Impact of New EU Sanctions Targeting Russian Nuclear Icebreakers Will Be Limited

Nuclear icebreaker Arktika passing through ice. (Source: Rosatom)

New EU sanctions target Atomflot, the operator of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet. The impact on the country’s ability to build additional icebreakers remains to be seen, say Arctic experts.

The EU’s latest sanction package, the 10th since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, announced a number of provisions specifically targeting Russia’s shipping industry, including its Arctic nuclear icebreaker fleet.

The new listings contain financial blocks and export bans aimed at Atomflot, the country’s operator of nuclear icebreakers. The impact of the new sanctions, however, may be limited, experts say. Russia’s nuclear icebreaker program has long aimed to reduce its dependence on foreign technology. 

“The Russian policy has clearly been to minimize dependence on foreign inputs. Possibly some foreign parts are still used, but largely the new icebreakers are built with Russian technology,” says Arild Moe, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

The fact that Russia has successfully commissioned three new nuclear icebreakers in the span of three years also indicates a robust construction regime. 

For a long time, Russian shipyards and Atomflot have been communicating that the Western sanctions have no impact on the construction of the nuclear-powered icebreakers of the 22220 LK-60 Arktika type. Moreover, the rate of commissioning of the first three LK-60s has been virtually unchallenged,” explains Hervé Baudu, Chief Professor of Maritime Education at the French Maritime Academy (ENSM).

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Following the announcement of the EU sanctions Russian officials remained adamant that they would not affect the construction of the country’s nuclear icebreakers.

"There are no changes in the icebreaker construction schedule. All work will be carried out according to plan," stated a representative of the NSR Directorate.

Nuclear icebreakers bring in revenue

Icebreakers have been essential to exporting oil and gas resources from the Russian Arctic to Europe and Asia. Atomflot operates a fleet of seven nuclear icebreakers, with a further five under construction or planned.

EU sanctions highlight the importance of Atomflot to Russia’s Arctic ambitions. “The icebreaker fleet managed by Atomflot is designed specifically to meet Russia’s maritime transportation objectives along the Northern Sea Route – the Arctic shortcut between Europe and Asia.”

The document also details how Atomflot’s work directly contributes to the flow of revenues from oil and gas stating that “the Northern Sea Route has emerged as a new strategic opportunity for unlocking and monetising Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves in the Arctic, thereby providing a substantial source of revenue to the government of the Russian Federation.”

Russia’s icebreaker fleet is key to the country’s Arctic hydrocarbon strategy.
EU Council

It is important to note that the EU itself continues to contribute significantly to this trend as imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Russian Arctic into Europe have increased by more than 50% since the beginning of the war as HNN previously reported

Growing importance

The EU further suggests that Atomflot’s fleet will become of even greater importance in the coming years as more and more oil and LNG will flow to Asia. 

“With oil and gas exports shifting from Europe to Asia as a result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions, Russia’s icebreaker fleet is key to the country’s Arctic hydrocarbon strategy,” the EU Council’s decision explains. 

The waters from the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas, where oil and gas are produced, to Asia carry much more sea ice than the route to Europe, routinely requiring icebreaker escorts. 

Earlier this year an EU Parliament inquiry to the EU Commission specifically asked why the bloc had not designed sanctions against Rosatom subsidiary Atomflot. The parliamentary question was posed by German member of parliament Engin Eroglu.

Arild Moe på Svalbard. (Foto: Karoline Flåm via Wikimedia Commons)
Arild Moe på Svalbard. (Foto: Karoline Flåm via Wikimedia Commons)
"Largely the new icebreakers are built with Russian technology,” says Arild Moe, Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. (Arktivfoto: Karoline Flåm)

“Rosatom’s subsidiary Atomflot is building a nuclear-powered fleet for the Russian regime. Atomflot vessels continue to enter Union ports unimpeded and the company is being supplied with equipment by Western firms,” Eroglu asked on 11 January 2023.

Will sanctions have an impact?

The overall impact of the sanctions on the operation and future expansion of Atomflot’s fleet will be rather limited, several experts explained to HNN.

According to Moe at FNI, historically Finnish shipyards and technology were key in the development of Russia’s icebreakers. And some key components, including turbines, were produced in Ukraine as recently as seven or eight years ago, but have since been replaced with domestically sourced parts. 

The latest generation of nuclear icebreakers, the aforementioned LK-60 Arktika type, also uses propulsion technology developed for the older Yamal-class icebreakers since the 1980s, explained Baudu.

An industry source who works on icebreaker design and spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter echoed the sentiment of Moe and Baudu.

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“Much of the ‘import substitution’ was implemented already in the first Project 22220 [LK-60 Arktika] icebreaker: Ukrainian turbogenerators and western electric propulsion motors were replaced with domestic alternatives.”

The source also explained that this original substitution resulted in some delays and was one of the reasons why the first Arktika icebreaker was three years behind schedule when it was commissioned in 2020. However, those issues have been resolved and the subsequent icebreakers of the type have been launched on schedule. 

Other technical equipment for the superstructure of the ship, e.g. cranes can easily be sourced domestically or in China, the expert elaborated. 

Putin orders even more icebreakers

While the Arktika-type icebreaker may largely be shielded against sanctions, Atomflot’s even larger Leader-type icebreaker could be more vulnerable. This may be one of the reasons which prompted Russia to reduce their number in favor of more Arktika icebreakers, which are now being produced in series, last week. 

Russia’s revised strategy for the development of the Arctic zone, signed by Putin last week, calls for two additional LK-60 Arktika type icebreakers, while reducing the number of Leader-type icebreakers. 

This development further highlights that the Arktika-type may be largely immune to sanctions, in contrast to the Leader-type, which is a brand new design and currently under construction at Russia’s Zvezda shipyard. 

Financial considerations may also play a role. “The budget for two additional LK-60 icebreakers in a controlled series costs less than the construction of a single Leader ($1.2bn)," confirms Baudu.

The larger icebreaker also uses new nuclear reactors which Baudu expects will lead to delays. “I think the Leader-type will be delayed because the nuclear reactors are different from the RITM-200 pressurized water reactors which were used in the Arktika and the Yamal-type icebreakers.”