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World

Russia asserts presence in Arctic with northern military base

  • As Moscow seeks to assert its influence in the Arctic, military disputes have intensified in recent years, with both Russian and NATO forces carrying out manoeuvres to display their ambitions.
26 May 2021

ALEXANDRA LAND: "The enemy shall not pass," exclaims commander Ivan Glushchenko, standing in the glistening white snow that surrounds an ultra-modern Russian military base in the heart of the Arctic, the site of Moscow's stand-off with NATO.

The growing accessibility of natural resources and navigation routes in this rapidly thawing region has attracted global competition, and Moscow's interests clash with those of several other countries, including the United States.

These tensions are likely to resurface in Reykjavik Wednesday at a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council -- comprising Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

Ahead of the meeting, where Russia will assume the rotating chairmanship, AFP journalists visited Russia's "Arctic Trefoil", its northernmost military base located on the remote Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

On the island of Alexandra Land, inhabited only by military personnel and covered by permafrost, Russian forces are stationed in a clover-shaped complex painted in the colours of the Russian flag: white, blue and red.

Built on the ruins of an old Soviet site, the complex now covers more than 14,000 square metres (150,000 square feet) and is capable of sustaining itself independently for over a year.

The base is equipped with necessities such as an electric power station, and water purification and heating systems. It also has a clinic, gym, cinema, sauna and even a church.

'Like a space station'

All the facilities are linked by heated tunnels, allowing the 150 or so servicemen to avoid the harsh weather outside, where temperatures can drop to a chilling -42 degrees Celsius (-43 degrees Fahrenheit).

"This complex is like a space station, the only difference being that it is not in orbit but in the Arctic desert," says General Igor Churkin, one of the commanders of Russia's Northern Fleet that occupies the base.

Despite the strong winds and brutal weather conditions, the base also has a giant airfield. It was from there that two MiG-31 fighter jets, one of the fastest aircraft in the world, completed a flight over the North Pole in March, a first for the Russian navy.

The base also boasts a Bastion coastal defence system with a range of 360 kilometres (220 miles). It has demonstrated its reliability in the extreme weather conditions of the Arctic, says commander Balabek Eminov.

As Moscow seeks to assert its influence in the Arctic, military disputes have intensified in recent years, with both Russian and NATO forces carrying out manoeuvres to display their ambitions.

Glushchenko, one of the base's officers, says his men spotted a Norwegian reconnaissance plane earlier that week.

Although it passed without violating the border, the Russian forces sent one of their aircraft to "accompany" it for a few hours.

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