What Is Russia Up To in the Arctic?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov (far left) watch the launch of a missile during military exercises in the Barents Sea aboard the "Pyotr Veliky" ("Peter the Great") nuclear missile cruiser on Aug. 17, 2005. Alexey Panov/AFP/Getty

The Mågerø air defense monitoring base is inside a mountain at the end of an unmarked country road two hours south of Oslo, Norway. With only a rudimentary sentry box, a simple draw gate and a lone soldier guarding its entrance, the installation looks more like the set for a movie about the Nazi occupation of the country than a key link in the country’s state-of-the-art defenses.

At the end of a long, narrow tunnel into the mountain, in a cavernous room filled with computers and radar monitor screens, intelligence specialists stare at blinking icons marking the movement of aircraft around Norwegian airspace. On an all-too-typical afternoon recently, they watched as two nuclear-capable Tu-95 Russian Bear Bombers floated like fireflies across the top right of their monitors. A few desks away, an airman picked up phone and called Bodø, a military base on Norway’s northern coast. Moments later, two F-16s rose to eyeball the intruders.  

It turned out the Russian bombers were just practicing some kind of circling maneuver outside of Norway’s Arctic air space. But on January 28 two more Tu-95 bombers, escorted by tankers and Russia’s most advanced MiG-31 fighter jets, showed up off the coast. One of them was carrying “a nuclear payload,” according to the London Sunday Express, which cited intercepted radio traffic. And last fall, a Russian Tu-22 supersonic bomber skirting Norway’s northern airspace was photographed carrying a cruise missile in launching position, according to the Barents Observer blog. Similar examples abound.

Adding to the potential for an unintended catastrophe, Russian warplanes typically lift off without filing a flight plan and cruise the busy commercial flight lanes with their transponders off, riling airline and NATO pilots alike. In recent months Russian warplanes have been engaging in Top Gun–style stunts far from home, popping up unannounced aside an SAS airliner on a flight between Copenhagen, Denmark, and Oslo and buzzing a Norwegian F-16 pilot. (A widely watched cockpit video of the incident, released by the defense ministry, shows the pilot yelping “Holy shit!” as a MiG-31 darts past his wingtip.)

“We haven’t seen this kind of activity for many years,” Colonel Arvid Halvorsen, Mågerø’s base commander, says as he watches the blinking icons for the Russian Tu-95s on a radar screen. “The missions are also more complex lately,” he says, with larger and larger groups of bombers escorted by MiGs, tankers and surveillance aircraft.

Although Moscow isn’t threatening the West with anything near the number of warplanes deployed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its air sorties around Norway have increased dramatically each year since 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his strategic bombers to resume flights in international airspace.

But late last year, with the world’s attention riveted on Ukraine, Putin put a little-noticed exclamation mark on his Arctic strategy. For the first time, the Kremlin’s announced military doctrine included instructions to prepare to defend Russia’s interests in the Arctic. Plans for two new Arctic army brigades were drawn up. An abandoned military base at Alakurtti, Russia, less than 30 miles from the Finnish border, was reopened. And military construction crews began refurbishing a string of Cold War–era bases on islands in the Arctic. “Our main objective is research and evaluation of conditions in the Arctic and the suitability of our weapons and equipment this far north,” Vladimir Kondratov, commander of the surface ships group of the Northern Fleet, told Russia Today.

New Red Dawn?

No one knows what Putin's endgame is. And while the Norwegians would rather prepare quietly than stoke fears of a Crimean-style Russian grab in the Arctic, the country's memory of the Nazi invasion 75 years ago remains fresh. At Mågerø and two dozen other bases scattered from Norway’s southern tip to its northern frontier with Russia, Oslo’s armed forces are preparing for the worst.

But “the worst” is a mystery. “I'd agree that the Russians have been very active,” says Keith Stinebaugh, a longtime Defense Department civilian intelligence specialist who is now a senior fellow in Arctic Security Policy at the Institute of the North in Anchorage. But “aggressive” may be overstating it, he adds. “You'd have to define what is meant by aggressive and compare it to what they did during the Cold War.… They are certainly more active around the world, not just in the Arctic.”

A Russian-speaking former CIA officer, who spent more than a dozen years operating undercover in the former Soviet Union, agrees. Today’s activities are “nothing like the Soviet air incursions that occurred on a weekly basis at the height of the Cold War,” the former officer says. And while Moscow’s armed forces, are “much improved over the past few years, [they] are still a shadow of their former Soviet selves.… Putin is very aware of this,” the officer adds, “but his beefed-up forces enhance national prestige and have allowed Russia to command more respect on the international scene.”

02_27_Arctic_01 A Norwegian army soldier guides a NATO helicopter to a landing during a live fire exercise on March 6, 2013 in Skjold, Norway. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Which is a waste of money for Moscow, argues Ernie Regehr, a senior fellow in Arctic security at the Vancouver, British Columbia–based Simons Foundation. “Does it ever make sense to threaten to do what you know will never be in your interests to do?” Regehr recently argued in a paper for the foundation. “Symbolic flights of fighter aircraft and bombers are intended to remind the adversary that these weapons are available for use. But in any rational world, they are clearly not available for use by Russia against NATO or by NATO against Russia. There is no circumstance under which this would make sense or serve the interests of either side. Neither side wants them to be used.”

Stinebaugh, who spent 38 years in the Defense Department, suggests there may be a more prosaic reason for Russia’s Arctic buildup: money. “It may be that one way to get a project funded in the Russian military system today is to attach the word ‘Arctic’ to it, just like U.S. projects got funded by invoking [the global war on terror] and now get funded with ‘cyber’ even if the connection is tenuous,” he says.

Yet few Norwegians can completely banish the specter of the Russian bear on their doorstep, says Reidun Samuelsen, the editor at Aftenposten, Norway’s leading newspaper. “It’s never far from our minds,” she tells Newsweek.

Norwegian Nightmares

As was the case in the U.S. during the Cold War, when fears of nuclear conflict found outlets in films such as Dr. Strangelove Norwegians’ anxieties over Russian intentions will soon burst forth in Occupied, a political thriller conceived by Jo Nesbø, Norway’s internationally best-selling crime writer.

Scheduled to debut on Norwegian TV next year, the weekly drama “follows events in the close future” when Russia has carried out a “silk glove invasion” of Norway “in order to take control of its oil resources,” according to a news release.

“My idea was this,” Nesbø told Newsweek by email. “The Norwegian Green/left-wing government has decided it will stop producing fossil energy.” Russia moves in, seizing its oil facilities. When the U.S. and E.U. issue only paper protests, he says, Norwegian leaders “don’t see the point in military action, they try to negotiate while the Russians quietly take over the few things they [need] to take over to control the oil. And it’s a gentle occupation. Most Norwegians can’t really tell the difference. There are few Russians present, most of them are in suits, and there’s seemingly no censorship and Norwegians can travel freely and keep on living their lives as one of the richest populations in the world.”

News of the series emerged at about the same time Norway’s security service uncovered evidence of real-life subversion in the capital. Some foreign intelligence service—the main suspects were Russia and China, which also covets the Arctic’s future shipping routes—had planted so-called IMSI catchers, devices that can secretly capture the signals of cellphones, around Oslo’s government buildings. Officially, the perpetrator remains a mystery, but Norwegian sources tell Newsweek the government knows who did it but has shied from fingering the guilty party out of fear of triggering a full-scale international scandal.         

Nesbø, whose 20 novels have sold 23 million copies in 40 countries, says the plausibility of Occupied’’s plot is beside the point. The real drama revolves around “a situation where it’s hard to pinpoint what you’ve lost in your everyday material world,” he says. “What would people be willing to sacrifice for phrases like freedom, independence and democracy? And who would be the first ones to resist? And would the nation follow?”

Guerrillas in the Arctic

Such questions are likely to rekindle unsavory memories of Norway’s capitulation to Germany in 1940 with the help of local Nazis led by the infamous Vidkun Quisling. The Norwegian king and tens of thousands of patriots escaped to England, where they set up a government in exile and formed a resistance movement eager to go back and fight. Trained by Britain’s secret services, the guerrillas of Norwegian Independent Company 1 eventually snuck back into the country and wreaked havoc on the Nazis.

Norwegians can’t get enough of this version of themselves. Every Sunday night for six weeks in January and February, more than one of every five Norwegians sat down to watch the latest episode of The Heavy Water War, a dramatization of the heroic guerrillas’ sabotage of Norway’s stocks of deuterium oxide, which the Germans seized to produce a nuclear weapon.

The guerrilla mentality remains an important strain in Norway’s military forces. Last year, Nils Johan Holte, the rangy, 57-year-old rear admiral who heads Norway’s Special Operations Command, took 10 of his officers back to the training camp in Scotland, where the first guerrillas learned hand-to-hand fighting and explosives.  “It was about connecting with our origins.… ” Holte said as heavy snow fell outside his office in Oslo, “and for [the men] to understand that there’s a seriousness today about this.” It seems no accident that the headquarters of today’s Norwegian guerrillas is on the grounds of the hulking, medieval Akershus Fortress, built to defend the city from sea raiders 700 years ago. In 1940, it was occupied by the Nazis.

In 1988 the Norwegian government nearly disbanded its special operations force, which was initially set up as a small, discreet anti-terrorist unit inside the armed forces, as a money-saving move. Protests, including from the oil industry, which feared attacks on its North Sea drilling platforms—saved it. Since then, its commandos have seen action from the Balkans to Afghanistan and many secret places in between. And last year, the unit became independent, reporting directly to the chief of defense.

Like other Norwegian commanders and politicians, Holte is discreet when it comes to characterizing the recent Russian moves as sinister. Asked directly about the threat, he leans back in his chair, folds his hands behind his head, and smiles. His lone message for any potential adversary: “Do not attack Norway. We can defend ourselves.”

Jeff Stein is Newsweek’s national security correspondent in Washington, D.C. He can be reached more or less confidentially via

Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated that Norway's special forces report directly to the secretary of defense. The country's special forces report directly to the chief of defense. 

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