Russia’s northernmost base projects power into the Arctic
By KOSTYA MANENKOV and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
NAGURSKOYE, Russia (AP) – During the Cold War Russia’s Nagurskoye Air Base was little more than a runway, weather station and communications outpost in the Franz Josef Land archipelago.
It was a lonely and desolate home primarily for polar bears, where winter temperatures dip to minus -42 Celsius (43 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) and the snow does not clear until August through mid-September.
Now Russia‘s northernmost military base is packed with missiles and radar, and its extended runway can accommodate all types of aircraft, including nuclear-capable strategic bombers, projecting Moscow’s power and influence across the Arctic in a context of increasing international competition for the region’s vast resources.
The clover-shaped installation – three large pods extending from a central atrium – is called the “arctic clover” and is painted in the white-red-and-blue of the national flag, illuminating the view otherwise austere over the 5600 kilometers. (3470 miles) Northern sea route along the arctic coast of Russia. Other buildings on the island, called Alexandra Land, are used for radar and communications, a weather station, oil storage, hangars, and construction facilities.
Russia has sought to assert its influence over large areas of the Arctic in competition with the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway, as shrinking polar ice due to global warming offers new opportunities. for resources and shipping routes. China has also shown growing interest in the region, which is believed to hold up to a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited estimates that put the value of the Arctic’s mineral wealth at $ 30 trillion.
Tensions between Russia and the West are likely to weigh heavily at Thursday’s meeting of Arctic foreign ministers in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Moscow is expected to assume the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council.
“We are concerned about some of the recent military activity in the Arctic,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday after arriving in Iceland for talks with the foreign ministers of the eight members of the Arctic Council. . “This increases the risk of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the common goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region. We must therefore be vigilant about this.”
The Russian base, located approximately 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of the geographic North Pole, was built using new construction technologies as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to strengthen the military amid mounting tensions with the West after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The following year, Russia presented a revised offer for vast arctic territories to the United Nations, claiming 1.2 million square kilometers (over 463,000 square miles) of arctic maritime shelf, extending to over 350 nautical miles (650 kilometers) from the shore.
As the UN pondered this claim and those of other countries, Russia said it viewed the Northern Sea Route as its “historically developed national transport corridor”, requiring permission from Moscow for foreign ships can navigate there. The United States has rejected Russia’s claims to jurisdiction over parts of the route as illegitimate.
Moscow has declared its intention to introduce procedures for foreign ships and assign Russian pilots to guide them along the route, which runs from Norway to Alaska.
As part of this effort, Russia has rebuilt and expanded its facilities throughout the polar region, deploying surveillance and defensive capabilities. A clover-shaped base and patriotic colors similar to Nagurskoye can be found on Kotelny Island, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea at the eastern end of the sea route, also with missiles and a radar.
Admiral Alexander Moiseyev, head of Russia’s Northern Fleet, said last week that Moscow has the right to set navigation rules along the shipping lane.
“Almost all of the Northern Sea Route crosses Russian territorial waters or the country’s economic zone,” Moiseyev told reporters aboard the guided-missile cruiser Peter the Great. “Difficult ice conditions make it necessary to organize safety of navigation, therefore Russia insists on a special regime of its use.”
NATO is increasingly concerned about Russia’s growing military footprint in the Arctic, and Washington has sent B-1 bombers to Norway this year.
“An increased Russian presence, more Russian bases in the High North, also triggered the need for a greater NATO presence, and we increased our presence there with more naval capabilities, a presence in the air, and not least, the importance of transatlantic underwater protection cables transmitting a lot of data, “said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Moiseyev expressed concern about US military assets in Norway, saying this had led to “an increased potential for conflict in the Arctic”.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry stormed a US nuclear submarine calling at a Norwegian port, saying it reflected what it described as “Oslo’s path for the militarization of the Arctic” .
On the sidelines of this week’s Arctic Council meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to hold talks with Blinken – a meeting meant to lay the groundwork for Putin’s meeting with US President Joe Biden scheduled for next month.
Blinken pointed out that with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world average, Russia has decided to increase its presence in the region.
“Russia is exploiting this change to try to exert control over new spaces,” he said last month. “It is modernizing its bases in the Arctic and building new ones.”
Blinken rejected Russian calls to take over a military component of the Arctic Council. He also criticized Lavrov for comments earlier this week in which the Russian diplomat dismissed the criticism because the Arctic “is our territory, our land.”
“We must act with all of us, including Russia, on the basis of the rules, on the basis of standards, on the basis of the commitments that we each have made and also avoid statements that go against them “said Blinken.
Since Putin visited the Nagurskoye base in 2017, it has been reinforced and expanded. It now houses a dedicated tactical group that manages electronic surveillance, air defense assets and a battery of Bastion anti-ship missile systems.
A runway has been extended to accommodate all types of aircraft, including strategic nuclear-capable Tu-95 bombers, the major-general said. Igor Churkin, who oversees Air Force operations at the base.
“The modernization of arctic aerodromes greatly increases the potential of the aviation of the Northern Fleet to control the airspace in the area of the Northern Sea Route and helps to ensure its safety,” he said. he declares.
In March, the Russian military conducted exercises in Nagurskoye with ground troops and a pair of MiG-31 fighters flying over the North Pole. The exercise also saw three nuclear submarines crash into the arctic ice next to each other in a carefully planned show of force.
On Monday, Lavrov brushed aside Western criticism of Russia’s expansion in the Arctic and bristled at what he described as pressure from Norway for a stronger NATO presence there.
“We hear whining that Russia is expanding its military activities in the Arctic,” Lavrov said. “But everyone knows this is our land, our land. We are responsible for the security of the Arctic coast, and everything our country does there is fully legitimate.”
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.