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Russia’s Latest Nuclear-Powered Icebreaker Extends Arctic Dominance

MOSCOW — The Cold War may be long over, but there's still the Arctic chill.

Russia floated its largest and most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker last month, upping the ante in what is literally the coldest global gold rush.

The ice-smashing ship was Russia's sixth reactor-driven polar vessel. The United States doesn't have a single one.

Moscow's dominance of the northern seas — courtesy of vast investments — has America and the West worried. Here's why.

Arktika nuclear-powered icebreaker launched in St Petersburg
The Arktika, a nuclear-powered icebreaker, is launched in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on June 16. Ruslan Shamukov / TASS via Getty Images

What do we know about Russia's icebreakers?

Moscow is the most active player in the race for polar dominance — despite the current economic crisis debilitating its fortunes at home.

Of Russia's 39 icebreakers, six are powered by nuclear reactors.

The newest vessel — the Arktika — was floated on June 16 and will make its maiden voyage next year. An unchallenged feat of icebreaker engineering, the vessel is 1 ½ football fields in length and is powered by twin nuclear reactors.

Arktika's job will be to smash through ice in the northern seas to allow other ships safe passage, in addition to delivering supplies to high-latitude research expeditions.

Image:  The Arktika while it was under construction
The Arktika while it was under construction in St. Petersburg, Russia. Ruslan Shamukov / TASS

Its nuclear reactor means it can stay at sea for months without refueling.

"Russia is implementing the [Arctic] plans it made some years ago," said Alexei Fenenko, an associate professor of global politics at Moscow State University. "It's a long-term game."

The Department of Homeland Security said in 2013 that the U.S. needs at least six active icebreakers.

It currently has two active icebreakers and one ice-capable research vessel — none of which are nuclear-powered.

Adm. Robert Papp, a retired Coast Guard commandant, told NBC News last year that America is "clearly behind in the Arctic."

Fight for the Arctic: The U.S. Is 'Clearly Behind' 2:20

President Barack Obama has backed plans to build a new vessel worth $1 billion, but the ship would not float until at least 2020.

Russia's closest rival is Canada, which has seven non-nuclear ships. Other nations with such vessels include Finland, Sweden and China.

Who needs these smashing ships?

The dominance of Moscow is not surprising given the country's vast, 25,000-mile northern seaboard.

"Just look at the length of the Russian Arctic coastline, it's the biggest in the world," said Pavel Gudev, at Moscow's Institute of World History and Economic Relations. "Of course you need more ships."

By comparison, the U.S. has an Arctic coastline of just 1,000 miles.

Image: Russia's Arctic coastline
A map showing Russia's 25,000-mile Arctic coastline. Google

(Canada's coastline is technically the longest in the world — at 62,000 miles — but much of this is made up of its labyrinthine Canadian Arctic Archipelago.)

Those disparities haven't stymied the intense interest in the region from both Washington and Moscow since the outbreak of the Cold War.

The closest route for a Russian ballistic missile to reach the States — and vice versa — is over the North Pole. The same goes for warhead-carrying submarines during their regular visits to the Arctic Ocean.

"The Arctic area remains part of Russia's strategic defense plans," said Fenenko of the Moscow State University.

That stands in stark contrast to the current U.S. capabilities — one that has broader implications for American interests.

Arctic Meltdown: How Rising Temps Are Triggering a New Cold War 4:03

"The lack of U.S. ice-breaking … is a growing liability, as the U.S. is not able to advance America’s interests in both poles," said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Why else do nations want Arctic power?

Beyond the potential defense implications, the Arctic also could hold vast oil and gas reserves, commercial fishing. It also might have enable a corridor from East Asia to Europe around Russia's northern coast that is 3,000 miles shorter than any current alternative.

Still, most potential riches would only become unlocked when all of the ocean's ice melts — which by U.S. governmental estimates won’t happen before the middle of this century.

Given the uncertain future around any windfall, the real reason the U.S. is interested in the Arctic is for global-warming research, according to Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Image: The Arktika on June 16
The Arktika icebreaker during a launch ceremony in St. Petersburg on June 16. NIKITA GREYDIN / AFP - Getty Images

In the meantime, the potential for countries to work together remains high — especially on safety and rescue in the remote region, which is already host to dangers beyond guns and missiles.

The U.S. has invited all Arctic nations to participate in a joint rescue exercise this summer dubbed "Arctic Chinook."

And the military focus of the Cold War, while not vanished, is much reduced.

"A military conflict in the Arctic is not unfeasible," Fenenko said, although all of the analysts interviewed for this story said that was unlikely.