Staunton, December 16 – Western media have been filled with stories about the enormous new icebreakers Russia has been putting to sea, icebreakers that many believe will allow Moscow to continue to dominate the Northern Sea Route and to expand the Russian presence in the Antarctic.
But there has been far less attention to the problems these ships face that mean they are unlikely to be able to achieve what Moscow has suggested and many in the West fear (cf. windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/02/russias-new-icebreaker-suffers-new.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/10/plans-for-giant-russian-icebreaker.html).
Now, however, the Russian icebreaker fleet has suffered another indignity, this time involving its inability to deliver the modules for a new Russian base in the Antarctic, that highlight all the problems Russian icebreaker operations face – inadequate funding, corruption, a rush to put to sea without adequate testing, and regular failures of key components.
Six years ago, Moscow decided to replace the Antarctic station it had set up in 1957; and two years ago, the government called for this to happen. Because the government lacked the funds to build it, a Russian oligarch, Leonid Mikhelson, agreed to pay for the construction of the modules in Russia and Moscow said it would deliver them to the Antarctic.
The modules were constructed and loaded on a new atomic-powered icebreaker, but it didn’t make it to the southern polar regions as planned. Instead, the Sevmorput’s propeller broke and the icebreaker was marooned for some weeks off Angola before it was fixed enough not to complete its journey but to limp back to St. Petersburg docks.
(For details on this history and its current inglorious chapter, see meduza.io/feature/2020/12/16/rossiya-nakonets-to-postroila-sebe-novuyu-antarkticheskuyu-stantsiyu-na-dengi-odnogo-iz-samyh-bogatyh-lyudey-strany and znak.com/2020-01-28/mihelson_za_svoi_dengi_vosstanovit_rossiyskuyu_stanciyu_v_antarktide_cena_4_mlrd.)
But the problems continue: the pandemic spike in Russia’s northern capital is delaying work on the ship; and there is now no chance the ship will be ready deliver the modules this season. At the earliest, the new station will arrive only a year from now (kommersant.ru/doc/4585715 and nplus1.ru/news/2020/12/07/return).
Russian scientists are disappointed and say that the lack of the new station will limit Russia’s ability to monitor weather patterns in the Antarctic but that the absence of Russian government funding leaves them no choice but to be dependent on oligarchs and on their country’s problem-plagued shipbuilding industry.