Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Organization and Management Challenges of Russia's Icebreaker Fleet

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Organization and Management Challenges of Russia's Icebreaker Fleet

Article excerpt

The icebreaker fleet of the USSR and Russian Federation has always been a fundamental necessity to gaining marine access across the Russian Arctic and along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) (Figure 1). This access was gained by the pioneering use of nuclear-powered icebreakers and also the development of a fleet of diesel-electric icebreakers, many built in Finland. At the height of operations along the NSR during 1987, 6.6 million tons of cargo was carried by 331 cargo ships making a remarkable 1306 voyages (Brigham and Ellis 2004).

Most of this ship traffic was moved in convoys escorted by large icebreakers operated by Murmansk and Far East shipping companies. The NSR Administration within the USSR Ministry of the Merchant Marine (Minmorflot) was the central authority for management and planning of the icebreaker fleet, ice-capable cargo ships, and future NSR operations. From the late 1980s, traffic on the NSR contracted dramatically and infrastructure fell into disarray in the 1990s. In recent years, however, attention to this sea route has grown again, with increases in navigation and ambitious Russian plans and expectations for development (Moe 2014, 2016).

Several studies have been undertaken in recent years of the potential for transportation of cargo through the NSR (Lee and Song 2014; Moe 2014; Stephenson, Brigham, Smith, 2014; Farre and others 2015; Lasserre 2015). They address cost as well as market factors and also the impact of changing ice conditions. They mention Russian administrative procedures and icebreaker escort fees as important determinants for development of shipping, but they do not discuss how icebreaking services are and will be organized. The purpose of the present article is to understand how Russian icebreaking fits into the new era of the NSR. How is icebreaking going to be organized and financed? What is the state of affairs in construction of new icebreakers? Will Russia experience an "ice pause" with insufficient icebreaker capacity to serve growing traffic? Is icebreaking well adapted to trends in international shipping, and is the icebreaker fleet being developed as part of an integrated policy for the NSR?


The first nuclear icebreaker--Lenin--was put into operation in 1960 and it and the following nuclear icebreakers became a structural unit--Atomflot--in what after several reorganizations became the Murmansk Shipping Company (MSCO), subordinate to the Ministry of the Merchant Marine--Minmorflot. (2) In 1993, Murmansk Shipping Company was incorporated, and a majority of shares were subsequently sold to private owners. The nuclear icebreakers remained in state ownership, though, under the Agency of the Sea and River Fleet (Rosmorrechflot) in the Ministry of Transport. The operation of the fleet was left with Murmansk Shipping Company, from 1998 in trust management on five-year contracts. In 2008, it was decided to abolish the trust management and transfer ownership of Atomflot to the state nuclear-power corporation Rosatom. Arguments for this move, which was controversial, were commercial mismanagement of the fleet by MSCO, unhealthy management of a state asset by a private company, and competition issues, since MSCO was also one of several competitors for traffic on the sea route. Finally, it was maintained that transferring the nuclear icebreakers to Rosatom would ensure a better integration of nuclear technologies and fuel supply. At the time, there were also plans to develop a series of floating nuclear power plants and put them under Atomflot (Ekspert Online 2008; Kireeva 2011). (3)

Exactly what were decisive factors in this reorganization is impossible to say, but the result was clear: technological integration was increased at the expense of maritime operational integration. The nuclear icebreaker fleet left the chain of command in the Ministry of Transport, but it seems that Atomflot gained economically from the transfer. …

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