Russia has continued to expand its military bases in the Arctic region despite heavy losses in its war against Ukraine, according to a new set of satellite images obtained by CNN.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also told CNN in an exclusive interview on Friday that there is now “a significant Russian military build-up in the High North” with recent tensions forcing the alliance to “double its presence” in response.
The findings also come as a senior Western intelligence official told CNN that Russia has withdrawn up to three-quarters of its ground forces from the Far North region near the Arctic, sending them to bolster its failing invasion. of its neighbour, Ukraine.
Satellite images, obtained by CNN from Maxar Technologies, show a series of Russian radar bases and runways being upgraded over the past year. The images do not show dramatic development, but rather the continued progression of the fortification and expansion of an area that analysts say is of vital importance to Russia’s defensive strategy, at a time when Moscow’s resources are heavily stretched.
According to Maxar, the images show continued work on radar stations at the Olenegorsk site on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia and at Vorkuta, just north of the Arctic Circle. They also appear to show work is progressing to complete one of five Rezonans-N radar systems at Ostrovnoy, a site by the Barents Sea near Norway and Finland in western Russia. The Rezonans-N are claimed by Russian officials to be capable of detecting stealth aircraft and objects.
Three new radomes, the waterproof enclosures used to protect radar antennas, were completed this year at the Tiksi air defense site in the far northeast, according to Maxar imagery and analysis. Improvements were also made to a runway and parking area at Nagurskoye Air Base – Russia’s northernmost military installation – and at “Temp” Air Base on Kotelny Island, in the northeast of the country.
Russia has been strengthening its defenses in the far north for years, renovating a series of former 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 defences, with a significant proportion of its nuclear weapons and sophisticated submarine installations in this region.
“That deterrent has always been ready,” said a senior Western intelligence official. “It’s never due to a low level of preparation; 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 quickly returned to a high level of standard preparation.
NATO chief Stoltenberg said: “The shortest route from Russia to North America is through the Arctic North Pole. The strategic importance of these areas has therefore not changed because of the war in Ukraine.
“We see Russia reopening old Soviet bases, military sites,” he said, noting that it is also “testing new weapons in the Arctic and the Far North.”
“It is significant that they succeeded in protecting this area from the impact of the Ukrainian war,” said Malte Humpert of the Arctic Institute, who has written extensively on Arctic development.
“They prioritize Arctic energy resources, but another aspect is projecting energy. But it is also economical. About 20% of Russia’s GDP comes from the Arctic region, and it could be more in the future. There is a lot of money involved in the region for them.
The war in Ukraine has led to a major adjustment of Russian troop numbers in the region, the top Western intelligence official said. “They’re down to somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of their original ground forces up there. But the naval component is totally unaffected by the war,” they noted.
After strikes earlier this month on two key airfields in the heart of Russia at Ryazan and Saratov, Russian military jets and bombers were scattered across the country and the northern Arctic, the official added. responsible. Moscow blamed the strikes on Ukraine, while Kyiv did not comment on explosions at Russian bases.
The Arctic is also vital for Russia as its melting ice is rapidly opening up new sea routes from southeast Asia to Europe, taking a much shorter route along the Russian coast.
The Northern Sea Route could cut the current journey time through the Suez Canal by around two weeks. Russian state television reveled in the launch of several atomic-powered icebreakers, designed to boost Russian influence and power in the region. Critics say Moscow is seeking outsized control over a route that should be equally accessible to all nations.
Speaking via video link at the launch of a new nuclear-powered icebreaker in St Petersburg last month (November 22), Russian President Vladimir Putin said developing the “most important” sea route in the North “will allow Russia to fully reveal its export potential”. and establish efficient logistics routes, including to Southeast Asia.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine has reinforced NATO’s presence in the region. Once Finland and Sweden join the bloc, as is widely expected, seven of the eight Arctic states will be members of NATO.
The alliance has also strengthened its military influence in the region. In August, Norway rreleased the first images of American B52 bombers flying over its territory escorted by Norwegian F35 jets and 2 Swedish JAS Gripen.
The increase in NATO signaling included a recent test of the new weapons system, the Rapid Dragon Palletized Munition Deployment, involving a complex drop by US Special Forces from a normal supply pallet into the rear of a a C130. cargo.
The pallet contains a cruise missile, which launches when the pallet drops by parachute. The display was designed to show that the United States can launch these powerful weapon systems from the back of an ordinary cargo plane. The test took place in Norway, not far from the Russian border.
NATO has also become increasingly concerned about the potential sabotage of Norway’s oil and gas infrastructure. Now that Russian energy is under sanctions, Norwegian natural gas accounts for more than 20% of Europe’s supply, according to some analyses.
“Since the sabotage in the Baltic Sea,” said Stoltenberg, “we have doubled our presence, with ships, with submarines, with maritime patrol aircraft in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, partly to monitor , to have better situational awareness, but also to send a message of deterrence and preparedness to protect this critical infrastructure.The NATO chief was referring to the explosions of the Nord Stream pipeline in September, which were caused by a act of sabotage, according to Swedish prosecutors, after the discovery of evidence of explosives at the sites.
The senior intelligence official, however, said a recent Norwegian review of its infrastructure security concluded that no major attack attempts had taken place and that “the oil infrastructure is now well secured”.