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Russia Deploys World's Largest, Most Powerful Icebreaker


In Russia today, the world's biggest icebreaker hit the water for the first time. We're talking about a ship here - The Arktika. It is the length of two football fields and can smash through ice 13 feet deep. Thousands of people turned out at the docks in St. Petersburg to witness her debut, among them NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Patriotic music playing here as The Arktika drops anchor in the harbor, and yes, she appears to float.

SHAPIRO: I should hope so. Mary Louise is on the line from Russia. Hi there.

KELLY: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this new ship.

KELLY: You said it's the world's biggest icebreaker, and I will say, if you have been as close to her today as I was, you would harbor absolutely no doubt about that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KELLY: The Arktika is gigantic, powered by not one but two nuclear reactors. And the crowd of people that was out on the docks in St. Petersburg to watch her float out today was amazing. This was right - we were right where the Neva River opens up and eventually flows out to the Baltic Sea.

One other point to note - this is a government-built ship, but it's not military. This is part of the Russian effort to build ships to help explore gas and other resources in the Arctic and to break up ice for commercial vessels. I mean, you think about trade. You think about shipping routes - supremely important for Russia up in the Arctic.

SHAPIRO: So beyond the pure functionality of this, talk about the symbolism for Russia of having the world's largest icebreaker in their fleet.

KELLY: Oh, huge symbolism and a very clear symbol of Russia's intention to dominate the Arctic. I mean, think about it. The eternal challenge for Russia has been this. It is the biggest country in the world if you look at it on a map, but their vast northern coastline is frozen solid much of the year. With the exception of a port like Murmansk, where I'm headed on Saturday, up above the Arctic Circle, they cannot get ships in and out. Global warming presents an environmental challenge, but for Russia, it also presents huge opportunities as waters that were frozen melt.

SHAPIRO: We talked about this enormous crowd that was there. Talk about what you heard from them when you talked to them. Were they very proud of the ship?

KELLY: I don't think I interviewed a single person today who didn't tell me how proud they were, and I interviewed dozens. Everybody we talked to - from guys who have worked these docks since the '70s - the 1970s, people who built this ship with their hands. And then we got chatting with the admiral who heads Russia's atomic fleet.

All of them lit up with pride, all of them pointing at the hull of the ship where this giant Russian flag is painted, saying, we did this; Russia did this. We talked - I talked to the head of the Russian nuclear agency today, and he told me, you know, I can look at this giant ship with my son and say, I contributed to that.

SHAPIRO: How did Russia do this when we keep hearing that its economy is in shambles, that sanctions and oil prices falling are devastating Russia's economy? How did this happen?

KELLY: Yeah, it's fascinating because The Arktika cost well over a billion dollars. I mean, I think, Ari, the short answer is you find money for things that are important to you, and this ship, as we've been saying, is important to Russia. There were a lot of speeches at the ceremony today, and one of the Kremlin bigwigs who got up on stage pointed at it and said, this - this ship - this is our answer to Western sanctions.

And I think, you know, you look at The Arktika. You look at other icebreakers under construction. You look at nuclear submarines that Russia is refurbishing, military bases that they're building. All of it adds up to send, again, an unmistakable signal. This is Russia reasserting itself on the global stage.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly who is in Russia reporting on national security and intelligence stories all this week and next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.