Russia has launched a push to show off its growing military presence in the Arctic in the past two months, even inviting foreign journalists on a rare tour of one of its bases in the region.
The Alakurtti base, which ABC News and several other foreign media organizations were invited to see this week, is above the Arctic Circle, about 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.
A Soviet-era base, surrounded by forest and around 8 foot of snow in April, Alakurtti was presented to foreign journalists as an example of Russia’s wider military expansion back into the Arctic.
The Soviet Union had deployed huge forces to the Arctic Circle as part of its strategic defenses; the peninsula on which Alakurtti is located is nicknamed the “unsinkable aircraft-carrier” because of the number of airbases there.
But after the collapse of the USSR, the number of troops dropped steeply and many bases fell into disrepair.
Now, however, Russia is returning. In the past two years, Russia has launched a major effort to build up its military presence, constructing a string of new bases, as well as refurbishing Soviet ones and building up its communications infrastructure along its northern coast.
The reason is new: as ice around it recedes, uncovering resources and opening up shipping routes, the Arctic is emerging as a new arena for geopolitical competition. With the U.S. Geological Survey estimating 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas to be located there, jostling to claim the resources has already begun.
But while other Arctic countries, including the United States, have only slowly begun to declare their interests in the region, Russia has rushed in.
“For the scale of what Russia is doing, it’s hard to find a comparison in any of the other Arctic states,” said Katarzyna Zysk, a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford and an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies who has researched Russian military policy in the Arctic.
The most impressive new base is a huge new facility on Franz Josef Land, an empty, ice-blasted archipelago jutting into the Arctic Sea. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the base, known as the “Northern Shamrock,” which will house 150 personnel and host air defense units.
Russia is building three more bases in the Arctic, and says it is creating an air defense shield to cover much of the northern coast. A new “Arctic Brigade” has also been established at Alakurtti, the first of two planned.
Many of the facilities are meant to have a dual-purpose in also serving as support infrastructure for the…