In A Remote Arctic Outpost, Norway Keeps Watch On Russia's Military Buildup

Nov 3, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 4:01 pm

There are precisely 525 stairs from the icy waters of the Barents Sea to the top of the observation post in the far northeast corner of Norway, along the Russian border. It's a steep climb, but once you reach the apex, there's a good chance one of the young Norwegian conscripts manning the outpost will have a platter of waffles — topped with strawberry jam and sour cream, a Norwegian favorite — waiting.

These waffles were made by Sander Bader, 19, in the observation post where he and other privates stay while they keep an eye on the Russian border activities.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The border post, OP 247, offers a commanding view of this starkly beautiful area some 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. To the east, on the other side of the border, is a Russian observation post and a coast guard facility. Directly ahead, across the Barents Sea, is the small Norwegian island of Vardo, which houses a U.S.-funded military surveillance radar system.

"Apparently it's annoying the Russians a lot," says Capt. Sigurd Harsheim, commander of Jarfjord border company, because the radar installation helps keep an eye on Russian movements in the High North. "Basically you have good control of the entire Barents Sea and everything around it ... and I think part of the irritation is that it's American built."

There's good reason recently to keep a line of sight on Russia, whose sheer land mass overwhelms the seven other Arctic nations. Warming temperatures are opening up shipping lanes and uncovering the polar region's abundant natural resources. And now several nations are engaging in a military buildup of the Arctic. Russia is upgrading its military capabilities with new fighter jets and navy vessels, and its submarines are pushing farther into the North Atlantic. Norwegian military officials say Russia is also carrying out cruise missile tests and live-fire military exercises. That is forcing its neighbor, Norway, and other NATO members to rethink their military strategy in the region.

More than 500 stairs 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] are rebuilding the Northern Fleet, building new submarines; they're flying more; they are exercising more in the northwest of Russia with their battalions," Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen tells NPR.

A number of countries crowd the Arctic. Marked here are Porsangermoen, a Norwegian military camp; Vardo, an island in Norway where the U.S. has funded a military radar system; the Norwegian observation post 247 that overlooks Russia; and Kola Peninsula, the home of Russia's Northern Fleet.
Sean McMinn / NPR

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

Capt. Sigurd Harsheim stands at the base of the mountains where the observation post sits. Russia is steadily building up military bases and its nuclear arsenal in the Arctic.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The heavily militarized Kola Peninsula is also a base for the Russian navy's Northern Fleet, says Thomas Nilsen, a journalist who covers the region for the Independent Barents Observer online newspaper, based in Kirkenes, Norway.

"This is the home of the nuclear-powered submarines. This is the home of the [Russian] Spetsnaz special marine forces," Nilsen says. He says the Kola Peninsula is also a key training area for Russia's new weapons such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles and the nuclear-powered underwater drone.

Nilsen says Russia's buildup is due in part to its deteriorated trust with the West and to protecting military assets in the High North, including its natural resources. Ninety percent of Russia's natural gas exports come from Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic.

"We always have to remember that for Russia, the Arctic is economically and enormously important," Nilsen says. "So the Arctic has a much stronger role in Russia's national thinking than in any of the other Arctic states, including Norway."

The Russian government, meanwhile, 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 U.S. troops "could cause growing tensions, triggering an arms race and destabilizing the situation in northern Europe."

Still, the extent of Moscow's aggression in the region has taken Western nations by surprise. In the years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and NATO shuttered Arctic bases and moved weaponry and other assets out of the region. The Arctic region was peaceful, as Russia stopped being a concern, says Col. Joern Erik Berntsen, the commander of Norway's Finnmark Land Defense. That changed in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.

Two privates walk on the mountain just outside the border post.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"The operations in the Ukraine was kind of a game-changer for NATO and for us," he says. "The security situation in the world has definitely changed; we are more or less back where we were before the fall of the wall."

We are more or less back where we were before the fall of the wall. - Joern Erik Berntsen, commander of Norway's Finnmark Land Defense

Berntsen says after Russia's actions in Crimea, Norway needed to reexamine its security situation. It went on a buying spree, acquiring submarines from Germany and dozens of F-35 fighter jets from the United States. Norway is also rebuilding and rearming some of its own bases.

One of those is Porsangermoen, the world's northernmost military camp, set among rolling hills and ponds in the county of Finnmark. In October, about 1,400 Norwegian troops carried out military exercises at the camp. There was snow on the ground, and a cold wind sliced through layers of clothing. Part of their training was how to fight under winter conditions.

Snow falls on artillery battery near the Porsangermoen military base, where soldiers participate in military exercises in northern Norway. It is the world's northernmost military camp.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"Fighting during winter conditions is probably the hardest you can do," says Platoon Commander Lt. Benjamin Thompson. "That demands a lot of training."

Thompson, wearing a partially white camouflage uniform, says he has also had to train U.S. troops that have been rotating into the country over the past couple of years. The U.S. has hundreds of service members, mainly Marines, stationed farther south in Norway.

Platoon Commander Lt. Benjamin Thompson at Norway's military base. "Fighting during winter conditions is probably the hardest you can do," he said.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"They were struggling in the beginning but after a while they became really good and learned a lot of important things to do during wintertime to be able to survive," he says.

Norway has lobbied the U.S. and other NATO allies for a stronger presence and more military exercises in the Arctic. Last year, Norway was the key staging ground for Trident Juncture, one of the NATO's biggest military exercises since 2002.

Two years ago, NATO reestablished an Arctic command, now out of Norfolk, Va., and the U.S. Navy recommissioned the 2nd Fleet to counter Russian activity in the North Atlantic.

Norway's defense minister, Bakke-Jensen, is pleased. "We have been working through NATO and with the U.S. to bring attention back to the North Atlantic, to these areas," he tells NPR. "We are satisfied with the new command structure; we are satisfied with the command control in Norfolk."

What we don't want to do is to back into a military conflict or military arms race, or back into militarization of the Arctic if we don't have to. - James Townsend, Center for a New American Security

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

"The B-2 was showing that we can fly up there and showing the Russians that we will fly up there," he says. "It was a training thing on the one hand, but it's also a deterrent message to the Russians too."

Townsend, now with the Center for a New American Security, says it is important for the U.S. to know what's going on in the Arctic, but not get spooked by Russia's buildup.

"What we don't want to do is to back into a military conflict or military arms race, or back into militarization of the Arctic if we don't have to," he says.

In October, about 1,400 Norwegian troops carried out military exercises at the camp. Part of their training was how to fight under winter conditions.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Berntsen of the Finnmark Ground Defense says too large a U.S. military presence in the Arctic could provoke Russia. For now, he says, it is best to build up Norway's forces and be ready to defend itself from its eastern neighbor.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With an imperial struggle to dominate the top of the world, the story starts with climate change. Warming temperatures mean less ice in the Arctic, which opens up shipping lanes and fuels the ambitions of a country with enormous Arctic coastlines. Russia is moving to expand its influence in the Arctic. U.S. allies in the far north have been watching anxiously. NPR's Jackie Northam traveled to the northeastern tip of Norway.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Here along the Norwegian-Russian border 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, the landscape is pristine, stark and beautiful.

I'm standing here right now right along the coastline of the Barents Sea, and the cold but very, very clear waters of the sea are crashing against the rocks. If I turn to my right, I can see Russia. We're about to head up to one of the outposts for the Norwegian border guards. And it's high on a rugged hill right behind me.

There are precisely 525 metal steps up to the observation post. It's a long way up, but there's a reward once you reach the peak - waffles, freshly made for visitors by one of the four Norwegian soldiers manning the outpost.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: It doesn't get much more Norwegian than this, by the way - strawberry jam on them and some of the sour cream.

NORTHAM: The observation post is at the northern tip of the 120-mile Norwegian-Russian border.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: From the observation post, Norwegian soldiers have a commanding view. They can look down on a border post and a coast guard facility on the northwestern edge of Russia's Kola Peninsula. On this clear day, you can also look across the Barents Sea to the Norwegian island of Vardo.

SIGURD HARSHEIM: There's a radar base there, which is - apparently, it's annoying the Russians a lot (laughter).

NORTHAM: Captain Sigurd Harsheim, commander of the Jarfjord border company, says the Vardo installation helps keep an eye on Russian movements in the area. The U.S.-built cold war radar station is currently undergoing a dramatic modernization.

HARSHEIM: Basically, you have good control of the entire Barents Sea and everything around it. Part of the irritation is that it's American built (laughter).

NORTHAM: There's been good reason recently to keep a line of sight on Russia, whose sheer landmass overwhelms the seven other Arctic nations. Russia is upgrading its military capabilities with new fighter jets and navy vessels. Its submarines are pushing further into the North Atlantic. Outside the observation post, Major Brynjar Stordal, a spokesman for the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, points eastwards towards the Kola Peninsula, where he says Russia is fortifying its Arctic bases.

BRYNJAR STORDAL: Out on the Kola Peninsula on the north side here, you'll see that they're modernizing and rebuilding and also building new facilities - a lot more activity and more new equipment. And also we see that, you know, the tactics are being more advanced.

NORTHAM: On this day, it's hard to imagine a military buildup. The area is quiet, almost serene, but just 30 miles to the east on the heavily militarized Kola Peninsula is the home of Russia's Northern Fleet. Thomas Nilsen covers the Arctic for the independent Barents Observer, an online newspaper based in the nearby town of Kirkenes.

THOMAS NILSEN: This is the home of the nuclear-powered submarines. This is the home of the training areas of Russia's new nuclear weapons, for instance the nuclear-powered cruise missiles and the nuclear-powered underwater drone.

NORTHAM: A shrinking polar ice cap is opening up shipping lanes in the Arctic, including the Northern Sea Route, which Russia claims as its own. Nilsen says Russia's buildup is in part to underscore its stake in the High North. It's also to protect military assets in the region and its natural resources. Ninety percent of Russia's natural gas exports come from the Arctic.

NILSEN: We always have to remember that for Russia, the Arctic is economically and enormously important. So Arctic has a much stronger role in Russia's national thinking than in any of the other Arctic states, including Norway.

NORTHAM: Still, the extent of Moscow's aggression in the region has taken Western nations by surprise. In the years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and NATO shuttered bases, moved weaponry and other assets out of the High North. Defense of the Arctic was less of a priority. Colonel Jorn Erik Berntsen, the commander of Norway's Finnmark Land Defense, says all that changed in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea.

JORN ERIK BERNSTEN: You know, the operations in the Ukraine, in a way, was a kind of a game changer. The security situation in the world has definitely changed. We are more or less back where we were before the fall of the wall.

NORTHAM: Berntsen says after Russia's actions in Crimea, Norway needed to re-examine its own security situation. Norway has bought submarines from Germany and dozens of F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. It began rebuilding and rearming some of its own bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE)

NORTHAM: Young Norwegian conscripts fire howitzers during recent military exercises at Porsangermoen, the world's northernmost military camp. It's set among rolling hills and ponds in the county of Finnmark. The camp was closed for a decade. Now, it's been upgraded and modernized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE)

NORTHAM: There's snow on the ground on this bitingly cold day, and the wind slices through layers of clothing. Platoon commander Lieutenant Benjamin Thompson, wearing a partially white camouflage uniform, says it's critical for soldiers to learn how to fight in freezing cold weather.

BENJAMIN THOMPSON: Fighting during winter conditions is probably the hardest you can do. That demands a lot of training.

NORTHAM: And as the icy waters of the Arctic continue to open up, Thompson says Norway will have to be ready to defend itself from its eastern neighbor. Jackie Northam, NPR News, along the Norwegian-Russian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.