Exactly 65 years ago, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, the ‘Lenin’, was launched in the USSR. With this event, Moscow loudly announced its ambitions to develop the northern seas. Though the Arctic has remained on the periphery of world leaders’ attention for a long time, due to global warming the region is now becoming something akin to another ‘Klondike’ for natural resources.

The erstwhile Russian Empire claimed its rights to this region at the beginning of the last century, but, given the current circumstances, not all Arctic nations are ready to cede leadership to Moscow in developing the Arctic Ocean. Consequently, the region is increasingly becoming the focus of potential tensions in international relations.

The power of Russian icebreakers…

On December 5, 1957, the first nuclear-powered surface vessel in world history and the Soviet Union’s first atomic icebreaker, the ‘Lenin’, was launched. It was transferred to the USSR’s Naval Ministry two years later and was created to serve the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

On the eve of the 65th anniversary of this event, Moscow made another major statement: at the end of November 2022, the third icebreaker in Project 22220, the ‘Yakutia’, was launched. It will be completed on the water. According to various sources, commissioning is scheduled for late 2024 or early 2025. This vessel will also work to ensure the safe passage of ships along the Northern Sea Route.

At almost the same time, the icebreaker ‘Ural’ arrived on the scene. A total of seven nuclear icebreakers are currently in service with Atomflot. Today, Russia is the only country in the world with its own fleet of this type, without which the development of the polar regions surrounding the NSR would be almost impossible. “In recent years, Moscow has made it more than abundantly clear that it sees the region as its own and has built up its military presence,” writes Peter Suckau, a columnist for 19FortyFive.

America’s top brass also complains about this. “Russia is refurbishing Soviet-era airfields and radar installations, constructing new ports and search-and-rescue centers, and building up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally-powered icebreakers. It is also expanding its network of air and coastal defense missile systems, thus strengthening its anti-access and area-denial capabilities over key portions of the Arctic,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said last year.

… and US concern

It’s not only Russian icebreakers that are causing tension in the Arctic. Almost every step Russia takes towards building infrastructure in the region elicits a harsh reaction from international – especially American – observers.

For example, on August 1, 2022, the Russian government approved a plan to develop the NSR by 2035. The main goal set out in the document is to ensure reliable and safe transportation of freight and goods to benefit the people living in the Far North, and also to facilitate investment projects in the country’s Arctic zone.