Russia’s militarization of the Arctic shows no signs of slowing down


Russia has continued to expand its military bases in the Arctic despite suffering significant casualties in the war against Ukraine, according to a new series of satellite images obtained by CNN.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN in an exclusive interview on Friday that there was now “a significant Russian military buildup in the far north,” with recent tensions leading the alliance to “double its presence” in response.

The findings also come as a senior Western intelligence official told CNN that Russia had withdrawn up to three-quarters of its land forces from the High North region near the Arctic to be deployed to support its faltering invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine , to support.

The satellite images obtained by Maxar Technologies for CNN show a number of Russian radar bases and runways that have been improved over the past year. The images show no dramatic development, but rather steady progress in fortifying and expanding an area that analysts say is vital to Russia’s defense strategy at a time of great strain on Moscow’s resources.

According to Maxar, the images demonstrate continued work at the radar stations at the Olenegorsk site, on the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia and in Vorkuta, north of the Arctic Circle. They also appear to show ongoing work to complete one of five Rezonans-N radar systems at Ostrovnoy, a site on the Barents Sea near Norway and Finland in western Russia. The Rezonans-N are claimed by Russian officials to be able to detect stealth aircraft and objects.

At the Tiksi air defense site in eastern Russia’s Arctic region, satellite images show that three radomes (protecting radar systems) were set up between this October and last. The remote Russian military base in the Arctic is located on the coast of the Laptev Sea.

Satellite Image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

According to Maxar’s images and analysis, three new radomes, the weatherproof housings used to protect radar antennas, were completed this year at the Tiksi air defense site in the far north-east. There are also improvements to a runway and parking area at Nagurskoye Air Force Base – Russia’s northernmost military facility – and improvements to the runway at Temp Air Force Base on Kotelny Island in the north-east of the country.

Russia has been beefing up its defenses in the Far North for years, refurbishing a number of old Soviet bases with modern designs and equipment.

Its Arctic region has long been key to its oil and gas sector, but also to its nuclear defenses, with a significant portion of its sophisticated nuclear weapons and submarine facilities in the area.

On the Arctic Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, a change is visible at the Olenegorsk radar station, including a new building, compared to the images from June last year.

Satellite Image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

“That deterrent was always ready,” said a senior Western intelligence official. “It’s never due to unwillingness; it’s high status all the time,” the official said.

At the start of the war with Ukraine in February, some submarines were repositioned to signal “that this is a real capability,” the official added, but they soon returned to high default readiness.

NATO boss Stoltenberg argued: “The shortest route from Russia to North America is via the Arctic North Pole. So the strategic importance of these areas has not changed as a result of the war in Ukraine.”

“We see Russia reopening old Soviet bases and military sites,” he said, noting that it is also “testing novel weapons in the Arctic and the far north.”

Construction continued between August this year and last year at the Ostrovnoy site on the Barents Sea near Norway and Finland in western Russia. One of five new Rezonans-N radars that Russia claims can find stealth jets is located here.

Satellite Image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

The war in Ukraine has led to a significant adjustment in Russian troop levels in the region, the senior Western intelligence official said. “They’re reduced to about 20 to 25 percent of their original land forces up there. But then the naval component is completely unaffected by the war,” they noted.

After attacks earlier this month on two key airfields deep in Russia’s interior in Ryazan and Saratov, Russian military jets and bombers have been spread across the country and the Arctic north, the official added. Moscow has blamed Ukraine for the attacks, while Kyiv has not commented on the explosions at Russian bases.

The Arctic is also vital for Russia because its melting ice is rapidly opening up new shipping lanes from Southeast Asia to Europe, using a much shorter route along the Russian coast.

At Russia's northernmost military base, the runway at Nagurskoye Airfield has visibly evolved despite last year's Russia-Ukraine war.  Nagurskoye is one of several

The North Sea Route could shorten the current travel time via the Suez Canal by around two weeks. Russian state television rejoiced at the launch of several nuclear-powered icebreakers aimed at boosting Russian influence and power in the region. Critics say Moscow is trying to exert outsize control over a route that should be equally accessible to all nations.

Via video link at the launch of a new nuclear-powered icebreaker in St. Petersburg last month (November 22), Russian President Vladimir Putin said the development of the “key” northern sea route “will allow Russia to fully realize its export potential and establish effective logistics routes, including to Southeast Asia”.

At the same time, the war in Ukraine has strengthened NATO’s presence in the region. Once Finland and Sweden join the bloc, as is widely expected, seven out of eight Arctic countries will be NATO members.

The Alliance has also increased its military capability in the region. In August, Norway rleased the first images of US B52 bombers flying over their territory, escorted by Norwegian F35 jets and 2 Swedish JAS Gripen.

Amplified signals from NATO included a recent test of the new Rapid Dragon Palletized Munition Deployment weapon system, in which US special forces drop a normal supply pallet from the rear of a C130 in a complicated manner cargo ship.

The palette contains a cruise missile that launches when the palette parachutes. The display was intended to show that the United States could launch these powerful weapons systems from the back of an ordinary cargo plane. The test took place in Norway, not far from the Russian border.

NATO is also increasingly concerned about the possible sabotage of Norway’s oil and gas infrastructure. Now Russian energy is subject to sanctions, Norway’s natural gas accounts for more than 20% of Europe’s supply, according to some analyses.

“Since the sabotage in the Baltic Sea,” Stoltenberg said, “we have doubled our presence, with ships, with submarines, with maritime reconnaissance aircraft in the Baltic and North Seas, partly to monitor, to have a better picture of the situation, but also to send a message of deterrence and a readiness to protect this critical infrastructure.” The NATO chief was referring to the explosions at the Nord Stream pipeline in September, which Swedish prosecutors say were caused by an act of sabotage after the locations where traces of explosives had been discovered.

However, the senior intelligence official said that a recent Norwegian infrastructure security review concluded that no major attack attempts had taken place and that “the oil infrastructure is now well secured”.

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