Russia is quietly beefing up its military presence and nuclear arsenal in Arctic as it looks to control what could become one of the most important global maritime corridors as well as threatening US cities.
One of the weapons Russia is reportedly looking to house in the country’s frozen north is the Poseidon stealth torpedo, an agile nuclear weapon that is designed to be detonated off the US coastline and could create a “tsunami of radiation” killing millions.
Satellite pictures taken by imaging firm Maxar Technologies and provided to US broadcaster CNN reportedly show a build-up of bases and hardware on the Russian Arctic coast.
This is particularly apparent on the Kola Peninsula, which borders Scandinavia, and on the opposite end of the vast nation near the US state of Alaska.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been flexing its military muscles of late.
As well as developing new weapons, he has also been sending troops and vehicles to the Ukraine border amid fears it could stage another assault on its neighbour, chunks of which are already controlled by Russia backed forces or directly by Moscow.
Mr Putin, who has been Russia’s president or its de facto leader since 2008, has just signed into law new legislation that could see him hold onto the top job until 2036.
In 2018, the Russian leader showcased six new “super weapons” designed to foil US defences and give Russia the upper hand in any future conflict.
The Poseidon torpedo was one of the most innovative – and scary. It would be both nuclear powered, with an on-board reactor, and carry nuclear warheads.
Moving silently along the seabed, it’s designed to evade existing military defences as it crosses the world’s oceans. Once near a key target, its nuclear warhead can be detonated.
The resulting shockwave and vaporised body of water is designed to generate an unstoppable toxic wave.
In November last year, Christopher Ford, then US assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, said the Poseidon was designed to “inundate US coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis.”
Satellite images show build-up
The recent satellite imagery shows military bases, some abandoned after the Cold War, being brought back into use or being expanded into air strips.
The images also appear to show bombers and new radar systems in Russia’s Arctic and east, the latter within easy reach of Alaska.
One suggests underground storage facilities are being constructed on the Kola Peninsula, near the city of Murmansk, that could house the Poseidon and other terrifying weapons.
A Russian news agency has said that tests on a type of submarine that can be armed with the Poseidon are currently underway and could be completed in months.
Manash Pratim Boruah, a submarine watcher at military publication Jane’s Fighting Ships, said the Poseidon was a significant weapon.
“You can absolutely see development around the torpedo, which is happening.
“There is a very good probability that the Poseidon will be tested. And then there is a danger of it polluting a lot, even without a warhead but just a nuclear reactor inside.”
Mr Boruah said storage bays for the Poseidon on the Kola Peninsula could be complete in 2022.
Nonetheless, there are still lingering doubts about how effective the Poseidon would be.
It might be sneaky, but it’s not invisible. Some have said a torpedo of Poseidon’s size and speed would be noisy enough for it to be picked up by other nation’s forces.
And the feared “radioactive tsunamis” may be more like damp squibs.
According to Popular Mechanics, US studies into atomic weapons detonated under the sea’s surface found them not to be very good at generating big waves.
“Most wave energy is dissipated by breaking on the continental shelf before reaching shore,” an Office of Naval Research report ruled.
Russia’s plan to control key maritime route
However, the aim could be for the Poseidon to be just feasible enough to concentrate minds in Washington DC and other Western capitals.
Putting the Poseidon to one side, Russia’s Arctic build up appears to show it means military business.
Huge swathes of sea ice meant had meant its sparsely populated northern coast was easily defendable from maritime interlopers.
Global warming, however, appears to be creating new challenges – and opportunities – for Moscow.
Retreating ice means its shore is more vulnerable. Indeed, the US has key forces not just in Alaska but Europe as well as Greenland, all close to the Russian coast.
But a new northern shipping route is also opening up that could rival the Suez or Panama canals, cutting travel times from Asia to Europe.
Much of that route should be in international waters. But Moscow appears to be attempting to control any future maritime thoroughfare in the same way China is attempting to bring the South China Sea into its orbit.
Last month, Russia showed off its might when three nuclear submarines surfaced simultaneously through thick ice in the Arctic.
Russian bombers have also been flying close to US air space near Alaska and have repeatedly buzzed European nations.
“There’s clearly a military challenge from the Russians in the Arctic,” a senior state department official told CNN.
“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”.
With potentially another 15 years in power, Mr Putin can afford to play the long game when it comes to his Arctic build up and a new generation of super weapons.