[ST PETERSBURG] Russia on Friday floated a new icebreaker for its navy, the first in about 45 years, in a further sign of Moscow's growing military focus on the Arctic.
Built at the Admiralty Shipyards in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second largest city and home to its Baltic fleet, the Ilya Muromets is the first of a series of icebreakers ordered by the defence ministry in recent years.
"In 2017 this icebreaker will join the Northern Fleet to ensure our priorities in the northern basin," Admiral Igor Zvarich, who heads the technical department of the Russian navy, said during the ceremony.
The Ilya Muromets is an 85-metre (280-feet) long electric-diesel powered icebreaker with a deadweight of 6,000 tonnes and is designed to help the deployment of the navy in icy conditions as well as escort or tow other ships.
It can cut through ice of up to one metre thick and travel the entire 5,600 kilometre (3,500 mile) length of the Northern Passage, according to the defence ministry.
"Until now we didn't have military icebreakers," said Igor Korotchenko, a pro-Kremlin pundit who edits National Defence magazine.
"It is necessary for the smooth movement of warships and support ships of the Northern Fleet, for delivering cargo to military bases," he told AFP.
Interest in the Arctic has grown in recent years as rising temperatures open up shipping routes and make hitherto inaccessible mineral resources easier to exploit.
Russia has made the region a priority in its new military doctrine, building a string of bases and holding war games there at a time when parts of the polar region are contested by different nations.
Last year Russia filed a claim in the United Nations over a vast swathe of the region, including the North Pole. The government estimates that the Arctic shelf contains some 4.9 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons.
Speaking at a conference on Thursday, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defence sector, said the government also plans to refurbish its Arctic air force and even build a testing range for new technology developed for the harsh climate.
Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, said Russia's fleet of icebreakers is already bigger than that of other countries combined.
As the Arctic becomes more open to navigation and exploration, "it will need to have military cover," he told AFP.
The Ilya Muromets is just the first of several icebreakers to be completed in Russia in the coming years.
Last month the Admiralty Shipyards signed a new contract with the defence ministry for two Arctic corvettes, capable of acting as ice breakers, which will be armed with cruise missiles and delivered in 2020.
Construction for those two ships will begin in the autumn, said company chief Alexander Buzakov.
Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency, which manages the country's fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, is also expecting three new ships, including the world's biggest and most powerful icebreaker called Arktika, which will be floated next week.