Russia breaks the (polar) ice on its Northeast Passage aspirations
High up on the broad, glass-fronted, and largely automated bridge of the 50 Years of Victory, longtime captain Dmitry Lobusov says that there is no ice “born of the sea surface” that his ship can’t handle. Which means, apparently, that he doesn’t tangle with icebergs.
But for anything less, the towering, double-hulled icebreaker the size of a nine-story building is unfazed. Its two nuclear reactors generate so much power that the ship has been able to smash its way through to the North Pole almost 60 times since it was commissioned 14 years ago. In fact, the ship often takes groups of up to 100 tourists to visit the Pole, at around $30,000 apiece.
Russia’s state-owned Atomflot company currently operates five such giant nuclear-powered icebreakers, an awesome symbol of Russia’s determination to press forward the former Soviet Union’s strategic priority to dominate and develop the Arctic. Within this decade the fleet will be joined by at least five more nuclear-powered icebreakers, each about twice as big and powerful as the present ships.
As global warming steadily erodes the Arctic ice sheets, exposing new undersea fisheries and oil fields for exploitation, the Kremlin is preparing the means to extend year-round economic activities into what it hopes will be a greatly enlarged zone of Russian control. It’s also banking on the Northeast Passage – the 3,500 mile northern sea route between Asia and Europe over the top of Russia – to become a major shipping alternative to the Suez Canal.
Russia’s competitors in the Arctic worry about the presence of the Russian military in the region, and what it could signal for its future. But that is a result of geographical and climate realities, Russian officials claim, and that the government’s goal is to bolster the economic potential of Arctic ports like Murmansk, not its military might in the far north.
“It’s hard to say that there is a big military buildup here, compared to what we’ve always had,” says Vitaly Akimov, spokesperson for the Northern Chamber of Commerce in Murmansk. “But we are getting more icebreakers, and that says a lot about what Russia’s goals are. We want economic development up here.”
A Northeast Passage boom town?
Mr. Akimov says Murmansk’s economic growth is poised to take off as the Northeast Passage becomes a reality. “There is a federal project to develop Murmansk as a transport hub,” he says. “We have an excellent port, with good railway and road connections to Moscow and the rest of Russia, and the Northeast Passage will create a global link.”
Murmansk, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Norway, already has a recently modernized commercial port, which mainly serves to export coal from Russia’s vast interior these days. But experts say there is a lot of room for expansion. Russia’s biggest private gas company, Novatek, has a big project underway nearby to develop facilities for Arctic transport of liquefied natural gas.
In the Murmansk headquarters of Atomflot, a vast control room houses a giant electronic map showing the location of each ship in the entire Northeast Passage along with changing ice and weather conditions. They expect it to be a busy place in future. Russian President Vladimir Putin told a recent economic forum that 33 million tons of cargo transited the passage in 2020, and that amount is expected to rise to 80 million tons by 2024.
But while the Northeast Passage trek shaves at least two weeks off the traditional Suez Canal route between the Far East and Europe, the overall tonnage it sees is a far cry from that on the Suez Canal, which handles about 1 billion tons of cargo annually.
Atomflot's control room for the Northeast Passage has a digital map that covers an entire wall, marking the positions of every ship currently on the trek through the region.
There are other complications, including the fact that ships making the Northeast Passage will need to be suitable for sailing in ice conditions – not a requirement at the Suez Canal – and the need for icebreakers will remain unpredictable for the foreseeable future.
“It depends a lot on changing circumstances with ice and weather,” says Captain Lobusov. “Sometimes one icebreaker can pilot a route for 10 ships. But sometimes you need two icebreakers for one ship. It’s expensive, and time consuming.”
Soldiers amid the ice
Moscow’s northern ambitions are often discussed in military terms. That’s hard to miss here on the Kola Peninsula, where Murmansk is Russia’s only ice-free port with open-ocean access, and people in military uniform abound in the streets. The nearby closed town of Severomorsk houses the Russian Navy’s northern fleet with dozens of major warships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier and a new class of ultra-modern nuclear-missile submarines.
But experts say the military buildup looms large in Western perceptions because geography handed Murmansk that fate. Thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current – an extension of the Gulf Stream – the Kola Bay is the only place in Russia’s far north that’s reliably ice-free year round. That, plus the fact that Murmansk has open-ocean access, is why Russia still bases about two-thirds of its nuclear missile submarines there, along with the big surface ships of the Northern Fleet.
“Russia has been re-opening several former Soviet air bases along the northern coast, but most activity is still on the Kola Peninsula, with all the associated air defenses and other military infrastructure,” says Andrey Zagorsky, an arms control expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
The Russian city of Murmansk is reliably ice-free year round and has open-ocean access, making it a key port on the Northeast Passage. It also neighbors the military town of Severomorsk, which houses the Russian Navy’s northern fleet.
“Russia is the only Arctic state with substantial armed forces permanently stationed in the Arctic. By contrast, Canada’s Arctic fleet is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s true that Russia has unrivaled capabilities up there, but it’s not only aimed at war-fighting. Its purposes include countering oil spills, patrolling, ensuring security of the Northeast Passage, and so on,” he says.
“But we are presently living amid a confrontational atmosphere in relations with the West, and people tend only to look at capabilities and see them as threatening. It would be good if we could find ways to reduce tensions in the Arctic” and broaden the scope for cooperation on issues like climate change and resource-sharing in the far north, he says.
“Everyone is going to want to be here”
Meanwhile, officials at Atomflot say global warming may be real, but they are not depending upon it to make the Northeast Passage a reality. For that, they will have the icebreakers. Enormous as it may be, the 50 Years of Victory is a nautical pipsqueak compared to the ice-crushing behemoths presently under construction.
“In the coming years we will double the size of our fleet, and the new ships will be much bigger and more capable” of keeping the sea-lanes open in any conditions, says Vladimir Arutyunyan, head of sea operations for Atomflot.
“In 2010, there were only four ships that made the passage. Now there are several hundred,” he says. “These big icebreakers will be needed for all our lives. The idea that it will be open waters 365 days a year is fiction. In winter, ice will still be present. There will be no activity in the Arctic without icebreakers,” he says.
It is this sort of change – showing the Russian government’s determination to make the Northeast Passage a reality after decades of post-Soviet decline, and the emigration of almost half the region’s population – that has turned some local people bullish on Murmansk.
“We can foresee that Murmansk is moving from a backwater to a center of economic activity,” says Maxim Belov, a deputy of the regional legislature. “This is the gateway to the Arctic. Murmansk has everything it needs to start booming in the years to come, and everyone is going to want to be here.”