NAGURSKOYE, Russia – During the Cold War, Russia’s Nagurskoye air base was little more than a runway, meteorological station and communications office in the Franz Josef Land archipelago.
It was a remote and deserted home, mostly for polar bears, where winter temperatures drop to minus-42 Celsius (43 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), and the snow disappears only from August to mid-September.
Russia’s northernmost military base is now full of missiles and radars, and its extended runway can carry all types of aircraft, including nuclear-capable strategic bombers, projecting Moscow’s strength and influence in the Arctic amid growing international competition for the region’s vast resources.
The clover-shaped object – three large pods extending from the central atrium – is called the “Arctic Trolist” and is painted the white-red-blue color of the state flag, illuminating the otherwise sharp lookouts at 5,600 kilometers (3,470 miles) of the North 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, an oil depot, hangars and buildings.
Russia has sought to exert its influence in vast areas of the Arctic in competition with the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway, as the reduction of polar ice from a warming planet 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 Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited estimates that the value of Arctic mineral wealth is $ 30 trillion.
Tensions between Russia and the West are likely to increase during a meeting of Arctic foreign ministers in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Moscow is due to take over the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council.
“We have concerns about some 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 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.” So we have to be careful about that. “
The Russian base, located about 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 spiral tensions with the West following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
The following year, Russia submitted to the United Nations a revised offer for vast territories in the Arctic, claiming 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic sea shelf, which stretches for more than 350 nautical miles (650 kilometers) from the coast.
Although the UN has considered the claim and the claims of other countries, Russia has said it sees the Northern Sea Route as its “historically developed national transport corridor”, demanding Moscow’s approval to sail foreign vessels along it. The United States has rejected Russian claims for jurisdiction over parts of the route as illegitimate.
Moscow has said it intends to introduce procedures for foreign ships and designate Russian pilots to guide it along the route from Norway to Alaska.
As part of that effort, Russia has rebuilt and expanded facilities across the polar region, deploying surveillance and defense assets. The base in the shape of a trefoil of a similar shape and patriotic color as the one in Nagur, is located on the island of Kotelny, between the Laptev Sea and Eastern Siberia at the eastern end of the ship’s route, also with missiles and radar.
Adm. Alexander Moiseyev, the head of Russia’s northern fleet, said last week that Moscow has the right to set navigation rules along the ship’s lane.
“Virtually the entire Northern Sea Route passes through Russian territorial waters or the country’s economic zone,” Moiseyev told reporters aboard the missile cruiser Peter the Great. “Complex ice conditions make it necessary to organize safe navigation, so Russia insists on a special regime for 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.
“Increased Russian presence, more Russian bases in the far north, has also raised the need for a larger NATO presence, and we have increased our presence there with more naval capabilities, air presence, and no less important, the importance of protecting the transatlantic submarine. they transmit a lot of data, “said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Moiseyev was nervous about US military assets in Norway, saying that it had led to “an increase in the conflict potential in the Arctic.”
Russia’s foreign ministry fired a U.S. nuclear submarine that sailed into a Norwegian port last week, saying it reflected what it described as “Oslo’s course to militarize the Arctic.”
On the sidelines of this week’s Arctic Council meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to hold talks with Blinken – a meeting intended to lay the groundwork for Putin’s meeting with US President Joe Biden scheduled for next month.
Blinken emphasized that Russia, with the warming of the Arctic twice as much as the rest of the global average, has increased its presence in the region.
“Russia is using this change to try to gain control of the new space,” he said last month. “It’s modernizing its Arctic bases and building new ones.”
Blinken rejected Russian calls to renew the military component of the Arctic Council. He also tasked Lavrov with comments earlier this week in which a Russian diplomat dismissed such criticism because the Arctic is “our territory, our country.”
“We must treat all of us, including Russia, on the basis of rules, based on norms, on the basis of the obligations we have undertaken, and also avoid statements that undermine them,” Blinken said.
Since Putin visited the Nagurskoye base in 2017, it has been strengthened and expanded. It now houses a special tactical group that manages electronic surveillance, air defense means and batteries of Bastion anti-ship missile systems.
The runway has been expanded to accommodate all types of aircraft, including Tu-95 strategic bombers with nuclear capabilities, the major general said. Igor Churkin, who oversees aviation operations at the base.
“The modernization of Arctic airports significantly increases the aviation potential of the Northern Fleet for airspace control in the area of the Northern Sea Route and enables its safety to be ensured,” he said.
In March, the Russian army conducted exercises in Nagurskaya with ground troops and a pair of MiG-31 fighters flying over the North Pole. The exercise also saw three nuclear submarines breaking through Arctic ice side by side in a carefully planned demonstration of force.
On Monday, Lavrov rejected Western criticism of Russia’s Arctic expansion and sharply criticized what he described as Norway’s effort to have a stronger NATO presence there.
“We hear lamentations about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic,” Lavrov said. “But everyone knows that this is our territory, our country. We have a responsibility to keep the Arctic coast safe and everything our country does there is completely legitimate. “
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.