Has Hvaldimir, Putin’s Secret Weapon, Defected?
The Kremlin’s beloved beluga has surfaced in Scandinavia, highlighting the hidden roles that animals play in military affairs.
I know this is not your real name: It’s simply the name that kind Norwegians gave you when you first turned up off the northernmost coast of Norway just over four years ago. (Hval is Norwegian for whale.)
Now, you’ve been spotted off the coast of southwestern Sweden. Since you can’t identify yourself, we can’t be certain, but beluga whales comfortable with humans are an absolute rarity in that region. Your arrival there highlights the extraordinary work of military animals. You and your fellow animal warriors are, in fact, indispensable.
Hvaldimir, your many fans still remember how, one day in April 2019, you simply turned up, presenting yourself to Norwegian fishers in the Norwegian Sea. You seemed to be looking for human company, and as soon as the fishers took a closer look, they discovered your harness. “Equipment of St. Petersburg,” it read in English, and it had a mount for a GoPro underwater camera. Had you traveled from Russia? The Russian city of Murmansk is very close to where you made contact with the Norwegians. Marine experts—real and self-appointed—suggested you’d been trained by the Russian armed forces.
Andreas Fahlman, the research director at Sweden’s Kolmarden Zoo, told Swedish National Television that the visiting whale may in fact be you, and that mammals in the employ of the Russian Armed Forces are trained to, for example, “guard a naval base or certain vessels. But it’s also about finding different objects underneath the water’s surface.”
Russia, like the United States and other countries, has a long history of using animals in its military operations. Indeed, animals employed by armed forces everywhere work hard. The Romans infamously thought the Alps would keep them safe from intruders, but they hadn’t reckoned the possibility of Hannibal enlisting elephants. With the aid of nearly 40 elephants and more than 30,000 troops, the Carthaginian general and his men succeeded in crossing the mountain range and advancing on Rome.
Horses, of course, have been central to battles for as long as war has existed. Though they’re still used for mostly ceremonial purposes (such as the fine displays of British military horsemanship during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III), most mounted regiments have been turned into mechanized regiments, where soldiers travel in vehicles such as armored personnel carriers. But such is the military’s affection for its most crucial animal colleagues that originally mounted regiments (known as cavalry, from caballus, the Latin word for horse) that they’ve kept their names.
Dogs—“four-legged fighters”—have been similarly central to war efforts, and no technology to date can do what they can. “You’ll find U.S. military working dogs serving wherever American troops do,” the U.S. Defense Department’s four-legged fighter webpage explains. During World War I, for example, dogs joined some 6 million horses and mules and tens of thousands of horses and camels in the war effort. Pigeons carried messages better than the technology of the day was able to, and cats caught the rats proliferating in the trenches. Canaries and mice warned of toxic fumes. Today, animal fighters’ training is every bit as rigorous as that of human soldiers, because they have to be equally good.
“Since they took on the risky tasks of initial entry or first reconnaissance of sensitive places, they were really highly respected team members,” Belgian ex-soldier Bram Couwberghs, who served with German shepherds and Belgian Malinois in Afghanistan and Lebanon (and at home on counterterrorism operations), told me. “And they’re really an excellent search asset for weapons caches, hidden IEDs, luggage at airports, containers in ports, and goods hidden in places like ships and trucks.” So central was the military dog Cairo’s effort in the killing of Osama bin Laden that his handler, a Navy Seal named Will Chesney, went on to write a book about him.
Marine mammals such as you, Hvaldimir, are intelligent and made for life underwater, which makes you as indispensable to naval operations as dogs, horses, and their fellow terrestrial animals are to army operations. Your entry into military service, though, is more recent. For nearly six and a half decades, the U.S. Navy has trained sea lions and bottlenose dolphins to explore the undersea environment, search for targets of interest to the military, and “engage” those targets, which might mean marking the location of a mine, attaching grabber devices to underwater objects so they can be removed, or patrolling ships against undersea saboteur divers. No robot has this skill set either.
The Soviet Union launched a similar program in the late 1970s, nearly two decades after the U.S. Navy did. “Within the next year, the Soviets could train marine mammals to be used in military operational systems such as diver assistance and equipment recovery in the Black Sea. The next steps, possible within 2 years, might be training of the animals for more sophisticated tasks such as placement of packages on ships, as well as for use in areas outside the Black Sea,” the CIA wrote in a top-secret 1976 memo, which has since been declassified.
“Recent evidence indicates that a Soviet capability to train the animals for use in the open-ocean [sic], at least in limited military and intelligence-gathering roles, may now be available,” the memo added. It had been a rocky road for the Soviets, who were so short on marine mammal expertise that they enlisted the services of some of their country’s outstanding circus artists, who wereused to performing with seals. In the end, the Soviet Navy did manage to (forgive the pun) get an undersea mammal program off the ground at its Sevastopol base. Around this time, the U.S. Navy had also begun training beluga whales, which can swim deeper and live in colder waters than dolphins or sea lions, and later the Soviets added beluga whales, too.
The rest is well-known: the Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukraine (including Crimea, with its port of Sevastopol) gained independence. Even though the Soviet Navy could keep operating at the port of Sevastopol, the aquarium there was taken over by Ukraine, which repurposed the animals for service among children with disabilities. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the Russian Navy relaunched the mammal program. Just before the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Navy is reported to have put two dolphin pens at the entrance to Sevastopol. Before that, it had put its dolphins to work at its Syrian base in Tartus. Submarine analyst H. I. Sutton surmises that the intelligent mammals’ role consisted of counter-diver operations. As Sutton discovered shortly after you—Hvaldimir—turned up in Norway, Russia’s Northern Fleet had also established whale pens at its Olenya Bay base, not far from the Russian-Norwegian border.
Yet, despite being essential to military operations, military animals get shockingly little recognition. To be sure, both the U.S. and the Soviet marine mammal programs were classified for a long time, but military dogs and horses are well-known. Yes, military animals have starred in documentaries and films, including Dog (released last year), which features a U.S. Army Ranger, played by Channing Tatum, and Lulu the Belgian Malinois as they travel to the dog’s handler’s funeral. And yes, more than 70 extraordinarily brave dogs, and pigeons (and one cat, but no sea mammals) have been awarded the prestigious PDSA Dickin Medal for Gallantry. This January, Bass—a U.S. Marine Corps four-legged special operations warrior who has served in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—became the award’ 75th recipient. The Belgian Malinois was recognized for his bravery in carrying out “350 explosive sweeps and 46 missions to capture high-value targets,” especially his clearance of a mined building while under attack by Taliban fighters.
But apart from a touching memorial to military animals in London’s Hyde Park, the U.S. War Dogs Memorial in New Jersey, and a few small memorial sites around Europe, there’s little permanent tribute to animals’ extraordinary contributions to our defense efforts and the many lives they’ve saved.
The animals, of course, have no way of knowing whether they serve a democratic government that merely needs to defend its territory or a dictator keen on invading its neighbors.
That’s why, Hvaldimir, you’ve done a good deed by unwittingly achieving worldwide celebrity. Thanks to Hvaldimir, a global audience is now aware of the presence of working animals in armed forces, whether on behalf of allies or adversaries.
We’re all hoping you’ll be able to make your way back to the Norwegian Whale Reserve, the fjord turned into your home by generous Norwegian institutions and citizens, but your apparent excursion to Sweden has served as a useful reminder of the hundreds of animals who toil in obscurity in armed forces around the world without getting so much as a news mention.
Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw
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