STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
With an imperial struggle to dominate the top of the world, the story starts with climate change. Warming temperatures mean less ice in the Arctic, which opens up shipping lanes and fuels the ambitions of a country with enormous Arctic coastlines. Russia is moving to expand its influence in the Arctic. U.S. allies in the far north have been watching anxiously. NPR's Jackie Northam traveled to the northeastern tip of Norway.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Here along the Norwegian-Russian border 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, the landscape is pristine, stark and beautiful.
I'm standing here right now right along the coastline of the Barents Sea, and the cold but very, very clear waters of the sea are crashing against the rocks. If I turn to my right, I can see Russia. We're about to head up to one of the outposts for the Norwegian border guards. And it's high on a rugged hill right behind me.
There are precisely 525 metal steps up to the observation post. It's a long way up, but there's a reward once you reach the peak - waffles, freshly made for visitors by one of the four Norwegian soldiers manning the outpost.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: It doesn't get much more Norwegian than this, by the way - strawberry jam on them and some of the sour cream.
NORTHAM: The observation post is at the northern tip of the 120-mile Norwegian-Russian border.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Non-English language spoken).
NORTHAM: From the observation post, Norwegian soldiers have a commanding view. They can look down on a border post and a coast guard facility on the northwestern edge of Russia's Kola Peninsula. On this clear day, you can also look across the Barents Sea to the Norwegian island of Vardo.
SIGURD HARSHEIM: There's a radar base there, which is - apparently, it's annoying the Russians a lot (laughter).
NORTHAM: Captain Sigurd Harsheim, commander of the Jarfjord border company, says the Vardo installation helps keep an eye on Russian movements in the area. The U.S.-built cold war radar station is currently undergoing a dramatic modernization.
HARSHEIM: Basically, you have good control of the entire Barents Sea and everything around it. Part of the irritation is that it's American built (laughter).
NORTHAM: There's been good reason recently to keep a line of sight on Russia, whose sheer landmass overwhelms the seven other Arctic nations. Russia is upgrading its military capabilities with new fighter jets and navy vessels. Its submarines are pushing further into the North Atlantic. Outside the observation post, Major Brynjar Stordal, a spokesman for the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, points eastwards towards the Kola Peninsula, where he says Russia is fortifying its Arctic bases.
BRYNJAR STORDAL: Out on the Kola Peninsula on the north side here, you'll see that they're modernizing and rebuilding and also building new facilities - a lot more activity and more new equipment. And also we see that, you know, the tactics are being more advanced.
NORTHAM: On this day, it's hard to imagine a military buildup. The area is quiet, almost serene, but just 30 miles to the east on the heavily militarized Kola Peninsula is the home of Russia's Northern Fleet. Thomas Nilsen covers the Arctic for the independent Barents Observer, an online newspaper based in the nearby town of Kirkenes.
THOMAS NILSEN: This is the home of the nuclear-powered submarines. This is the home of the training areas of Russia's new nuclear weapons, for instance the nuclear-powered cruise missiles and the nuclear-powered underwater drone.
NORTHAM: A shrinking polar ice cap is opening up shipping lanes in the Arctic, including the Northern Sea Route, which Russia claims as its own. Nilsen says Russia's buildup is in part to underscore its stake in the High North. It's also to protect military assets in the region and its natural resources. Ninety percent of Russia's natural gas exports come from the Arctic.
NILSEN: We always have to remember that for Russia, the Arctic is economically and enormously important. So Arctic has a much stronger role in Russia's national thinking than in any of the other Arctic states, including Norway.
NORTHAM: Still, the extent of Moscow's aggression in the region has taken Western nations by surprise. In the years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and NATO shuttered bases, moved weaponry and other assets out of the High North. Defense of the Arctic was less of a priority. Colonel Jorn Erik Berntsen, the commander of Norway's Finnmark Land Defense, says all that changed in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea.
JORN ERIK BERNSTEN: You know, the operations in the Ukraine, in a way, was a kind of a game changer. The security situation in the world has definitely changed. We are more or less back where we were before the fall of the wall.
NORTHAM: Berntsen says after Russia's actions in Crimea, Norway needed to re-examine its own security situation. Norway has bought submarines from Germany and dozens of F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. It began rebuilding and rearming some of its own bases.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE)
NORTHAM: Young Norwegian conscripts fire howitzers during recent military exercises at Porsangermoen, the world's northernmost military camp. It's set among rolling hills and ponds in the county of Finnmark. The camp was closed for a decade. Now, it's been upgraded and modernized.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE)
NORTHAM: There's snow on the ground on this bitingly cold day, and the wind slices through layers of clothing. Platoon commander Lieutenant Benjamin Thompson, wearing a partially white camouflage uniform, says it's critical for soldiers to learn how to fight in freezing cold weather.
BENJAMIN THOMPSON: Fighting during winter conditions is probably the hardest you can do. That demands a lot of training.
NORTHAM: And as the icy waters of the Arctic continue to open up, Thompson says Norway will have to be ready to defend itself from its eastern neighbor. Jackie Northam, NPR News, along the Norwegian-Russian border.
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