Secret Norwegian naval base now has Russian renters

by Rob Holmes
Posted 4/10/15, 02:13 pm

Concerns are mounting over a Russian research facility located in a former top-secret naval base hidden in Norway’s coastal mountains. Two years after Norway sold the Olavsvern base to a private investor, the government is nervous over its new “renters.” 

Three Russian research ships spent the winter docked inside the once-concealed base, near the northern city of Tromsoe, and now Norway has a serious case of seller’s remorse. The nation and its neighbors have speculated over whether territorial sovereignty has been compromised.

“We sold the only base worthy of the name that we had up there. It’s pure madness,” former Vice Admiral Einar Skorgen, who commanded Norway’s northern forces, told Agence France Presse.

In 2009, the left-leaning Norwegian government deemed the base unnecessary and had it decommissioned. Businessman Gunnar Wilhelmsen bought Olavsvern in 2013 for a song, paying $6.3 million for a facility built at a cost of $464 million in the 1960s. The sale got offered initially on, Norwa‎y’s eBay equivalent. 

NATO built Olavsvern during the Cold War, and it saw use by the Royal Norwegian Navy and the U.S. Navy for submarine missions in Arctic waters. NATO also approved the base’s decommissioning, but now that Russian ships have moved in, officials realize that might not have been the wisest geopolitical move. The Russian research ships are thought to be linked to the state-owned energy company Gazprom. But NATO fears military surveillance and warfare preparations may be the real motive behind the ships’ Norwegian foray. 

Wilhelmsen bought the base ostensibly to use as an operations center for exploration and drilling missions in the Arctic. At the time of the sale, NATO and Norway justified it because concerns over Russian ambitions in the region had diminished. Wilhelmsen later rented the mountain lair to Russian research vessels.  Former Norwegian Prime Minster Jens Stoltenberg, who now heads NATO as secretary-general, approved the sale during his time in office. But in an about-face, he now is among those most concerned about Russia’s new toehold in Norway.

Besides the issue of its ships plying Norway’s waters, Russia’s bomber patrol flights—even up to the edge of U.S. airspace—are increasing in Europe while its military force flexes its muscle on the ground. Last year, three Russian anti-submarine ships got an escort out of the English Channel even as Russian patrols made incursions into Irish airspace. Russia has ventured close to the U.K. 17 times since January 2014, according to London’s Daily Mail.

Tensions rose still further on March 16: Newsweek reported President Vladimir Putin raised Russia’s Northern Fleet to full combat readiness for a snap military drill. The fleet’s units staged a five-day exercise simulating an attack on a nuclear sub, locating it and trying to force it to resurface. 

Russia and Norway share a sliver of border at Norway’s extreme northern end, close to the Kola Peninsula headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet. Despite the growing discontent over Russian ambitions, the current right-leaning Norwegian government has not offered what many see as the only solution to the crisis: a government buy-back.

“There are no plans to re-establish military installations in Olavsvern,” Audun Halvorsen, political advisor to the defense minister, told AFP. He said the new owner can do with it what he likes since the military has no authority to restrict or monitor civilian ships that anchor at Olavsvern. “Any suspected irregular activity is a matter for the police and legal authorities.”

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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