Russia’s nuclear icebreakers and militarisation of the Arctic

What is the significance of the newly launched icebreakers? Why are countries racing to display power in the Arctic? What is India’s position?

The story so far:

On November 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually presided over the launch and flag raising ceremony of two nuclear-powered icebreakers at St. Petersburg and said such icebreakers were of “strategic importance”. As climate change opens up the Arctic giving access to new routes and resources, there is a race by adjoining countries to build up their militaries and Russia has a clear lead over them.

Why are the Russian icebreakers significant?

Speaking at the launch ceremony, Mr. Putin said both icebreakers were laid down as part of their large-scale, systematic work to re-equip and replenish the domestic icebreaker fleet, to strengthen Russia’s status as a “great Arctic power.” The 173.3-metre-long‘Yakutia’, with a displacement of up to 33,540 tonnes,was launched into water andcanbreak throughthree metresof ice.The flag was raised on another vessel Ural, which isexpected to become operational in December, while the Yakutia will joinservice by end-2024,Mr.Putin said.

There are two already similar vessels in service, Arktika and Sibir. Mr. Putin said that a much more powerful 209-metre-long nuclear icebreaker “Rossiya,” displacing up to 71,380 tonnes, would be completed by 2027.

In the last two decades, Russia has reactivated several Soviet era Arctic military bases and upgraded its capabilities.

Mr. Putin talked of the importance of the Northern Sea Route,which cuts down time to reach Asia by up to two weeks compared to the current route via the Suez canal. In line with this, the updated Russian naval doctrine, unveiled in July, envisages “diversifying and stepping up naval activities on the Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos and Wrangel Island.”

In the backdrop of the war on Ukraine, on March 3, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. announced that they would “temporarily pause participation in all meetings of the [Arctic] Council and its subsidiary bodies…”.

Why are countries racing towards the Arctic?

There has been a race among Arctic states and near-Arctic states to augment their capabilities in a bid to be ready to capitalise on the melting Arctic.Russian military modernisation in the Arctic has prompted other Arctic states to join the bandwagon.Unlike Antarctica,the Arctic is not a global commonaccentuating the problem.

For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been conducting regular exercises in the region while partner countries are investing in upgrading military capabilities. At the same time, China, which calls itself to be a near-Arctic state, has also announced ambitious plans for a ‘polar silk route’ to connect to Europe as well building massive icebreakers.

Where does India stand with respect to the Arctic?

Since 2007, India has anArctic research programmewithas many as 13 expeditionsundertaken till date. In March 2022,Indiaunveiled its first Arctic policy titled:‘India and the Arctic: building a partnership for sustainable development’.Indiais also one of the 13Observersin the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic.

As the earth further heats up, which is more profound at the poles, the race for the Arctic is set to accelerate which makes the Arctic the next geopolitical hotspot with all interests converging on it – environmental, economic, political and military.

THE GIST

Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually presided over the launch and flag raising ceremony of two nuclear-powered icebreakers at St. Petersburg on November 22.

The icebreakers were laid down as part of their large-scale, systematic work to re-equip and replenish the domestic icebreaker fleet, to strengthen Russia’s status as a “great Arctic power”.

Since 2007, India has anArctic research programmewithas many as 13 expeditionsundertaken till date.