by by Nat South for The Saker Blog

(Part 1)

I’d like to tackle the subject of Arctic icebreakers, by firstly looking at the Bloomberg article, Putin’s Arctic Plans Are a Climate Change Bet as a starting point to this analysis. The article starts off in an eye-catching fashion, using keywords such as “climate change”, “control shipping routes”. The article is about the new generation of Russian nuclear icebreakers currently under construction. I would say that it isn’t a ‘bet’, but it about actually facilitating shipping traffic in ice-covered waters, the very latest in a long-tradition dating back from the ‘Yermak’, a 5,000 tons steam-driven icebreaker built in 1897.

I have read through the article, so you don’t have to. I certainly have some quibbles over jumbled up aspects, in particular some curious mistakes made in this article. The tone and manner of the article also tends to jump to some ludicrous assumptions at times. I would like to take a step back and dig deeper into various topics raised in the article, which will be a 3-part analysis on the Russian Arctic.

The launch of the latest nuclear icebreaker hull, ‘Ural’, took place at the end of May in St Petersburg. “Russia has launched its third new nuclear icebreaker as part of a massive effort to control shipping routes before the ice melts.” [NB. Define when the ice melts: what, where and … ok how long is a piece of string then…]. As far as the issue of “before the ice melts”, let’s delve into one link given in the article, from a 2019 US report on the Arctic for a cursory insight on the topic of melting ice and navigability. By their own reckoning, the US DoD doesn’t see year-long soon navigation any time soon, as it states loss of sea-ice “may result in nearly ice-free late summers by the 2040s”.

Figure 1. Source: DoD Arctic Strategy 2019

The projection given for the NSR is 9 weeks by 2030, with less than 10% sea-ice. The shoulder season is marginally wider, while most of the year: more than 40% sea-ice coverage -> thus requiring the use of icebreakers during certain times. I will discuss a little more about the types of ice in the next section, so as to give a better appreciation of the complexity of the subject at heart.

Other research papers indicate a largely ice-free Arctic by the end of this century, so a few more decades of work for the nuclear icebreakers is envisaged. Various models suggest a prolongation of ice-free seasons with a free passage from 3 to 6 months for the NSR and from 2 to 4 months for the Canadian North West Passage by the end of twenty-first century.

So, the ‘bet’ to build a new generation of nuclear icebreakers actually makes sense in the meantime for commercial and safety reasons.


Types of ice coverage is defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Thus, the Sea-Ice Nomenclature definition “ice-free” means that no ice is present whatsoever. Might be a bit much for a ‘land lubber’ far away in sunnier climes to grasp the concept of the risks of navigating in ice, never mind an MSM journalist. Paradoxically, overall increasing MYI sea-ice loss means existing ice becoming more mobile and disruptive to shipping, (as was the case last in the NSR and this year in the Canadian Arctic). In other words, bits of floating MYI sea-ice, (as well as glacial & river ice), pose a real risk to navigation for most of the year.

Ships operating in the polar regions are classed by types and ability to operate in certain ice conditions, into either ice-strengthened or icebreaking ships categories. Without going into the gritty details of ice-classes, suffice to say that ice-strengthened ships need to have icebreaker assistance during certain voyages conditions. An overview of a category of ice-class for ships is given below:

Table 1 Polar Classes PC

The confusion over ice melting seems to stem from the fact that it is the multi-year (MYI) polar ice pack that is shrinking. Yet, there will still be seasonal sea ice, (1st year ice) as we can see from this ice forecast chart for the NSR.

Figure 2. Source: Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (2019)

Thus, Russia will carry on building icebreakers due to both MYI and seasonal ice conditions, to ensure all year long operations. NB: For details on types of ice: AARI . The main thing to understand is open water v pack ice. Open water: “A large area of freely navigable water in which sea ice is present in concentrations less than 1/10 and ice of land origin is absent”, (in blue on the chart).

The purpose of an icebreaker is to break ice, (MYI with glacial inclusions), by being able to repeatedly ram it. To do this effectively requires a lot of power, in fact 75,000 horsepower for the current generation of nuclear icebreakers. Here is a link to a detailed infographic on the ‘Sibir’ class nuclear icebreaker referred to in the Bloomberg article, (Project 22220 – LK-60Ya class) and other nuclear powered ships.

Shipping traffic

First and foremost, the main point to bear in mind: the role of nuclear icebreakers and the shipping route called the “Northern Sea Route (NSR)”, (Северного морского пути). It is largely due to the use of nuclear icebreakers that the shipping is able to pass along the NSR most of the year and has been the case since 1959.

The Bloomberg article refers to “consolidate the country’s dominance of commercial traffic in the Arctic.” Well this is certainly the case and it has been one of President Putin’s objectives, set out in 2018 in a speech to the Federal Assembly, where he stated that he would like to see a tenfold increase of cargo transported along the NSR by the end of 2024. I wrote about this particular aspect in a previous post, “Being bullish about Arctic shipping – the Northern Sea Route (NSR)”. Some statistics on commercial traffic on the NSR was already given in the article; the NSR handled a record 9.7 Mn tons of sea cargo in 2017. By the end of 2018, this figure had already increased to 20.2 million tons.

Notably, a significant proportion of this continued predicted increase in traffic growth along the NSR is due to the ongoing development & construction of LNG projects and oil & LNG deliveries through the Russian Arctic to Europe and Asia, (see figure 5). These deliveries have been made possible by both the use of various types of icebreakers and also by the design & construction of specialised ice-breaking Double-Acting, (DA), Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tankers. More of these Arc7 ice class LNG carriers have started to operate since the figures given in 2018, and 4 more are planned to go in service by 2025. Recently, Gazprom Neft operated icebreakers started year-round support of Arctic oil shipping in waters close to the oil & gas infrastructure. The diversity and numbers of ship traffic is increasing.

To give the reader a flavour of what types of icebreakers are there in the Russian Arctic and in the NSR area, the map below shows the icebreaker traffic in 2018. Not only are there the nuclear-powered ones, there are also the diesel electric sea-going icebreakers as well river types of icebreakers. The busiest location is off the Yamal / Sabetta area, which clearly indicates the escort work of nuclear icebreakers for LNG tankers and other support vessels. (Hint: have a look back at the Figure 2 – ice chart).

Figure 3. Source: CHNL Information Office (2019)

Lifespan of icebreakers

Figure 4. Timeline of Russian nuclear icebreakers 1959-2040, (past, present & future). Source: Belkin, M. (2019) as presented by Aker Arctic (2019)

The current generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers, a strategic part of the NSR, are coming to the end of their operational life. In fact, both the ‘Taimyr’ and ‘Vaygach’ icebreakers have had their reactors prolonged to 260 000 hours. The ‘Yamal’ and ’50 Let Pobedy’ prolonged to 200 000 hours.

It would not be unreasonable to say that the construction of the new generation is actually overdue, given safety concerns and also technological advances. So, in fact, rather than taking the view that it is somewhat part of a menacing plan to free trade as hinted in the article, the Russian government is in the process of slowly implementing a comprehensive plan to modernize, upgrade and expand a transport corridor that has long been considered as a domestic coronary transport artery, on a par with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Figure 5. Source: Belkin (2019)

The above diagram shows the planned deployment of icebreakers along the NSR by 2035, with projected figures for cargo traffic to Europe and the Asian Pacific area. It is interesting that the last current nuclear icebreaker ’50 Let Pobedy’ is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2035. A massive effort is indeed underway by the Russian government to increase shipping traffic and associated infrastructure, which to ‘meant to consolidate the country’s dominance of commercial traffic in the Arctic’. Not the whole Arctic but to make the NSR segments navigable year-round. This is already partly the case with the Double-Acting LNG carriers, with a major milestone voyage made by the ‘Eduard Toll’ in January 2018.

Efforts are also being made to consolidate & enhance the whole infrastructure, as recently witnessed by the agreement this week between DP World, a major port operator, with Russian entities, (RDIF, Rosatom and Nornickel), with a view to developing the NSR, including ports.

Currently, the NSR remains riskier, more complex and more expensive than alternative routes, (such as via the Suez Canal) and will remain as such for the foreseeable future. The overall goal is to be able to integrate the NSR into a wider the global transportation system, sea and rail).

The Bloomberg article states that ‘the Russian insistence that all Arctic traffic requires Moscow’s permission long has been an irritant to the U.S.” No surprises, it has always been the case even during Soviet times. Given that it is a massive investment and undertaking spearheaded by Russia, along with international partners, it is any wonder that Moscow is continuing to assert regulatory control over the NSR using customary practice and Article 234 of UNCLOS. The resentment shown by the U.S. at Moscow’s attitude is telling.

At present, only Russia has nuclear icebreakers, since the late 1950s, although China is extremely keen to enter into this field. China is in the process of developing a 30,069 ton nuclear vessel, described as an “experimental ship platform”. Much has been written about it being a nuclear icebreaker test ship. It is also suggested that it will pave the way for potential development of nuclear propulsion for future aircraft carriers. Certainly, the use of a nuclear icebreaker will fit into the wider Polar Silk Road concept, by ensuring independence and the potential to explore farther than either the NSR or NWP by using the 3rd Arctic route: the Transpolar Sea Route.

Finally, I will finish this piece with an extract from the article:

In a classic case of great power competition — who’s got more hardware? — the U.S. faces an “icebreaker gap” compared with Russia.”

This topic will be the basis for the next analysis to come.

The Essential Saker II: Civilizational Choices and Geopolitics / The Russian challenge to the hegemony of the AngloZionist Empire
The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world