Russia is amassing unprecedented military might in the Arctic and testing its newest weapons in a region freshly ice-free due to the climate emergency, in a bid to secure its northern coast and open up a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.
Weapons experts and Western officials have expressed particular concern about one Russian ‘super-weapon,’ the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo. Development of the torpedo is moving fast with Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting an update on a “key stage” of the tests in February from his defense minister Sergei Shoigu, with further tests planned this year, according to multiple reports in state media.
Experts agree that the weapon is “very real” and already coming to fruition. The head of Norwegian intelligence, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, told CNN that his agency has assessed the Poseidon as “part of the new type of nuclear deterrent weapons. And it is in a testing phase. But it’s a strategic system and it’s aimed at targets … and has an influence far beyond the region in which they test it currently.” Stensønes declined to give details on the torpedo’s testing progress so far.
Satellite images provided to CNN by space technology company Maxar detail a stark and continuous build-up of Russian military bases and hardware on the country’s Arctic coastline, together with underground storage facilities likely for the Poseidon and other new high-tech weapons. The Russian hardware in the High North area includes bombers and MiG31BM jets, and new radar systems close to the coast of Alaska.
The Russian build-up has been matched by NATO and US troop and equipment movements. American B-1 Lancer bombers stationed in Norway’s Ørland airbase have recently completed missions in the eastern Barents Sea, for example. The US military’s stealth Seawolf submarine was acknowledged by US officials in August as being in the area.
A senior State Department official told CNN “There’s clearly a military challenge from the Russians in the Arctic,” including their refitting of old Cold War bases and build-up of new facilities on the Kola Peninsula near the city of Murmansk.
“That has implications for the United States and its allies, not least because it creates the capacity to project power up to the North Atlantic,” the official said.
Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman, told CNN,
“Russia is refurbishing Soviet-era airfields and radar installations, constructing new ports and search-and-rescue centers, and building up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally-powered icebreakers.”
“It is also expanding its network of air and coastal defense missile systems, thus strengthening its anti-access and area-denial capabilities over key portions of the Arctic,” he added.
Campbell also noted the recent creation of a Quick Reaction Alert force at two Arctic airfields — Rogachevo and Anadyr — and the trial of one at Nagurskoye airfield last year. Satellite imagery from March 16 shows probable MiG31BMs at Nagurskoye for what is thought to be the first time, bringing a new capability of Russian stealth air power to the far north.
High-tech weapons are also being regularly tested in the Arctic area, according to Russian officials quoted in state media and Western officials.
Campbell added that in November, Russia claimed the successful test of the ‘Tsirkon’ anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile.
The Tsirkon and the Poseidon are part of a new generation of weapons pledged by Putin in 2018 as strategic game changers in a fast-changing world.
At the time US officials scorned the new weapons as technically far-fetched and improbable, yet they appear to be nearing fruition. The Norwegian intelligence chief Stensønes told CNN the Tsirkon as a “new technology, with hypersonic speeds, which makes it hard to defend against.”
On Thursday, Russian state news agency TASS cited a source in the military-industrial complex as saying there had been another successful test of the Tsirkon from the Admiral Gorshkov warship, saying all four test rockets had hit their target, and that another more advanced level of tests would begin in May or June.
The climate emergency has removed many of Russia’s natural defenses to its north, such as walls of sheet ice, at an unanticipated rate.
“The melt is moving faster than scientists predicted or thought possible several years ago,” said the senior State Department official. “It’s going to be a dramatic transformation in the decades ahead in terms of physical access.”
US officials also expressed concern at Moscow’s apparent bid to influence the “Northern Sea Route” — a shipping lane that runs from between Norway and Alaska, along Russia’s northern coast, across to the North Atlantic. The ‘NSR’ potentially halves the time it currently takes shipping containers to reach Europe from Asia via the Suez Canal.
Russia’s Rosatom state nuclear company released elaborately produced drone video this February of the ‘Christophe de Margerie’ tanker completing an eastern route across the Arctic in winter for the first time, accompanied by the ’50 Let Pobedy’ nuclear icebreaker for its journey in three of the six Arctic seas.
Campbell said Russia sought to exploit the NSR as a “major international shipping lane,” yet voiced concern at the rules Moscow was seeking to impose on vessels using the route.
“Russian laws governing NSR transits exceed Russia’s authority under international law,” the Pentagon spokesman said.
“They require any vessel transiting the NSR through international waters to have a Russian pilot onboard to guide the vessel. Russia is also attempting to require foreign vessels to obtain permission before entering the NSR.”
The senior State Department official added,
“The Russian assertions about the Northern Sea Route is most certainly an effort to lay down some rules of the road, get some de facto acquiescence on the part of the international community, and then claim this is the way things are supposed to work.”