The Russian military plane touched down in heavy wind and light snow, then slid across the icy tarmac.
That the large, four-engine Ilyushin Il-76 airlifter could land at all on the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is a testament to Moscow’s growing military might in this remote part of the world.
Russia recently expanded the runway at its Nagurskoye air base on the archipelago to 3,500 meters long, meaning it can land and refuel most of its military aircraft here, including jet fighters to patrol the polar skies.
Asked whether this also meant Russia’s heavy strategic bombers, like the TU-95 “Bear,” were able to operate from here, Maj. Gen. Igor Churkin proudly confirmed they could.
“Of course they can,” he boasted, pointing to a briefing chart of the base. “Have a look. We can land all types of aircraft on this base.”
Russia’s armed forces granted media organizations, including CNN, rare access to the military’s northernmost outpost on the island of Alexandra Land, earlier this week, perhaps a show of force ahead of a meeting of the Arctic Council, a high-level group of eight nations bordering the northern polar region where this year Russia took up the chairmanship of the Council. It’s one of a growing number of Arctic bases that Russia has built or upgraded in recent years.
Construction on the base, known as the Arctic Trefoil, was completed in 2017. It lies just 160 miles (257 kilometers) east from the easternmost part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago – NATO territory.
The new base is built to house around 150 soldiers and is designed to ensure that Russia’s Northern Fleet can be autonomous and self-sufficient. It’s all part of what President Vladimir Putin says is a key effort to bolster Moscow presence in the Arctic to ensure the “the future” of Russia.
The base has what the Russians describe as a state-of-the-art radar station to monitor movements by NATO ships and aircraft. The air commander said the troops up here frequently track US and other aircraft they deem to be adversarial. The army also paraded to journalists two powerful coastal defense rockets it has placed on Franz Josef Land, which it says can hit ships or land targets more than 200 miles offshore.
“Just yesterday, we saw a NATO reconnaissance plane. We accompanied it for four hours by transmitting all the information to the higher command centers, the positions of the plane and its trajectory, in which direction it was heading,” Churkin said. “The enemy will not go un-noticed.”
CNN was unable to independently verify his claims. But it is clear that the great power competition is heating up in the Arctic, and Russia views this base as a key asset in that struggle.
The White House has been watching Russia’s military buildup with increasing concern. Ahead of the Arctic Council, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has “concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic.”
Blinken came face to face for the first time as Secretary of State with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Arctic Council in Reykjavík. Blinken said “it’s no secret” that the US and Russia “have differences.” Lavrov responded by saying Russia was prepared to discuss “all issues on the table” but added that, “we greatly diverge when it comes to our assessment of the international situation and our approaches towards how we should resolve it.”
Putin on Thursday threatened to “knock out” the teeth of foreign foes wanting to “bite” off parts of Russia’s territory. Without naming or specifying anyone, Putin said critics complained that his country’s vast energy resources belong only to Russia and said developing Russia’s armed forces was the only solution.
“They should know, those who are going to do this, that we will knock out everyone’s teeth so that they cannot bite anymore … and the key to this is the development of our Armed Forces,” he said during a televised conference call.