Sun, Apr 07, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Russia revamps outpost to stake claim on Arctic

Moscow has made reaffirming its presence in the northern polar region a top goal

By Matthew Lee and Jan M. Olsen  /  AP, SEVERNY KLEVER MILITARY BASE, Russia

A group of reporters brought to the island on Wednesday by the Russian Ministry of Defense were shown Bastion anti-ship missile launchers positioned for a drill near the shore and Pantsyr-S1 air defense systems firing shots at a practice target.

The Russian military has kept Western media from visiting its Arctic facilities, so the trip offered a unique opportunity to watch the Russian expansion up close.

A big radar dome looms on a hill overlooking the coast, underlining the base’s main mission of monitoring the strategic area.

In contrast with drab, Soviet-era facilities, the pristine new base features spacious living quarters, a gym and a sauna. Putin’s words about the importance of the Arctic for Russia dot the base’s walls and a symbolic border post sits in a hallway.

Soldiers at the base say that they are proud of their mission despite the challenging Arctic environment.

“Proving to myself that I can do it raises my self-esteem,” soldier Sergei Belogov said. “Weather is our enemy here, so we need to protect ourselves from it to serve the Motherland.”

Extreme cold and fierce winds often make it difficult to venture outside and even winterized vehicles can have trouble operating when temperatures plunge to extreme lows. Even special lubricants freeze.

Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in December last year reported to Putin that the military had rebuilt or expanded numerous facilities across the polar region, revamping runways and deploying air defense assets, saying that renovation works were conducted on a long string of Arctic territories.

The expanded infrastructure has allowed the Russian military to restore full radar coverage of the nation’s 22,600km Arctic frontier and deploy fighter jets to protect its airspace.

The Russian soldiers share the island with polar bears, arctic foxes and wolves.

Officers said that, soon after the base opened, curious bears regularly prowled near its walls, sometimes even peering into its windows.

On some occasions, soldiers had to use a truck to spook away a particularly curious bear wandering nearby.

Soldiers interviewed at the base said they marveled at the area’s wildlife and its majestic Arctic landscapes.

“The nature here is extremely beautiful,” said Lieutenant Umar Erkenov, who came from southern Russia. “Meeting a polar bear is an experience that fills you with emotions. We have established friendly ties with them from the start. We don’t touch them, they don’t touch us.”

He said that he misses his wife and daughter, whom he can only see during his leave period once a year, but is proud of his mission.

“Few people do their job under such conditions,” he said. “I feel proud that I’m here with my unit, doing my duty and protecting the Motherland.”

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