Russia Bridging “Ice Breaker” Gap

Russian icebreaker Arktika

Russian icebreaker Arktika unveiled last week in Russia. Nikita Greydin/Courtesy of Baltic Shipyard photo.

Russia launched its biggest nuclear ice breaker to date last week in St. Petersburg. The 567-foot, 33,500-ton Arktika comes as Russia has plans to expand shipping routes and overall presence in the Arctic region.

 Arktika is the first of a new class of ships known as Type LK-60YA, The long – term plan is for three vessels all commissioned by Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom. Utilizing 80,000 hp (60 megawatts) to crush ice, Arktika will be able to break through thirteen feet thick sea – ice and forge shipping routes in the high Arctic. This will allow container shipping along northern routes that otherwise would be impassable. The ensuing two sister ships will be, Siberia and Urals  and will be built in 2018 and 2020.

Arktika Russian Ice Breaker

Launching of the Russian icebreaker Arktika in St. Petersburg last Thursday. Evgeny Uvarov/Ap photo.

“There are no icebreakers equivalent to Arktika anywhere in the world,” Rosatom CEO Sergey Kirienkoy. “The icebreaker Arktika means real new opportunities for our country.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains that the Northern Sea Route could be a better trade route than the Suez canal for world trade, The new icebreakers will play an important role in facilitating this expansion via the shorter distance to Asia and Europe while forging a consistent new route through the Arctic.

Russian icebreaker Yamal in Arctic

Russian nuclear powered Yamal in the Arctic 2007. Getty Images photo.

Russia currently has six nuclear icebreakers in operation as well as more than 30 diesel vessels while the United States has three Coast Guard operated icebreakers which are non-nuclear. The US vessels command only a quarter of the power that the Arktika has. This overall disparity has some officials concerned that Russia is primed for gaining a huge advantage in Arctic shipping and also the exploration for gas and oil deposits in the seabed.

“We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now,” stated Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft  in 2015.


coast guard icebreaker

Coast guard icebreaker in the Arctic. US Coast guard photo.


The Obama administration is pressuring congress to approve construction of another Coast Guard icebreaker by 2020. Coast Guard has made it clear that the country needs to step up its fleet, “to ensure continued access to both polar regions and support the country’s economic, commercial, maritime and national security needs.” These needs come at a hefty price of roughly a billion dollars per ship.

Currently only five countries stake claim to the Arctic’s lands and waters:  Russia, Norway, Canada, United States and Denmark.

Who Controls the Northwest Passage

In April China encouraged shippers in country to use the Northwest Passage for trade routes around the world. The problem is there is dispute over the newly, somewhat accessible, Arctic route as to whether it’s an international waterway or under Canadian jurisdiction.

The Northwest Passage is roughly 40 percent shorter than the Panama Canal route, and even though there will be adverse affects on environment and wildlife species, the shorter passage will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1,300 tons. Russia’s Northern Sea Route has actually drawn more attention since it is usually more navigable than the Northwest Passage, which,often is still impassable throughout the summer. In 2009, only two ships completed the Northern Sea Route voyage as opposed to nearly 500 this year!

Eventually the passage will come to a broader discussion as to who controls rights to the region. However, at this point without enough surety that ships are able to pass with consistency, the issue is at a “simmer” level.

Traditionally, Ottawa and Washington have carried out talks trying to settle the jurisdiction dispute with Canada claiming all rights to the waterways that combine to form the Northwest Passage. Shippers, by this edict, need to comply with Canadian regulations when traversing the passage. The United States disagrees with their proposals but will comply in the meantime and notify Ottawa anytime a US firm plans to sail the waterway. Now with China entering the mix the scales could tip and a cause a flare – up in political negotiations.

northwest passage

The Northwest Passage in the Arctic will be used for future shipping to China. Canadian Geographic image.

China has vaguely outlined its’ own guidelines to sailing the Northwest Passage and announce that it wants more ships utilizing the trade route. In not so many words the country is asserting its position on Canada’s claim.

However, China may just be putting the cart in front of the horse by asserting the trade route preference for the firms that might use the route. COSCO, a prodigious shipper has deemed the northern route too dangerous to attempt on a regular basis.

For now the Panama and Suez Canals still remains the choice for most shipping companies. Posturing is in place by these interested countries for the future and at some point the route will become viable. While weather, year – round ice and challenging navigation conditions are aspects that Ottawa cannot alter, infrastructure and updated mapping can be improved. It seems that regardless of current day usability, the groundwork is being laid for future passage of the mythical region.

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