Putin pledges Russian superiority in the Arctic with new icebreakers

"We must reaffirm this superiority constantly, every day. We must build up our positions, strengthen and update our fleet."

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia wanted to retain its superiority in the Arctic and that it planned to renew its icebreaker fleet to bolster its presence there.

Moscow has stepped up its efforts to tap the region’s commercial potential, including by increasing freight traffic on the Northern Sea Route, which runs along Russia’s Arctic coast from the Bering Strait near Alaska to Novaya Zemlya (with ships often continuing on to Murmansk, in Russia’s Western Arctic).

In recent years Russia has also re-opened abandoned Soviet military, air and radar bases in the region.

Speaking at the unveiling of a new icebreaker in St. Petersburg, Putin pledged Russia would continue modernizing its Arctic fleet.

“It is well-known that we have a unique icebreaker fleet that holds a leading position in the development and study of Arctic territories,” Putin said aboard the vessel, named after former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

“We must reaffirm this superiority constantly, every day. We must build up our positions, strengthen and update our fleet, introduce new advanced technologies in the construction of icebreakers and other vessels of that class.”

The new diesel-electric icebreaker unveiled on Tuesday is the world’s largest and most powerful vessel of its kind, according to Russian authorities. It can break ice up to 2 meters thick, has two helicopter pads and can take part in scientific expeditions and transport hazardous materials, among other things.

In September, Russia added the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker, the Arktika, to its Arctic fleet.

Putin said last year the Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, the majority of which would be powered by nuclear reactors.

Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber.