Polar Politics: The Competition to Control the Arctic Heats Up

Artika, Russia’s latest nuclear-powered icebreaker

At the height of the cold war, the polar region was one of the centers of the superpower’s shadow war. Ballistic missile carrying submarines were virtually undetectable in the cold waters below the Arctic icecap, while the air above represented the shortest routes for intercontinental bombers. Today, a rapidly melting polar ice cap is once again making the Arctic the nexus of a modern great power rivalry.

To date three countries, Russia, Canada and Denmark, have extended claims to the arctic seabed that encompasses large portions of the Arctic, including the geographic North Pole. China too, although not an arctic nation, has set its sights on a broader role in Arctic affairs. While the U.S. has not yet extended any broad territorial claims to the arctic seabed, the U.S. Navy is gearing up to deal with the challenge of naval surface warfare in an ice-free Arctic.

On June 16, 2016, Russia unveiled the lead ship in the LC-60YA class of nuclear powered icebreakers. Aptly named Arktika, the new behemoth measures 569 feet long and 112 feet wide at the beam, and it cost approximately $1.9 billion to construct.

The ship displaces 33,540 metric tons, about three-quarters of a World War II era Iowa class battleship. Powered by two nuclear reactors, it can cut through ice ten feet thick and has a top speed of 22 knots. It is described by Russian officials as “the largest and most powerful” icebreaker in the world.

On average, Arctic sea ice is between six and ten feet thick, which means the Arktika can travel almost anywhere in the polar region on a year around basis. There are a few regions where sea ice can measure up to fifteen thick, but these are increasingly rare.

The name harkens back to the original class of Soviet built nuclear powered icebreakers, which began in 1971. The original Arktika was the first surface ship to reach the North Pole on August 17, 1977. It was decommissioned in 2008. A total of five additional icebreakers were built between 1977 and 2007. The new Arktika is about 30 percent bigger than its original namesake.

The ship is scheduled to begin service in 2018, when it will begin to escort oil tankers and LNG carriers from northern Russia to ports in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia has more icebreakers than any other country in the world. In fact, it has more icebreakers than all of the other countries of the world combined. While Russia’s long Arctic coastline is clearly a factor in Russia’s nuclear icebreaker program, the Kremlin has made no secret that it has broader ambitions in the Arctic. Russia resumed intercontinental bomber flights over the Arctic in 2007. That same year, it also planted a Russian flag, constructed from virtually indestructible titanium, on the sea floor directly over the geographic North Pole.

Lomonsov and Mendeleev Ridges on the Arctic sea floor

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