In late February, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s nuclear weapons were entering “special combat readiness,” American surveillance equipment went into high combat readiness. Hundreds of imaging satellites, as well as other private and federal spacecraft, have begun looking for signs of increased activity among Russian bombers, missiles, submarines and storage bunkers that contain thousands of nuclear warheads.
The orbital fleet has not yet noticed anything to worry about, image analysts said. Reiterating private assessments, US and NATO officials have not reported any signs that Russia is preparing for a nuclear war. “We haven’t seen anything that has made us adjust our posture, our nuclear position,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters on March 23.
But US nuclear watchdogs have reason to keep searching, experts said. Moscow has long practiced the use of relatively small nuclear explosions to compensate for losses on the battlefield. And some military experts are worried about what Mr Putin may do after the setbacks in Ukraine to restore his reputation of sharp ruthlessness.
If Russia were preparing for a nuclear war, it would usually disperse its bombers to reduce their vulnerability to enemy attack, said Hans M. Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private research organization in Washington. But right now, he said, “none of this is obvious.”
Since 1962, when one of America’s first spy satellites failed to detect a shipment of missiles and 158 nuclear warheads sent from Moscow to Cuba, America’s orbiting force has grown. Today, hundreds of public and private imaging satellites are constantly scanning the planet to assess crops, map cities, manage forests and increasingly uncover the secret activities of nuclear powers.
Russia’s arsenal exceeds the nuclear reserves of all other countries in size, which poses a challenge for analysts to assess its condition in depth. Private US companies such as Maxar, Capella Space and Planet Labs have provided analysts with hundreds of close-up photos of Russia’s nuclear forces. Planet Labs alone has a constellation of more than 200 imaging satellites and has made a specialty to target military sites.
The private navy tracked Russia’s nuclear forces long before the war, uncovering maintenance work as well as routine exercises and exercises. This kind of basic understanding helps analysts find real preparation for war, experts said. “You keep track of these things and you start to feel what they look like,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former CIA assistant director of analysis. “If you see a deviation, you should ask if something is wrong.”
Shortly after Mr Putin’s statement, a false alarm rang out. Twitter account, The Lookout, published that a satellite has spotted two Russian nuclear submarines leaving a northwestern port. The London tabloid Express warned in a headline about “strategic readiness”. The lightning bolt attracted little attention because experienced experts realized that the departure of the submarine was a planned exercise.
However, Jeffrey Lewis and Michael Duitsman, satellite imagery specialists at the Middlebury Institute for International Research in Monterey, California, continue to monitor Russia’s submarine fleet because their movements can provide reliable indications of higher nuclear war readiness.
Typically, about half of Russia’s long-range missile submarines go to sea on planned patrols, while the rest remain on their docks for rest, repair and maintenance. Analysts see the empty piers as a warning sign.
To assess the current situation, Dr. Lewis approached a large submarine base known as Hajiyevo in northern Russia. His images on Google Earth show a dozen massive piers jutting out of rocky fjords.
The Middlebury team looked at a close-up photo taken by Planet on March 7, showing four of Russia’s submarines to two of Hajiyevo’s quays. Mr Duitzman said a separate image of the entire base revealed that all of its active submarines were in port, suggesting they were not preparing for a nuclear attack. “During a higher state of readiness,” he said, “I would expect several submarines to be at sea.”
The team also studied images of a military base in Siberian wildlife, where mobile launchers move long-range missiles on the roads in the rear as a defensive tactic. Mr Duitsman said the images – taken on March 30 by one of Capella’s radar satellites, which can see through clouds as well as night darkness – showed no signs of unusual activity.
Finally, near the banks of the southern Volga River, the Middlebury team inspected Saratov-63, a site for storing nuclear weapons for long-range missiles, as well as the Russian Air Force. A bomber base is nearby. The photos taken by Planet on March 6 reveal a snowy landscape and, Mr Duitzman said, there was no evidence of increased anxiety.
A senior US military officer toured an underground bunker in Saratov-63 in 1998 and said he possessed not only extremely powerful nuclear weapons, but also smaller ones, sometimes known as tactical weapons. Small arms are considered to play a leading role in Russia’s nuclear strikes, as their power can be part of the destructive power of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and making them look more usable.
Analysts and nuclear experts say the evidence shows that Mr Putin’s declaration of “combat readiness” was not an order to prepare weapons, but rather a signal that a military message may be coming soon.
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Pavel Podvig, a longtime weapons researcher from Russia, said the alarm most likely prepared the Russian military for the possibility of a nuclear order. Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet diplomat who negotiated arms control treaties, agreed. “This is a signal to the chain of command and control,” he said. “It simply means, ‘Pay attention.’ An order may come. “
But Dr. Lewis of the Middlebury Institute said Putin’s order also appears to have sent more military personnel to central posts that deliver orders and messages to scattered forces. “That’s why we didn’t see anything,” he said. “It was increasing the number of people in the bunkers.” The practice, he added, is a standard part of the way Russia is raising nuclear preparedness levels: more people are needed to prepare for war than to keep facilities on standby.
Dr Lowenthal, a former CIA assistant director and now a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins, said he found the personnel aspect of the escalation process in Moscow to be the most worrying.
“We can develop a good starting line for what is normal” and a routine in the movement of Russian nuclear weapons, he said. “Internal things are always anxious.” After all, image satellites can’t see what people are doing in buildings and bunkers.
He said the main uncertainty was the “level of automaticity” in Russia’s escalation war signals, a topic covered in The Dead Hand, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book describing a semi-automatic system designed to operate on its own. that Russian leaders were killed. In that case, Russia’s nuclear authority will be transferred to several low-ranking officers in a concrete bunker. It is unclear whether Moscow is counting on something like this today.
“You are never entirely sure” how Russia allows the use of nuclear weapons, said Dr. Lowenthal. “That’s what makes you nervous.”