Russia Preps for Arctic ‘Dominance’ With Nuclear Icebreakers and Polar Warships

On Nov. 4, Russia’s Regional Development Ministry concluded in a report that Moscow was unprepared for a war in the Arctic. Over the next two days, the Kremlin and it partners in the press moved quickly to assure the world that they were stepping up their efforts to establish their military presence in the land ...

By , a reporter based in New York.
Pink floyd88 a via Wikimedia Commons
Pink floyd88 a via Wikimedia Commons
Pink floyd88 a via Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 4, Russia's Regional Development Ministry concluded in a report that Moscow was unprepared for a war in the Arctic. Over the next two days, the Kremlin and it partners in the press moved quickly to assure the world that they were stepping up their efforts to establish their military presence in the land of the North Pole - with a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a squadron of warships.

The Regional Development Ministry's report assessed would not be able to quickly respond to an "attack" in the Arctic, with the border checkpoints lacking appropriate equipment and the servicemen the necessary training for "fighting in harsh climate," according to RIA Novosti. Other inhibitions to Russia's Arctic development included the fall in local population and climate change.

But, Arctic players of the world, don't get, um, overheated. After admitting this lapse in attempts to dominate the area, the Russian media quickly came out with reports about Russia's brand new Arctic capabilities.

On Nov. 4, Russia’s Regional Development Ministry concluded in a report that Moscow was unprepared for a war in the Arctic. Over the next two days, the Kremlin and it partners in the press moved quickly to assure the world that they were stepping up their efforts to establish their military presence in the land of the North Pole – with a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a squadron of warships.

The Regional Development Ministry’s report assessed would not be able to quickly respond to an "attack" in the Arctic, with the border checkpoints lacking appropriate equipment and the servicemen the necessary training for "fighting in harsh climate," according to RIA Novosti. Other inhibitions to Russia’s Arctic development included the fall in local population and climate change.

But, Arctic players of the world, don’t get, um, overheated. After admitting this lapse in attempts to dominate the area, the Russian media quickly came out with reports about Russia’s brand new Arctic capabilities.

On Nov. 6, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the Russian army had plans to form a squadron of ice-breaking warships to be deployed by 2014 to protect Arctic shipping routes. Infantry forces that are "to fight in the region" will also be provided with new equipment.

The day before, the Kremlin-backed news service RT reported that Russian shipbuilders set out to build a nuclear-powered mega icebreaker that would be able to cut through Arctic ice at any time of the year. The $1.2 billion ship will be the largest Russian icebreaker yet, and will reportedly carry the creative and original name of "The Arctic." It will be used to collect data along the continental shelf, but also "further increase Russia’s dominance in the region."

And Russia really does plan to dominate. In mid-October, the Kremlin announced that Moscow wants to spend $63 billion by 2020 on its Arctic program. RT then somewhat nervously mentioned that the Canadian military was recently discovered to have been secretly testing a $620,000 stealth snowmobile "designed for clandestine operations in the Arctic." Russian officials have said in the past that they were increasing their military presence in the region to protect its shores from drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. Could they have another enemy in mind for their billion dollar icebreakers?

Eight countries put forth claims to the Arctic, which have in the past resulted in several territorial disputes. Only in 2010 did Russia and Norway resolve a 40-year border conflict revolving around the Arctic’s natural resources. With Arctic ice melting at a rapid pace due to climate change, these resources will be easier to retrieve. According to the United States Geological Survey, the barren area holds 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas.

Despite the riches hidden under the ice, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis wrote in Foreign Policy that an open conflict in the Arctic was improbable. "The likelihood of a conventional offensive military operation in the Arctic is very low."

But like the Black Watch in Game of Thrones, the Russians are preparing for war with someone, just in case. And if the White Walkers come, we will all be grateful for the Russian icebreakers.

Hanna Kozlowska is a reporter based in New York. Twitter: @hannakozlowska

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.