The world is holding its breath as Vladimir Putin is feared to be preparing to test, or having recently tested, an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile.
An analysis carried out by the New York Times suggested that movements of aircraft and vehicles spotted via satellite imageries at and near a base in a remote Russian Arctic region resemble those seen ahead of the tests of the Burevestnik missile carried out in 2017 and 2018.
Satellite images taken in late September show numerous vehicles, including a truck with a trailer large enough to carry the missile, at the launchpad. A weather shelter that typically covers the launch site was temporarily moved a few metres away, the images appear to show.
Among other clues pointing at a fresh round of tests, two Russian aircraft believed to be owned by the country’s atomic energy company, Rosatom, and used for collecting data from missile launchers were positioned some 99 miles south of the launch site from early August to late September, according to Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona.
The same type of aircraft had also been spotted in the vicinity of the area when Russia tested the Burevestnik in 2018.
Little details have been shared so far by Russia about its Burevestnik, also known as SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
But a report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organisation focused on arms control, believes the missile is a “second-strike, strategic-range weapon” to be launched in response to a wave of nuclear strikes inside of Russia.
The rocket can carry both conventional warheads as well as a nuclear payload.
The missile is thought to be designed to be launched by a solid-fuel rocket motor, with a small nuclear reactor activating while it is in the air, which would allow the weapon to remain overhead for a long period of time.
The non-profit group believes Russia has previously tested the Burevestnik missile 13 times between 2017 and 2019, achieving little success.
The most successful flight of the rocket is believed to have lasted just more than two minutes.
One of the tests carried out in 2019 turned out to be deadly, as the missile crashed and exploded while staff was attempting to recover it, US officials claimed.
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told the US publication that it isn’t sure whether the Burevestnik has been tested since 2019. Russia, he believes, would need years following a successful launch before being ready for potential deployment, making the threat of the missile not immediate.
This missile is one of the six strategic weapons Putin unveiled by Putin during a speech on March 1, 2018.
During a chilling nationally televised address, Putin said Russia was testing and developing a new line of strategic nuclear-capable weapons able to outmanoeuvre US defences.
During the same speech, he presented the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and the high-speed underwater drones Poseidon.