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Norway: Russia using a former NATO submarine base

A former secret underwater base in the Arctic was ceded in 2008 to a businessman who is now leasing the base to Russian ships. Former Norwegian high-ranking officials are protesting this mistake, with the Arctic waters regaining strategic importance in light of the latest tensions between Russia and NATO. In the absence of anticipating the revival of the Russian giant, which deploys its imposing fleet in the Barents Sea, Norway decided in 2008, in a regional context that was then pacified, to separate from the Olavsvern base near the port of Tromsø. By abandoning this enormous logistical complex, Norway has deprived its submarines of a crucial point of support in the far north, forcing them to travel hundreds of miles to reach their main theater of operations.

Seven years later, the decision of the political power still feeds rancor, especially among retired senior officers, who are quicker to express themselves than their colleagues in office. "We sold the only base worthy of the name that we had up there. It's pure madness, "said former Vice-Admiral Einar Skorgen, former commander of the Navy in northern Norway. "We are the only ones with Russia to operate permanently in the Barents Sea, where we have a common border. It is obvious that our navy must be stationed there, including our submarines, "he says. "If boats are not where they are needed, they should be thrown away."

After being sold on an online advertising site without finding a buyer, the base costing nearly 4 billion kroner (about 500 million euros) financed by NATO was sold off less than 40 million euros a businessman. The latter is now leasing the docks to Russian seismic data collection or research vessels. Three of them spent the winter in what was once a jealously guarded site. "There is nothing more secret around this base," defends the new owner, Gunnar Wilhelmsen. "More since the army and NATO agreed to put it on sale on the Internet, photographed in its smallest nooks and crannies," he told AFP.
The catch is that the Russian ships are provided with capabilities useful to the military, such as the study of the seabed or the coastline, with, if necessary, pocket-size submarines. "Russia is a country where the state has a right of control in all commercial or semi-public activities. It is clear: there are few people who know what is happening from these boats, "says former Rear Admiral Jan Reksten, former number two of the Norwegian army.

Ironically, the decision to close the base was taken by the government of Jens Stoltenberg, who has since become secretary-general of NATO, a position he urges today Alliance member countries not to lower the guard. For Kjell-Ola Kleiven, a blogger on security issues, the episode is "the biggest gaffe of recent history" in a country rich in oil, which has the world's largest sovereign wealth fund. "With 7,000 billion crowns aside, one would have thought that the Norwegian nation had the means and enough to judge to retain ownership of the Olavsvern base, but the sale which yielded only 35 million crowns could be much More than a financial fiasco, "he wrote.
Although the political majority in Norway has changed, the current government remains deaf to the protests of the military. "There is no question of resettling military activities in Olavsvern," Audun Halvorsen, a political advisor at the Ministry of Defense, said in an email to AFP. "The owner of the site disposes of it as he sees fit and the defense has no authority to impose restrictions or warrants to control the civilian ships that anchor there".