New satellite images, released by CNN on Monday, illustrate how Russia has increased its military presence in the Arctic region. Revelations which prompted the Pentagon to assure that Washington was monitoring the situation very closely. Because the stakes are multiple and important.
“We are monitoring Russian military activity in this region very closely”. These remarks, made Monday April 5 by the spokesman of the Pentagon John F. Kirby, did not concern the movements of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border which worried for several days the international community. This is another threat that caught the attention of the US Department of Defense earlier this week: Russian militarization of the Arctic region.
New satellite images, obtained Monday by the CNN channel, show old military bases of the Soviet era remodeled, brand new radar stations installed not far from Alaska and the airstrips which appeared in the archipelago of the New Siberian Islands.
These photos, provided by the satellite imagery company Maxar, above all illustrate how far Russia has come to arm this region since 2015. “Moscow decided to make it a strategic issue from 2016 and began to renovating the old bases from the Soviet era before adding new facilities. These images confirm the scale of this effort ”, indicates Gustav Gressel, specialist in Russian military questions at the European Council for International Relations, contacted by France 24.
The United States takes a dim view of this increase in military power a few hundred kilometers from its territory in Alaska. “We have obvious national security interests in this region which we must protect and defend,” warned John F. Kirby.
If the situation in the Arctic becomes a new issue of military-diplomatic tensions between Washington and Moscow, it is above all because of a certain “Russian paranoia”, assures Gustav Gressel. It is, in fact, in this region that the Northern Fleet is located, which is the most powerful of the four Russian fleets and constitutes the backbone of Russian maritime nuclear deterrence. “Russia is obsessed with a catastrophic scenario: it fears that in the event of a conflict with the United States, Washington will primarily target this fleet to reduce to nothing, or almost, the Russian nuclear response capacity. In which case Moscow would be forced to capitulate to the conditions imposed by the United States ”, summarizes Gustav Gressel.
The multiplication of military installations along the Russian Arctic coast would thus serve, according to this expert, to better protect the northern fleet. It is no coincidence that several of the satellite images provided by Maxar show new complexes of sheds built by the sea, capable of housing the submarines. “In the minds of the Russian military, it only takes one atomic submarine to survive a pre-emptive American strike for them to be able to retaliate and continue to fight,” said the European Council researcher to international relations.
Poseidon drone: the specter of the Russian “super weapon”
But in the American mind, this militarization of the Arctic is not just for defensive purposes. Washington fears the specter of an advanced weapon that Russia is said to be developing at one of its bases in the north of the country.
“Several Western military experts have warned against a Russian ‘super weapon’, the Poseidon nuclear submarine drone, whose development is advancing rapidly and which must be tested several times this year,” CNN said.
Russia reportedly started building a secret base in the Arctic last year where these Poseidon drones would be stored, the launch of which, initially scheduled for 2020, has been officially postponed until 2021.
If these new weapons worry so much, it is because they are “drones capable of thwarting the American underwater detection systems and which are equipped with explosive heads of several megatons, according to the official Russian media”, sums up CNN. By exploding, “they can create radioactive ‘tsunamis’ off the American coast,” underlined in November 2020 Christopher A. Ford, the former minister responsible for nuclear non-proliferation of former US President Donald Trump.
But for Gustav Gressel, we have to be right to be right in the face of “Russian military bluster”. For him, the Poseidon drones are probably a reality, but much less threatening than what Moscow would have us believe. They would be, at best, nuclear-powered drones intended for reconnaissance missions off the American coasts.
Here again, we must take into account the context surrounding these announcements of “super weapons”. “Russia fears, rightly or wrongly, the superiority of American weapons and seeks to sign a comprehensive arms reduction agreement with the United States. But for the moment, Washington, which is in a position of strength, does not see what it would have to gain from such a treaty, ”recalls Gustav Gressel. The new US President Joe Biden has, however, accepted, in early February, to renew for five years the Start Treaty, which imposes on Russia and the United States a maximum number of nuclear weapons.
Russian statements on the development of new “high tech” weapons could very well be “a way of trying to scare the United States and force them to come to the negotiating table,” said the expert.
An air of the South China Sea?
The United States is also concerned about the strengthening of the Russian military apparatus in the Arctic for economic reasons. With the accelerated melting of the ice in this region, the Northern Sea Route could become, in the coming years, commercially very interesting.
This passage which connects Norway to Alaska along the Russian coasts would halve the time it takes for merchant ships to travel from Asia to Europe compared to the route that passes through the Suez Canal. The proliferation of Russian military bases would pave the way for de facto control by Russia of maritime traffic along this route. “The United States has no desire to see the same situation repeat in this region as in the South China Sea, where Beijing is trying to impose its sovereignty by building a network of military installations,” said Gustav Gressel.
This is what John F. Kirby seems to suggest when he said during his press briefing that “no one has an interest in the Arctic becoming a militarized zone”. This is not so much a call for peace in the glacier world, as a warning that the United States is ready to defend its economic interests.