Ironically, though Russia has one of the longest coastlines of any nation on Earth, it has forever been limited by lack of access to the sea. Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) knew that the Arctic, frozen solid for seven plus months of the year, could not be the coastline on which Russia would build its fleet.
That is changing, fast.
Rapidly disappearing sea ice, unparalleled investments in icebreaker technology, and President Vladimir Putin’s keen understanding of historical trends have led him to build a fleet unique not only in Russian history, but in the world. Putin has learned a valuable lesson from his eminent predecessor, who devoted his life to making Russia a great maritime power. Through aggressive expansion toward the seas, Peter the Great inextricably linked Russian great-power status with maritime might. Now, as the region becomes ever more accessible, Putin is positioning his country to be the world leader on the Arctic Ocean.
During the 42 years of his czardom, Peter the Great led a transformation of the Russian Empire. He was a visionary modernizer, builder, and diplomat, but he is best known for the aggressive style of foreign policy that established the expansionist mind-set now resurgent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In fact, the highlight reel of the first two decades of Putin’s rule would closely resemble that of his predecessor.
Peter the Great made quite a splash with his first military victory, when in 1696 he seized the port city of Azov. This conquest gave the Russian Empire maritime access to the Mediterranean, and launched three decades of Russian expansion toward the seas.
After the Azov campaign, Peter spent 18 months traveling to Western Europe’s major maritime cities to learn everything he could about shipbuilding and naval tactics. For four months he lived in the Netherlands, roaming the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company, then the largest in the world. In England he watched a Royal Naval Fleet review at Deptford. Later he sent a delegation to Malta to learn the naval techniques of the famous crusader knights.
Peter was determined to build a new capital city for the empire on the Baltic, which would be a Window on the West, “to let in the light of Europe.” At the time, the powerful Kingdom of Sweden controlled the Baltic, blocking Russia’s access to the vital region. Peter orchestrated a complex and highly effective coalition of nations to drive the Swedes back into Scandinavia in a two-decade long struggle known as the Great Northern War. The newly built Imperial Navy was pivotal in gaining Russia a beachhead on the Baltic, the new capital of St. Petersburg, and proved decisively the value of a strong navy.
Much like Putin, Peter the Great tightened state control, invaded the Caucuses, secured Russian naval access to the Black Sea, and fought an unconventional war in the Ukraine. It is in Peter’s last great gambit, however, that Putin seems to have found his ambition to build an Arctic fleet.
It was at the end of his reign that Peter turned his attention to Russia’s longest coastline, the frozen Arctic, still inaccessible to his fleets. Though Peter had built a modern shipyard in the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk, it was too often icebound, making it useless for the better part of the year. Peter harbored great hopes for the eastern Arctic, about which little was then known.
Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering, a Dane who had served the Russian Navy well in its wars against Sweden, to lead an exploration of the eastern Arctic. On Peter’s orders, Bering and his lieutenant Aleksei Chirikov sailed from Kamchatka north through Arctic waters, becoming the first European to set foot in Alaska. Shortly afterwards, Peter died, and so too did the Russian Empire’s ambition to build an Arctic fleet.
Two hundred and eighty two years later, Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov set off north from Kamchatka once again. The two icebreakers, commissioned by Putin and named for the intrepid Arctic explorers, joined a fleet of Arctic capable ships unlike any the world has ever seen.
Though U.S. submarines frequently pass under the Arctic icecap, their invisible presence does not have the same effect as Putin’s nuclear-powered vessels Fifty Years of Victory and Yamal. The snarling sharks teeth painted on Yamal’s black bow convey a crude but carefully tailored message. Putin has recently commissioned three additional nuclear icebreakers to add to his already impressive fleet.
The icebreaking vessel is the most crucial tool of Arctic statesmanship. Given the sorry state of Russia’s economy, and effective reduction in its military budget, Putin’s dedication to investing in icebreakers is testament to the size of his Arctic ambitions. It is also evidence that Putin has learned a great deal from Peter the Great. And it heralds the beginning of Russia’s long-awaited role as a world leader on the seas.
Scientists debate in what summer the Earth will first see an entirely ice-free Arctic Ocean, but few doubt that it will happen in this century. More likely it will be within the next two decades. The persistence of unpredictable seasonal sea ice retreat in the Northern Sea Route above Russia, and the still entirely blocked trans-polar shipping route, have not reduced Putin’s commitment to investing in the capabilities to operate in the Arctic now and in the future.
Although in his lifetime the Ottoman Empire was still strong enough to keep Peter from reaching desirable ports on the Crimean Peninsula, the investments he made, and the policies he implemented, allowed the Empress Catherine II to become the first Russian leader to capture Crimea. The level of foresight displayed by Peter is mirrored today by Vladimir Putin. His Arctic agenda is rooted in a deep understanding of Russian historical trends. As such, he must be elated to finally be building a substantial Arctic fleet.
For more on Peter the Great, see Robert K. Massie’s biography Peter the Great: His Life and World.
Maxwell C. McGrath-Horn is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy 2017 candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he focuses on sustainable development, international business relations, and human security in the Arctic. He holds a BA in History.