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Russia building massive Arctic military bases, satellite images show

Nagurskoye airfield. (Russian Ministry of Defense/Released)
April 05, 2021

Satellite images released this week revealed Russia has been expanding its military bases along its Arctic coastline and its Nagurskoye airfield on the Alexandra Land island in the Arctic. Russia has also been using its Arctic facilities to test new weapons, including the Poseidon 2M39 nuclear torpedo.

The satellite images captured by the commercial satellite intelligence firm Maxar Technologies and obtained by CNN show that Russia has been refurbishing Soviet-era airfields, adding new radar systems and coastal missile defense systems.

CNN tweeted, “Satellite images show Russia is amassing unprecedented military might in the Arctic, readying “super weapons” tests and securing a key shipping route. @npwcnn reports.”

The nuclear-powered Poseidon 2M39 torpedo is reportedly being developed to sneak past coastal defenses, like those of the U.S., and detonate, causing radioactive waves to splash onto an enemy coast and contaminate their coastlines for decades.

Russia has also been refurbishing its bases for conventional military uses. According to CNN, one March 16 satellite image shows what appear to be MiG31BM “Fox Bat” interceptor fighter jets at Nagurskoye.

“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,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell told CNN. “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.”

U.S. military officials have increasingly warned about Russian activities in the Arctic.

Last year, former U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, then the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) said, “The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall and the oceans are no longer protective moats. They are avenues of approach to the homeland.”

While Russia’s expansion efforts are taking place within its own territorial boundaries, U.S. officials have voiced concern about Russia’s efforts to assert control in the Arctic.

Campbell said Russia is increasingly hoping to turn the Arctic Northern Sea Route (NSR) into a “major international shipping lane” that it would effectively control.

“Russian laws governing NSR transits exceed Russia’s authority under international law,” Campbell 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.”

Two weeks ago after a cargo ship became stuck in the Suez Canal and halted international traffic, Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom began promoting the NSR as a key future route for international trade.

The effort to promote the NSR as a viable new international trade route may be part of an overall Russian effort to get the international community to buy into its control of the trade route.

“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,” Campbell told CNN.

Russia has said its goals in the Arctic are peaceful and focused on its economy, though Russia has carried out numerous military drills in the region in recent years. In March, three Russian ballistic missile submarines breached through the Arctic ice, and Russian ground troops conducted security patrols and drills while Russian warplanes flew overhead.