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Home / World / In a remote outpost of the Arctic, Norway observes Russia's military build-up: NPR

In a remote outpost of the Arctic, Norway observes Russia's military build-up: NPR



Norwegian Pvt. Ivan Sjoetun sits at the border post where Russian land can be seen from the window. The post office is located in the extreme northeastern corner of Norway and offers an impressive view of this beautiful area about 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle.

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Norwegian Pvt. Ivan Sjoetun sits at the border post where Russian land can be seen from the window. The post is located in the extreme northeastern corner of Norway and offers an impressive view of this beautiful area about 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle.

Claire Harbage / NPR

Exactly 525 steps lead from the icy waters of the Barents Sea to the top of the observation post in the extreme northeast corner of Norway along the Russian border. It's a steep climb, but when you reach the top, you have a good chance that one of the young Norwegian conscripts at the outpost will be waiting for a plate of waffles with strawberry jam and sour cream, a Norwegian favorite.

Waffles were made by Sander Bader (19) in the observation post where he and other individuals remain while watching out for Russian border activities.

Claire Harbage / NPR


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These waffles were made by Sander Bader (19) in the observation post where he and other individuals remain while watching out for Russian border activities.

Claire Harbage / NPR

OP 247 provides an impressive view of this beautiful area around 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. To the east, on the other side of the border, is a Russian observation post and a coastguard. On the other side of the Barents Sea, just in front of you, is the small Norwegian island of Vardo, home to a US-funded military surveillance radar system.

"Obviously the Russians are very annoyed," says Captain Sigurd Harsheim, commander of the border with the Jarfjord Company, because the radar system helps to keep an eye on Russian movements in the far north. "Basically, you have good control over the entire Barents Sea and everything that surrounds it … and I think part of the irritation is that it was built in America."

] Lately, there are good reasons to keep an eye on Russia, whose sheer land mass overwhelms the other seven Arctic nations. The heated temperatures open the shipping lanes and reveal the abundant natural resources of the polar region. And now several nations are participating in a military buildup of the Arctic. Russia is upgrading its military capabilities with new fighter jets and naval ships, and its submarines continue to push into the North Atlantic. According to Norwegian military, Russia also carries out cruise missile tests and live fire exercises. This forces its neighbor Norway and other NATO members to rethink their military strategy in the region.

More than 500 steps are built into the side of the mountain where the Norwegian military observation post is located near the Russian border.

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More than 500 steps are built into the side of the mountain where the Norwegian military observation post is located near the Russian border.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"[The Russians] Rebuild the Northern Fleet, build new submarines, fly more, train more with their battalions in northwestern Russia," Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told the NPR.

A number of countries are in the Arctic. Marked here are Porsangermoen, a Norwegian military camp; Vardo, an island in Norway where the US has funded a military radar system; the Norwegian observation post 247 with a view of Russia; and the Kola Peninsula, home to the Russian Northern Fleet.

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A number of countries are in the Arctic. Marked here are Porsangermoen, a Norwegian military camp; Vardo, an island in Norway where the US has funded a military radar system; the Norwegian observation post 247 with a view of Russia; and the Kola Peninsula, home to the Russian Northern Fleet.

Sean McMinn / NPR

The center of Russia's military activities in the Arctic is the Kola Peninsula in the extreme northwest of the country next to Norway. "Out on the Kola Peninsula … you will see that they are modernizing and rebuilding and are also building new facilities," says Maj. Brynjar Stordal, spokesman for the Norwegian Joint Headquarters. "There is a lot more activity and more new equipment, and we also see that the tactics are getting more advanced."

Capt. Sigurd Harsheim stands at the foot of the mountains, where the observation post is located. Russia is constantly building military bases and its nuclear arsenal in the Arctic.

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Capt. Sigurd Harsheim stands at the foot of the mountains, where the observation post is located. Russia is constantly building military bases and its nuclear arsenal in the Arctic.

Claire Harbage / NPR

The heavily militarized Kola Peninsula is also a stronghold of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet, according to Thomas Nilsen, a journalist covering the region for the online newspaper Independent Barents Observer based in Kirkenes, Norway.

"This is the home of nuclear submarines." This is the home of [Russian] Spetsnaz Special Naval Forces, "says Nilsen. He says the Kola Peninsula is also an important training ground for Russia's new weapons, such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles and the nuclear-powered submarine drone.

According to Nilsen, Russia's construction is due in part to fading confidence in the West and Russia's protection of military assets in the far north, including its natural resources. 90 percent of Russia's natural gas exports come from the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic.

"We must always remember that the Arctic is economically and enormously important to Russia," says Nilsen. "The Arctic plays a much stronger role in Russia's national thinking than in any other Arctic nation, including Norway."

The Russian government has long expressed concerns about NATO's expansion near its borders. In June 2018, the Russian embassy in Oslo complained that a Norwegian request for more US troops "could lead to growing tensions, trigger an arms race and destabilize the situation in northern Europe."

Nevertheless, the extent of Moscow's aggression in the region has surprised Western nations. In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, the US and NATO have closed Arctic bases and spent weapons and other assets from the region. The Arctic region is peaceful, because Russia is no longer a concern, says Colonel Joern Erik Berntsen, the commander of the Norwegian Land Defense Finnmark. That changed in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea.

Two private individuals walk on the mountain just outside the border post.

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Two corporals are walking on the mountain just outside the border post.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"The operations in Ukraine have changed NATO and us in some ways," he says. "The security situation in the world has definitely changed, we are more or less where we were before the fall of the Wall."

Berntsen said that after Russia's Crimean actions, Norway needs to review its security situation. It went on a shopping spree and acquired submarines from Germany and dozens of F-35 fighter aircraft from the United States. Norway is also rebuilding some of its own bases and rebuilding them.

One of them is Porsangermoen, the world's northernmost military camp, amidst rolling hills and ponds in County Finnmark. In October, around 1,400 Norwegian troops conducted military exercises in the camp. There was snow on the ground, and a cold wind cut through layers of clothing. Part of their training was how to fight in wintry conditions.

Near the Porsangermoen military base, where soldiers take part in military exercises in northern Norway, snow falls on artillery batteries. It is the northernmost military camp in the world.

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Snow falls on artillery batteries near the Porsangermoen military base, where soldiers participate in military exercises in northern Norway. It is the northernmost military camp in the world.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"Fighting in wintry conditions is probably the hardest thing you can do," says platoon leader Lt. Benjamin Thompson. "That requires a lot of training."

Thompson, who wears a partially white camouflage uniform, says he also had to train US troops that had moved into the country in recent years. The US has hundreds of service members, mainly marines stationed farther south in Norway.

Captain Benjamin Thompson on Norway's military base. "Fighting in wintry conditions is probably the hardest thing you can do," he said.

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Captain Benjamin Thompson on Norway's military base. "Fighting in wintry conditions is probably the hardest thing you can do," he said.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"They were fighting at the beginning, but after a while they got really good and learned a lot of important things to survive in the winter," he says.

Norway has supported the US and other NATO countries allies for a stronger presence and more military exercises in the Arctic. Last year, Norway was the main venue for Trident Juncture, one of NATO's largest military exercises since 2002.

Two years ago, NATO restored an Arctic commando now occupied by Norfolk, Virginia Fleet against Russian activities in the North Atlantic.

Norway's Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen is pleased. "We have worked through NATO and with the US to redirect attention to the North Atlantic in these areas," he told NPR. "We are pleased with the new command structure, and we are pleased with command control in Norfolk."

In September, the US flew over the Arctic with a B-2 stealth bomber. James Townsend, who spent two decades in the US Department of Defense working on NATO policy, said the mission helped send a signal to the Russians.

"The B-2 has shown that we can fly there, and the Russians are shown flying up there," he says. "On the one hand it was a matter of practice, but on the other hand it is also a scary message to the Russians."

Townsend, now at the Center for New American Security, says it's important for the US to know what's going on in the Arctic, but do not let Russia's upturn frighten you.

"We do not want to return to a military conflict or a military arms race or to the Arctic militarization if we do not have to," he says.

In October, about 1,400 Norwegian troops conducted military exercises in the camp. Part of her training was how to fight in wintry conditions.

Claire Harbage / NPR


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In October, about 1,400 Norwegian troops conducted military exercises in the camp. Part of her training was how to fight in wintry conditions.

Claire Harbage / NPR

Berntsen of the Finnmark Ground Defense says that too much US military presence in the Arctic could provoke Russia. At present it is best to build Norway's armed forces and defend itself against its eastern neighbor.


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