Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘How Many Icebreakers Does Russia Need?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 13 – As the first Chinese merchant ship begins an unescorted voyage from Dalian to Rotterdam on the Northern Sea Route, Russian military officials are pondering how many icebreakers Russia in fact needs to ensure that Moscow is able to continue its dominance of that increasingly important passage between Europe and Asia.
This voyage comes only a year after a Chinese icebreaker named “Xue Long” or “Snow Dragon” became the first ever Chinese vessel to traverse the entire Northern Sea Route. And it reflects Beijing’s interest in making use of this route which is 5200 kilometers shorter and many days quicker than one via the Suez Canal that 19,000 of its ships now use annually (scmp.com/news/china/article/1295820/chinese-ship-makes-first-journey-northeast-passage-route-europe and barentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2013/08/first-chinese-merchant-ship-northern-sea-route-12-08).

            China’s moves and those of other economic powers as well as global warming that is making the Northern Sea Route navigable for longer each year have prompted Russian experts to ask “how many icebreakers does Russia need” to maintain its dominant position in the region (topwar.ru/31813-skolko-ledokolov-nuzhno-rossii.html).

            In an article published today, Topwar analyst Sergey Yurefyev notes that at present, Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, including six nuclear-powered ones ( no other country has any of those) and approximately 20 smaller diesel vessels. No other country has even a quarter as many.

            But if Moscow is to make the Northern Sea Route successful, it will need more icebreakers to ensure that the route stays open all year long.  That would require a minimum of five to six nuclear-powered icebreakers and eight to ten non-nuclear ones dedicated to this route alone. (Many others are needed for northern Russian ports.)

            Because many of its current icebreakers are reaching the end of their service life – a majority of the largest nuclear-powered ones are slated to go out of service over the next several years – Russia needs to build more and, because of long lead times, sooner. (One whose keel was laid in 2012 won’t be available until 2018, Yurefyev says.)

            According to the Topwar expert, Moscow needs to be building at a minimum ten to twelve new icebreakers in the coming years. But despite plans to do so, “at the present moment, Russian shipbuilding companies have not begun to realize such ambitious plans for Russia,” putting the Northern Sea Route and Moscow’s role in it at risk.

            On the one hand, other countries such as China may play a larger role in the north that many Russian security experts would welcome.  And on the other, the entire Northern Sea Route project may fail to take off as quickly as the Arctic powers hope.  China’s move this week clearly suggests that the former is more likely than the latter.

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