The entrance into St. Petersburg via boat in early April would have been difficult had it not been for Russia’s famous icebreaker ships that came through a few weeks earlier and broke up the ice, opening up safe shipping lanes.

Russia’s icebreaker fleet in the Baltic Sea is a significant economic asset. But there’s another region where Russia’s expanding fleet of icebreakers is making a more meaningful difference, not only economically but also militarily: the Arctic.

Historically, the frigid Arctic has been relatively free of the geopolitical struggles among world powers that have influenced most other regions. But in recent decades, that has begun to change. The region has become increasingly important to the Arctic nations: the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. None has been more determined to dominate the region than Russia, and it is accomplishing its objective largely with icebreakers.

Energy and Minerals

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic is home to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 per cent of the world’s oil. The region also contains vast caches of minerals, such as gold, zinc and platinum. Altogether these resources are worth an estimated $30 trillion, and the Russians are tapping into it at unprecedented rates.

The Yamal liquid natural gas plant is one notable example. It is located almost 380 miles north of the Arctic Circle line, close to the polar circle. In the local Nenets language, Yamal literally means “end of the world.” Temperatures around the Yamal Peninsula drop as low as 50 degrees below zero Celsius, for two months each year there is zero sunlight, and for seven to nine months, the waters around this wasteland are frozen solid in ice up to seven feet thick. Until mining facilities are opened on the moon, you will not find a more hostile environment for industry than the one surrounding Yamal LNG.

But thanks to a new fleet of 15 Arc7 icebreakers that can carry liquefied natural gas shipments, the Russians can keep operations humming year-round as they extract and transport Yamal’s 44 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.

A Grand Vision and a Tightening Grip

During a visit to Yamal LNG’s facilities in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that the plant and its icebreakers are part of a larger vision to dominate the Arctic. “This is perhaps the largest step forward in our developing of the Arctic,” he said. “Now we can safely say that Russia will expand through the Arctic this and next century.”

A major part of this expansion is development of the Northern Sea Route, which runs along Russia’s Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With this route, Russia can ship gas from Yamal and other Arctic locations to energy-thirsty Eastern nations weeks faster than the time required to go west around Europe and through the Suez Canal. In the case of China, the most energy-thirsty nation of all, using the Northern Sea Route cuts shipment times by as much as 25 days.

Georgia Today wrote on April 15 that this shipping route gives a “major boost” to Russia’s economy, due largely to how it better connects Russia and China. If current trends persist, “we might have a situation when the Russians for the first time in their history border water where major world commercial activity unfolds.”

And the Russians are now tightening their grip on this route in a troubling way. In March, the Russian government announced that foreign ships sailing this route must submit a request 45 days in advance, bring a Russian maritime pilot aboard for the crossing, and pay hefty additional transit fees. Russia says any vessel that fails to comply can be detained and even “eliminated.” Even if a foreign vessel abides by all of the requirements, Russian authorities said they can reject any request for passage with no explanation.

The worrisome – and illegal – part of these new Russian rules concerns the Bering Strait, which lies between Russia and the United States, with Canada sitting nearby. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) says waters 200 nautical miles from a given nation’s coast constitute that country’s exclusive economic zone, and that the nation is granted control over them. But international straits, such as the Bering Strait, are specifically not included in exclusive economic zones. And the UNCLOS guarantees freedom of navigation through them.

Contrary to the international laws, Russia insists that its Northern Sea Route (NSR) includes the Bering Strait and says its new rules apply to this sea gate. “Indeed, the NSR passes not only within Russia’s territorial waters, nevertheless, our country has the legal right to regulate navigation along the entire route,” Kamil Bekyashev, vice president of the Russian Maritime Law Association, said in March.

This is an illegal policy. Given the rising threat from Russia, the American commander of NORAD in March this year called on U.S. and Canadian policy makers to consider whether they’re doing enough to counter Russian threats in the far North. “We haven’t seen this sort of systematic and methodical increase in threats since the height of the Cold War,” said Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy.

Due to the ever widening “icebreaker gap” between Russia and the rest of the world, Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the Arctic nations are poorly positioned to challenge Russia’s tightening grip on the Arctic.

Largest Icebreakers Fleet

With 46 vessels, including six nuclear-powered models, Russia already has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers by far. A distant second place, with 10 ships, goes to Finland. Canada has seven, as does Sweden. The United States has five, none of which are nuclear.

The number of icebreaker ships alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Only Russia, Canada and the U.S. operate “heavy” icebreakers, which have increased power and can break through thicker ice packs. But here again, Russia has a major advantage with two operational heavy icebreakers and four more in refit. Canada and the U.S., meanwhile, have just one each, the 50-year-old CCG Louis St. Laurent and the 42-year-old USCGC Polar Star, of which the latter also operates in Antarctica, on the other side of the globe.

Russia’s heavy icebreakers are not only considerably newer than Louis St. Laurent and Polar Star, but they also remain in the Arctic year-round. And Putin says that by 2035, Russia will have 13 heavy icebreakers, including nine nuclear-powered behemoths.

In addition to the 15 new Arc7s now coming online, Russia is also near launching the Arktika-class (LK-60Ya/Pr. 22220) of heavy nuclear icebreakers. These 33,000-ton vessels will undergo sea trials at the end of this year. Also, in the works for Russia is the nuclear-powered Lider-class (LK-110Ya/Pr. 10510) icebreaker, which will weigh in at about 71,000 tons, making it the world’s heaviest icebreaker many times over. CCGS Louis St. Laurent, in comparison, displaces just over 11,000 tons.

Military Matters

In the last few years, Russia has also rushed to revive many abandoned Soviet military bases in the Arctic. Thanks in large part to its fleet of icebreakers, the Russians have revamped airstrips and radar facilities on numerous islands, established four new Arctic brigade command units, opened 16 deep-water ports, built new air and radar bases, and have deployed anti-ship and ground-to-air missile systems to the area.

Later this summer, the Russian military will hold large-scale drills in the Arctic archipelagos of the New Siberian Islands and Novaya Zemlya.

“The modernization of Arctic forces and of Arctic military infrastructure is taking place at an unprecedented pace not seen even in Soviet times,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor in chief of Moscow Defense Brief, told Reuters.

With these bases and surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, Russia can guard its energy claims in the region and enforce its new rules for the Northern Sea Route.

The Battle for the Arctic

The battle for the Arctic is raging on. The United States, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and China are all trying to take control or grow their territorial claim in the region. It begs the question, what is Canada doing to keep its stake in the Arctic?

Liberal John McKay, the Canadian co-chair of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence with the U.S. in speaking with CBC Radio in April, said that he fears Canada isn’t ready to defend its territory as the threat from Russia slowly expands.

This was reiterated a few days later through a House of Commons committee report, which stated, “Russia has been rebuilding and modernizing its military capabilities and has demonstrated a willingness to challenge the international rules-based order.”

Given the growing threat, David Yurdiga, Conservative MP for Fort McMurray–Cold Lake Alberta, who just attended the International Arctic Forum held in St. Petersburg, Russia, speaking with The Post Millennial said Canada needs to develop better infrastructure in the Arctic and have a permanent military base there. These elements, along with a modern fleet of icebreakers, will help Canada keep its sovereignty in the Arctic, grow its navigational output and increase trade in the region.

As the struggle for the Arctic continues, maintaining a strong presence in the region will help Canada and other nations to stand as a formidable counter against Russian encroachment. This will act as a deterrent to Russia’s aggression in staking a greater claim over the North.