Russian Icebreakers and the War for the Arctic

The 50 Let Pobedy nuclear-powered icebreaker operated by Atomflot makes its way through the frozen waters of the Gulf of Ob, in the Kara Sea.
Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images

Russian Icebreakers and the War for the Arctic

‘Russia’s icebreakers make it king of the Arctic, and America is just a pauper.’

st. petersburg
Our 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 busted up the ice, opening up safe shipping lanes.

It was still too dark to record video when we navigated through the thickest parts of the broken ice, but here is some of what we saw in the morning light as we neared the city:

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 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent 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 58 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, 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.

Bloomberg discussed the power of these new lng icebreakers in July, writing that “any one of the vessels could power as many as 35,000 U.S. homes.” This power is needed because “bending ice into submission requires enormous power.”

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. 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. It led Sean Fahey, a U.S. Coast Guard commander and professor of international law, to warn recently that “the rights and freedoms all states enjoy to operate ships and aircraft in the maritime domain—may become the most important strategic issue in the region.”

But because of an ever widening “icebreaker gap” between Russia and the rest of the world, the U.S. is poorly positioned to challenge Russia’s tightening grip on the Arctic.

‘King of the Arctic’

“You can’t explore the depths of the Arctic, or traverse its seas, if you can’t get to it,” Terrell Starr wrote for Foxtrot Alpha. “Russia’s icebreakers make it king of the Arctic, and America is just a pauper.”

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 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. The U.S., meanwhile, has just one, the 42-year-old uscgc Polar Star, which also operates in Antarctica, on the other side of the globe.

Russia’s heavy icebreakers are not only considerably newer than the 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.

Here is footage of a Russian icebreaker in action (blaring patriotic music at a passing foreign ship):

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. The Polar Star, in comparison, weighs around 10,000 tons.

So the vast icebreaker gap is set to further widen. “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan recently said. “Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

Russia’s fleet of icebreakers will continue to maintain and expand its “superhighways” through the Arctic. And the U.S. and other nations will find it ever more difficult to challenge Putin’s control over the region.

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 deepwater ports, built new air and radar bases, and have deployed antiship and ground-to-air missile systems to the area.

Later this year, 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 antiship missiles, Russia can guard its energy claims in the region and enforce its new rules for the Northern Sea Route, whether or not the other Arctic nations agree with the legality of them.

Below is a glimpse of the scale and complexity of Russia’s militarization of the Arctic:

‘A Dangerous New Era’

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia trudged through the next decade as a depleted, exhausted, unstable nation. It was outside the mainstream of international affairs, and many Westerners mostly ignored it.

But then Vladimir Putin came to power and began to right the ship and change its course. In August 2008, he shocked much of the world by invading the former Soviet nation of Georgia and bringing one fifth of its internationally recognized territory under Russian control. That October, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote about what the invasion signaled for the future:

Russia’s attack on Georgia in August marks the beginning of a dangerous new era in history. This was the first military strike of a rising Asian superpower—and there will be more! … Russia is determined to be an energy superpower in an age when the whole modern world is hungry for energy. … We have witnessed the beginning of a new era!

Mr. Flurry went on to name which other former Soviet nation Russia would likely set its sights on next: “Will a crisis occur over Ukraine? That area is the breadbasket of Russia, and surely it is willing to wage war over that as well.”

Time proved that forecast accurate, with Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and destabilization of Ukraine’s eastern regions. Putin had literally redrawn the borders of Europe—twice.

Since then, Putin has continued using his power to prevent Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries from developing closer relations with Europe. He has pushed America out of his backyard by persuading Kyrgyzstan to evict the U.S. from Manas Air Base in 2014. He has made Russia a key player in the Middle East, where it has weakened U.S. influence, assisted the brutal Syrian regime, and helped Iran maintain its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Putin has also transformed Russia’s military into a modern and more lethal 21st-century force, including his intensification of efforts to militarize and control the Arctic.

It is clear that Putin is restoring Russia’s power and boosting its international relevance back toward Soviet levels. And as Mr. Flurry wrote, the world is now in a “dangerous new era.” And Bible prophecy shows that, in the months and years ahead, he will lead Russia in an even more dangerous and aggressive direction.

In his booklet The Prophesied ‘Prince of Russia,’ Mr. Flurry explains that Putin is personally described in ancient Bible prophecies in Ezekiel 38 and 39, and that his rule indicates that “[w]e are entering into the worst crisis ever in man’s history.” But Mr. Flurry adds that these prophecies are “super-inspiring at the same time.”

He writes: “Vladimir Putin is a sign, literally a sign, that Jesus Christ is about to return! This is one of the most inspiring messages in the Bible.”

Mr. Flurry continues:

What we are seeing in Russia ultimately leads to the transition from man ruling man to God ruling man! And it is almost here! It is just a few short years away.

We need to watch Vladimir Putin closely. I believe he is almost certain to be the “prince of Rosh” whom God inspired Ezekiel to write about 2,500 years ago! We need to watch what is happening in Russia and how Europe responds to it. … Russia’s resurgence—which we see reported in headlines often—shows that end-time Bible prophecies are rapidly being fulfilled!

The rise of Putin’s Russia, including its dominance of the Arctic, shows that nuclear World War iii is near. But these trends are also intimately tied to the best imaginable news: Jesus Christ will soon return to Earth and bring in an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity for the whole world.

To understand the details of Russia’s role in Bible prophecy, and what it means for your life, order a free copy of Mr. Flurry’s booklet The Prophesied ‘Prince of Russia.’