By Gleb Bryanski
SEVERODVINSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin oversaw the start of construction of one of Russia's newest generation submarines on Monday and vowed to boost nuclear naval forces to safeguard the country's position as a leading sea power.
Warning that its navy would protect top energy producer Russia's interests in the oil-rich Arctic, Putin led the ceremony to begin building the submarine Prince Vladimir, named after the ruler who founded a precursor state to modern Russia.
The vessel is the fourth Borei class submarine, designed to carry one of the country's newest and most powerful intercontinental nuclear missiles, the Bulava, or Mace.
"We believe that our country should maintain its status of one of the leading naval powers," Putin told a meeting of naval commanders and government officials at the sprawling Sevmash shipbuilding yard in northern Russia.
Invoking Cold War rhetoric, Putin took a stab at the United States nuclear submarine forces, which Moscow carefully watched across the Atlantic Ocean for decades.
"First of all we are talking about the development of the naval part of our strategic nuclear forces, about the navy's role in maintaining the strategic nuclear parity," he said.
Putin is working to make the submarines and the missiles they will carry a cornerstone of the Russian navy, which will receive nearly a quarter of the 20 trillion roubles ($621.31 billion) to be spent by the end of the decade.
After nearly two decades characterized by a lack of funding, Russia is pushing to modernize its fighting forces, and redesign its armaments.
Putin said that Russia will have eight such Borei submarines by 2020, by which time the navy will have received 51 new ships.
In a reference to Russia's ambitions in the Arctic, where Moscow plans to expand its claims, Putin said the navy would protect Moscow's interests in the icy North.
"Obviously, the navy is an instrument to protect national economic interests, including in such regions as Arctic where some of the world's richest biological resources, mineral resources are concentrated," he said.
Moscow has planned to submit a claim this year to redraw the map of the Arctic and give itself a bigger swath of the territory, which could hold huge deposits of oil, gas and mineral wealth.
Russia, Norway, the United States, Canada and Denmark are at odds over how to divide up the Arctic seabed, thought to hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 percent of the world's untapped gas resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Russia has said it will spend millions of dollars on studies to prove that an underwater mountain range - rich in oil, natural gas and mineral deposits - is part of its own Eurasian landmass.
Canada and Denmark reject the claim, saying the geographical formation, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, which stretches across the Arctic Sea, is a geographical extension of their own land.
The Borei submarine project, started shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, had long been plagued by shortages of cash and furthermore by failures in testing the Bulava missile.
The first two Borei class submarine built, the Yury Dolgoruky and Alexander Nevsky are expected to enter service this summer, Russia's Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was quoted as saying earlier this year.
(Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Michael Roddy)