Russia Effectively Leaves Arctic Council

“On 21 February, the Kremlin announced that Russia revised its Arctic policy by removing mentions of the Arctic Council, stressing the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests, and striving for greater self-reliance for its Arctic industrial projects.”

The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, lists its members as Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The position of Arctic Council president rotates between member states, and though the Council currently has a Russian president, other members of the Council have refused to meet in his presence in response to the war in Ukraine. Underscoring the schism, the Council also recently met without its current president presiding and accepted a Canadian counterclaim to Arctic territory that is also claimed by Russia.[i] As the excerpted article from independent Norwegian news source High North News indicates, Russia has effectively pulled out of the Arctic Council as a result of the Council’s actions and will now pursue its interests in the Arctic through bilateral relations and self-reliance. Russia’s decision increases the chance of further political conflict in the Arctic that could lead to a physical confrontation between Russia and Arctic Council member states.


Malte Humpert, “Russia Amends Arctic Policy Prioritizing ‘National Interest’ and Removing Cooperation Within Arctic Council,” High North News (independent newspaper published by the High North Center at Nord University, Bodo, Norway). 23 February 2023.

On 21 February, the Kremlin announced that Russia revised its Arctic policy by removing mentions of the Arctic Council, stressing the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests, and striving for greater self-reliance for its Arctic industrial projects. The hopes for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic continue to cool. Days after a U.S. diplomat stated that cooperation with Russia in the Arctic was now virtually impossible, the Kremlin published amendments to its Arctic policy. President Putin signed the decree on 21 February. The updated document places greater emphasis on Russian national interests in the region and removes specific mentions for cooperation within the Arctic Council.

While the original policy, published in March 2020, called for the “strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states” in the fields of economic, scientific, cultural and cross-border cooperation the amended version removes the above section and instead calls for the “development of relations with foreign states on a bilateral basis, “taking into account the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic.”

The amended text also removes mentions of “the framework of multilateral regional cooperation formats, including the Arctic Council, the coastal Arctic “five” and the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region.” 

In the original policy the section on international cooperation, placed significant emphasis on work within “multilateral regional cooperation formats” for the purpose of building up economic, scientific and technological, as well as cultural cooperation. It did not make any mention of prioritizing Russian national interests. In contrast, the wording of the revised document now places the country’s national interests in the Arctic ahead of work towards economic, scientific and technological, and cultural cooperation. Just last week, U.S. military leaders emphasized that the Arctic was now Russia’s number one priorityThe updated version also places a greater emphasis on Russian self-reliance in the region. It calls for ensuring “import independence of the shipbuilding complex,” clearly a response to western sanctions which have affected Russia’s ability to order and purchase ice-capable gas and oil tankers at foreign shipyards.The amended version of the policy calls for the” development and modernization of shipbuilding and ship repair facilities for the construction and maintenance of ships navigating in the waters of the Northern Sea Route. “In terms of energy supply for population centers and industrial facilities along the NSR the policy now calls for the use of domestically built “low-power nuclear power plants.” The first such facility, the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov was towed through the Baltics and up the Norwegian coastline in 2018 to the Arctic town of Pevek to supply electrical power and residential heat.


[i] For more additional information about the Canadian claim on the Lomonosov Ridge see: Les Grau, “Canada Makes Additional Claims to Arctic Territory Claimed by Russia,” OE Watch, 02-2023.

Russia Cutting Back on Nuclear Icebreaker Production

“An updated version of Russia’s Arctic Strategy states that Russia will only build one “Lider,” not three as originally planned. The amended document signed by President Putin on the 27th of February reads that only the lead ship of the new class will be built before 2035.”

As reported in the excerpted article from the Norway-based The Barents Observer, Russia will only build one of the three nuclear icebreakers it had previously planned but will compensate by increasing conventional icebreaker production. Although the cutback in production could be a response to the latest rounds of EU sanctions against Russia, the decision may have already been in process. In the past, Russia has cut back on expensive projects only to introduce improved projects later. The change in direction may indicate Russia believes it already has enough atomic-powered icebreakers in an era of thinning polar icecaps.


Atle Staalesen, “Moscow lowers ambitions in nuclear icebreaker program, will not build fleet of new super-powerful vessels after all,” The Barents Observer (independent Norwegian news site in Russian and English currently blocked in Russia), 1 March 2023.

Only two days after the EU imposed sanctions against Russia’s state nuclear icebreaker operator, the country announces that it will not build a fleet of Lider-class vessels. An updated version of Russia’s Arctic Strategy states that Russia will only build one “Lider,” not three as originally planned. The amended document signed by President Putin on the 27th of February reads that only the lead ship of the new class will be built before 2035.

The lead ship carries the name “Rossiya” and is currently under construction at the Zvezda yard in the Russian Far East. It is due to be ready for sailing in 2027. The Lider (project 20510) will be equipped with two RITM-400 type nuclear reactors and have a total capacity of 120 MW, twice the power of the currently most powerful icebreakers. It will be able to crush through ice thicker than four meters.

The vessel is very complicated to build, and it comes at an extraordinarily high price. The Russian government in January 2020 allocated 127 billion rubles (€1,85 billion) for the construction of the lead ship. The reduction of the number of Liders is compensated by the construction of more LK-60 icebreakers[GRLCUT(1] . While the original strategy document from 2020 includes the construction of “no less than five” icebreakers of the 22220 class, the updated documents reads “no less than seven” vessels of the kind.

Russia already has three ships of the class in operation: the Arktika, Sibir and Ural. By year 2035, also the Yakutia, Chukotka, Kamchatka and Primorie will be completed. The Arctic Strategy also outlines the construction of 30 rescue and support ships, as well as three hydrographic survey ships and two piloting ships by 2030.

The updated document comes only two days after the European Commission adopted its 10th package of sanctions against Russia, a part of which is aimed at nuclear icebreaker operator Atomflot. According to the Commission, the sanctions against Atomflot will reduce Russia’s ability to take use of the Northern Sea Route to exploit its vast Arctic oil and gas reserves.

“With oil and gas exports shifting from Europe to Asia as a result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and subsequent Westerns sanctions, Russia’s icebreaker fleet is key to the country’s Arctic hydrocarbon strategy. In order to escort oil and gas tankers on the much longer and more challenging voyage from the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas to Asia, rather than the much shorter and less ice infested route to Europe, Russia relies on Atomflot’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers,” an explanation from the Commission reads.Vladimir Putin has since 2018 had the development of the Northern Sea Route as one of his key priorities and federal agencies have been commissioned to reach 80 million tons of goods per year on the route by 2024. The lion’s share of the projected goods traffic is oil, liquified natural gas and coal.

China Developing Improved Equipment for Deep Sea, Polar Exploration

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long.

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long.

“The Xuelong 2 is like a mobile laboratory at sea, sailing into many areas that were inaccessible in the past.”

China regards deep-sea[i] areas and polar regions as critical to its future development due to their abundant resources. President Xi Jinping even included them in his Holistic National Security Concept, which lays out domains that he regards as critical to China’s development and national security.[ii] However, both deep-sea exploration and polar regions pose significant technical challenges due to the extreme pressure or weather conditions encountered. As the following excerpts explain, China has made significant progress in overcoming these challenges.

The first excerpted article, from an early March 2023 edition of the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Science & Technology, examines some of the equipment China has completed or is developing to explore deep sea and polar regions as part of its efforts to become a powerful maritime country. The article focuses on two technologies: icebreakers and deep-sea drilling rigs. The Xue Long 1 [GRLCUT(1] and Xue Long 2 [GRLCUT(2] icebreakers, originally based on a Ukrainian design, have improved China’s ability to explore polar regions. The article cites an acoustic engineer with experience studying polar environments, who highlighted how the Xuelong 2 had opened many previously inaccessible areas to exploration.

The latter half of the article focuses on deep sea drilling, noting the advances made with the “Manatee II” deep sea drilling rig, which is reportedly capable of operating at depths of 2,000 m or more and has set world records by drilling over 200 m into the ocean floor. A major priority for exploitation by this and future rigs is “combustible ice,” a mixture of frozen water and natural gas present on the sea floor in the deep sea. According to the article, the Manatee II has carried out exploration missions searching for combustible ice in many areas surrounding China, as well as for traditional offshore oil and gas deposits. Due to the experience from operating the Manatee, China has improved its technologies in this niche but important area, and the first of China’s next generation of deep-sea drilling ships is expected to be completed in 2024.[iii] It will reportedly be capable of drilling in waters deeper than 10,000 m.[iv] The minerals and natural gas potentially recoverable by these drills could create an economic bonanza and help China offset its reliance on imported energy.   The second article is based on an interview with Sun Bo, Party Secretary of the China Polar Research Center Polar Research Institute of China, which is part of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Sun Bo noted how vital China’s second icebreaker, the Xuelong 2, completed in 2019,[v] has been for China’s polar exploration efforts, highlighting that having two icebreakers now allows China to effectively support research teams at both poles at the same time. While these articles underscore how China has clearly made important strides in overcoming technical bottlenecks, it might now face legal ones. The UN recently concluded negotiations about exploiting biological and mineral resources on the high seas, which might constrain China’s activities in polar and deep-sea regions.[vi]


He Liang [何亮], “科技扬帆,引领海洋探索挺进深蓝” (Science and Technology Set Sail, Setting a Course for Ocean Exploration into the Deepest Blue Sea), Science & Technology Daily [科技日报] (Official newspaper of PRC Ministry of Science & Technology [MOST]), 6 March 2023.

Accelerating [China’s] development into a maritime great power and making good use of marine resources is not possible the important support of science and technology. To protect the marine ecological environment, it is necessary to strengthen basic research and fully understand the ocean’s riches; to develop marine resources, it is necessary to address the urgent requirements of improving development of technologies and equipment of scientific research for technology and equipment, and concentrate efforts to develop more “national strategic weapons.”[i]

“With the help of more and more advanced equipment, China’s polar scientific research has maritime, land and aerial capabilities.” Yin Jingwei [殷敬伟], vice president of Harbin Engineering University[ii], has long been engaged in research on polar acoustic technology….According to Yin [Xuelong 2’s] superior ice-breaking capabilities allow more scientific research facilities and supplies to be transported into the Antarctic regions. “It is like a mobile laboratory at sea, sailing into many areas that were inaccessible in the past.”

As of September 28, 2021, China has completed 12 Arctic expeditions. However, China is not an Arctic nation, and its deep-sea and polar-related research work started relatively late compared to other countries, and its support capabilities have also been limited to a certain extent. There are still many weak links and capabilities in the fields of polar science and technology research, polar equipment development, and deep-sea polar exploration. missing.

Yin Jingwei told the Science and Technology Daily reporter of that China does not yet have nuclear-powered icebreakers and underwater equipment capable of breaking ice in the polar regions, and the ability to collect maritime below the ice is also very weak. Additional efforts are needed to overcome technological and environmental hurdles to move forward.

“深耕新疆域,推动极地科考再上新台阶——海洋领域专家谈建设海洋强国” (Exploring New Frontiers and Taking Polar Scientific Research to a New Level—Maritime Experts Discuss Building a Maritime Great Power), Science & Technology Daily [科技日报] (Official newspaper of PRC Ministry of Science & Technology [MOST]), 19 January 2023 today’s world polar regions have become a “new frontier” for development and a focal point for global governance, a new high ground for technological competition, an area with new sea routes and a new source of resources. The China Polar Research Center of the Ministry of Natural Resources adheres to the principle of “understanding, protecting, and using” these regions proposed by General Secretary Xi Jinping, and is committed to providing support for China’s polar scientific research. China continues to improve its independent innovation capabilities and overall there is momentum to continue improvements. The China Polar Research Center independently built the “Xuelong 2” icebreaker with, filling a major gap in China’s capabilities required for polar scientific research and developed a way to use both the Xuelong and Xuelong two effectively in concert. This new pattern of “Double Xuelong” Polar exploration (one assigned to each polar region) has greatly improved the on-site support capabilities for China’s polar scientific investigations.


[i] Deep-sea areas are typically defined as those below 200 meters. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of the Earth’s ocean floor remains unmapped and unexplored. “How much of the ocean have we explored?,” NOAA [Accessed March 2023].

[ii] See: Peter Wood, “China’s Holistic Security Concept Explained,” OE Watch, 07-2018.

 [iii] The ship was developed by China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s (CSSC) 708 Research Institute and is subordinate to the China Geological Survey Bureau. The bureau also operates ships involved in mapping the seafloor in potential sensitive areas, which has drawn the alarm of nearby nations. See for example, Naoki Inoue, Tsukasa Hadano and Jun Endo, “Chinese survey ships straying into other nation’s EEZs, data shows”, Nikkei, 31 January 2021.

 [iv] “China’s first ultra-deepwater scientific research drilling ship achieved main hull penetration today” [我国首艘超深水科考钻探船今日实现主船体贯通], China Mining News [中国矿业报 ], 18 December 2022.

 [v] See: Les Grau, “China Developing More High Latitude Equipment”, OE Watch, 11-2019.

 [vi] “UN delegates reach historic agreement on protecting marine biodiversity in international waters,” United Nations, 5 March 2023.   


 [i] This phrase, 国之重器, is frequently used to describe strategically impactful or game-changing weapons systems (ballistic missile submarines, aircraft carriers etc.,) and civilian technologies such as nuclear reactors.

 [ii] Harbin Engineering University is one of the “Seven Sons of National Defense,” which are universities that work closely with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Image Information:

Image: Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long.
Attribution: Timo Palo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Russian Battalion Tactical Group Mission Training in the Arctic

(Click image to download magazine.)

By Dr. Lester W. Grau

By Dr. Lester W. Grau & Dr. Charles K. Bartles

By Dr. Lester W. Grau

Russian Arctic Seaports Expand Activity Despite War in Ukraine

The most important issue on today’s agenda is the fulfillment of President Putin’s instructions to increase shipping volumes on the Northern Sea Route to 80 million tons by the year 2024.”

According to the excerpted article from Norway-based The Barents Observer,despite fighting in Ukraine and sanctions by the West, Russia continues to strongly push the expansion of the Northern Sea Route’s capacity. Most notably, the accompanying article notes that Russia seeks to expand from a shipment of 34 million tons of goods in 2022 to a projected 80 million tons by 2024. It also notes that Russia has set a target of implementing the construction of 41 new cargo vessels by 2030. In the past, President Putin has set increased shipping goals for the Northern Sea Route and, officially, they have been met. Yet, given the significantly ambitious increase from 34 million metric tons to 80 million metric tons, we do not know what goods are being shipped and who the customers are. Today, much of the Northern Sea Route shipping goes east to the Russian Far East and China; it also remains the case that many non-European countries are ready to expand trade with Russia regardless of its invasion of Ukraine. In terms of what will get shipped, given Russia’s natural resources and the never-ending need for sources of energy, much of this cargo will be liquified natural gas (LNG), coal, oil, timber, and processed metals. Grain shipments by barge up the Lena River to the Arctic Ocean and on to China have already been accomplished at a cheaper rate than rail. Still, it may be the case that the new proposed capacities might exceed demand. Annual increases of two to four million metric tons are achievable, but an increase to of the likes projected here would be unprecedented. If accomplished, though, any increase in shipping capacity could help Russia offset export losses due to ongoing sanctions.


Atle Staalesen, “Moscow assures it will not lower ambitions in Arctic,” The Barents Observer (independent Norwegian news site in Russian and English currently blocked in Russia), 13 February 2023.

“The most important issue on today’s agenda is the fulfillment of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s instructions to increase shipping volumes on the Northern Sea Route to 80 million tons by the year 2024,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister YuriTruter said as he on the 11th of February opened a meeting in the State Commission on Arctic Development.

In the room were representatives of key federal ministries, regional governments, and state companies. Western sanctions have caused certain difficulties in reaching the president’s objectives, the high-ranking government official admitted. But investment projects in the Arctic are still proceeding according to plans, he assured the group.

In 2022, a total of 34 million tons of goods was shipped on the route. “It is a good result,” Trutnev underlined, and explained that the original plan for the year was only 32 million tons.

Despite the war against Ukraine and the severe economic hardships facing the country, the Northern Sea Route remains a top priority for the Russian government.

The cabinet headed by Premier Mikhail Mishustin continues to aim for an unprecedented boost in Arctic shipping, and the ambitions outlined in the federal” Plan on the development of the Northern Sea Route” as adopted in August 2022 remains intact.

The document says shipping on the route is to increase to 80 million tons in 2024 and later to 150 million tons in 2030 and 220 million tons in 2035.

In order to reach the target, a total of 41 new cargo vessels must be built by 2030, the leader of the Arctic Commission argued in last week’s meeting. Trutnev also underlined that the goods capacity of seaports along the Northern Sea Route will increase to 36 million tons in 2023 and to 83 million tons in 2024.

Behind the port development stands nuclear power company Rosatom, that in 2022 completed the construction of the Utrenneye terminal in the Gulf of Ob. In 2024, Rosneft’s Sever Bay terminal will stand ready on the coast of the Kara Sea, and the same year — the nearby new coal terminal of the Severnaya Zvezda.

But there are looming financial troubles in the horizon. “I do not exclude that we will have to find new solutions to financing the operations, so that there appears no deficit of funds in any phases of development,” Trutnev told his commission colleagues.And despite the dramatic increase in federal deficit, the government official underlined that the state is ready to offer support. “If one of the companies will not have financing, that does not mean that it will be abandoned, [but] we must help,” Trutnev said.