purely geo-economic considerations, the expert mentioned that increasing involvement of the US in the region (including Washington’s own icebreaker-related plans) was a warning to Russia and its regional ambitions (Gazeta.ru, June 15).
The second strategic objective guiding the development of new nuclear icebreakers involves military-political calculations. Importantly, Russian experts suggest that the date of the prospective launch of the Project 10510 craft Rossiya (2027) will see the “end of the [global] economic crisis [as well as] the intensification of competition between the main international players for Arctic resources and the shortest path from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the NSR.” Russian experts argue that two main competitive advantages Russia has in this looming struggle for the Arctic region are military facilities reconstructed along the NSR and its formidable icebreaker fleet, which allows Russia to maintain a constant military presence there. Specifically, the prospective introduction of Lider-class icebreakers is viewed by the Russian conservative expert community as “our response to those seeking to marginalize Russia in the Arctic [region] and to establish their control over this strategic region […] in light of the unfolding ‘cold war 2.0’ ” (Zvezda Weekly, August 29, 2019). Thus, as noted by a member of the Officers of Russia organization, Captain 1st rank (ret.) Vasyli Dandykin, although the construction of this type of icebreaker will be an extremely costly enterprise, it presents a huge opportunity, since the Zvezda corporation could use the acquired expertise and injection of state funds to additionally start building not only new civilian vessels but also aircraft carriers (Zvezda Weekly, April 27, 2020). Other Russian commentators have related the need to build up the country’s icebreaker fleet with “mounting American ambitions” and the most recent declaration of President Donald Trump to increase the US presence in the Artic region and Antarctica, which, as noted in Russian sources is “Terra nullius” (RT, June 9). Prominent ultra-conservative military expert Captain 1st rank (ret.) Konstantin Sivkov has posited that as long as Russia is able to preserve supremacy over the US in terms of icebreakers, it will have the upper hand in the Arctic region (RT, June 11).
Undoubtedly, Russia’s ambitious program of icebreaker fleet expansion will boost its already strong regional position. Yet, the ultimate costs of this endeavor could prove excessively high. As pointed out by some Russian experts, “[E]ven the previously defrayed initial costs—with the final costs still unknown—already cast a shadow of doubt on the economic expediency and profitability of some of these projects” (Gazeta.ru, June 15).