Northern Sea Route needs bigger icebreakers, but development has stalled

A few years ago Russia’s Northern Sea Route was being touted as a major future alternative to the Asia-Europe route via the Suez Canal. Russia promised that the route would be open nearly all year round, and a fleet of new super icebreakers – the ‘Lider’ Class – would make convoys of large ships a possibility in the not-too-distant future.

However, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put several spanners in the works, the project had come up against several difficulties.

The new super icebreakers would have a power of 120 MW, capable of crushing through ice four-metres-thick and twice the power of the currently most powerful icebreakers, opening large lanes for escorted ships across the most difficult parts of the Northern Sea Route.

However, the project hit developmental difficulties and recently it was announced that only one of the class, the Rossiya, would be built, rather than three. But the cost and period required for construction has soared.

Newspaper Kommersant said that the project could cost 60% more than initially planned, bringing the cost to RUB200bn (approx $2.45bn) and postponing the launch date well beyond the planned year of 2027.

By mid-March 2023 it was reported that only 5% of construction had been completed, compared with an initial schedule of 15%.

The Russian government in January 2020 awarded a RUB127bn contract for the ship construction to Rosneft’s brand new Zvezda Yard, outside Vladivostok But since then the yard was reported to have encountered major problems with obtaining key building components. Hull casting and mounting arms, as well as other equipment, was originally to be delivered by the Ukrainian company Energomashspetsstal in 2022. Unfortunately for Zvezda Yard, the Russian army bombed it in 2022 and production there has stopped.

President Putin has taken a personal interest in what looked to be in danger of becoming a vanity project. He has requested that at least 80m tons of goods be transported on the route by 2024, rising to 130m tons a year by 2035.

In October last year, the 257-metreoil tanker Vasily Dinkov made it across the route to the Chinese port of Rizhao. The voyage tool place shortly before the EU introduced its oil ban on Russia.

The Commission’s 6th package of sanctions, adopted in June last year, prohibited all purchase, import or transfer of crude oil and certain petroleum products from Russia to the EU. According to Member of the Federation Council Konstantin Dolgov, Russia can overcome the troubles created by the sanctions. “The current geopolitical situation triggers difficulties in resolving certain issues, but it is not sufficiently critical for a review of our general development plans,” he said during a recent Council meeting devoted to the Northern Sea Route.