MAIDEN VOYAGE For 'Arktika' which is more than 570  feet long, as tall as a 15-storey building.

St. Petersburg : Russia's new flagship nuclear-powered icebreaker, said to be the world's largest and most powerful, left a shipyard on Tuesday headed for the Arctic.

The massive ship is the physical representation of President Vladmir Putin's ambition to increase Russia's presence in the remote region. 

The ''Arktika'' [Arctic] ice breaker finally sailed from St. Petersburg - after a three year delay caused by the supply chain and technical hurdles - and headed for the northern port of Murmansk, where it will be stationed.

The two week journey will be the vessel's first test in icy conditions, and make it the first in a series of planned additions in Russia's fleet of icebreakers.

The Arktika is more than 570 feet long, as tall as 15-storey building and designed to smash through a layer of ice 9 feet deep. While Russia is the only nation to have nuclear powered civilian ships right now, China is catching up, developing an icebreaker of very similar proportions - with similar ambitions to open up the Arctic.

Russia's state-owned company  Rosatomflot, which operates Russia's civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers, declared Arktika the world's largest and most powerful icebreaker.

The ship is crucial to Moscow's efforts to develop a clear path for freight traffic along the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska. Russia hopes the route can become a regular commercial transport link between Asia and Europe.

Last year, Putin said the country's Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, most of them powered by nuclear reactors. Boosting Russia's presence and commercial potential in the resource-rich Arctic region has been a priority of Kremlin policy during Putin's rule.

In recent years Russia has actively pushed for dominance in the Arctic, where its main rivals are Canada, the U.S., Norway and China.

''This wonderful ship, this vessel, in the nearest future will every day corroborate our sovereignty in the northern territories of the Arctic Ocean,'' St. Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko said at Tuesday's launch ceremony. [AFP]


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