How Norway lost control of its own secret $500 million Arctic naval base

Obsession
The Sea
Obsession
The Sea

During the Cold War, Norway built a secret naval base, Olavsvern, that was carved into the mountain just outside the city of Tromsø, in the Arctic Circle. The base—comprised of a submarine hangar made of rock, direct sea access, nearly 150,000 sq ft of buildings and almost double that in bombproof interior space—took 30 years and cost NATO around $500 million to build to fight the threat of the Soviet Union.

So how come the base is now full of Russian research vessels?

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The base was only finished in 1994. (DNB Næringsmegling AS)

In 2008, the Norwegian parliament decided to shut down the base amid a restructuring of the country’s navy. The way they decided to go about it was unusual, though. Norway put the base for sale in 2011 on a Norwegian online auction site (link in Norwegian), describing the site—fairly honestly—as “a unique property where ideas can be realized.”

The sale price was a pitiful 105 million krona, or $18 million at the time. But even that could not be achieved and the base was sold to a group of Norwegian oil drilling companies for just $5 million, or 1% of its building costs. The new owners then rented the site to Russian research vessels, including what AFP describes as “seismic survey ships reportedly linked to state-owned energy giant Gazprom.”

The area around the North Pole is subject to many competing ownership claims—and some think it could be the next Crimea. At a time of increased Russian military activity—including suspected sea incursions into the territory of its Scandinavian neighbors—the whole affair has not gone down well.

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The naval base. (DNB Næringsmegling AS)

A former vice admiral who was in charge of Norway’s northern forces told AFP:

We sold the only base worthy of the name that we had up there. It’s pure madness. We are the only country along with Russia to have a permanent presence in the Barents Sea, where we share a common border… if the ships aren’t there where they are needed, they might as well be scrapped altogether.

The current rightwing government told the French news agency it has no plans to reverse course on the sale or block Russian ships from entering. Ironically, it was the leftwing government of Jens Stoltenberg who privatized the base—Stoltenberg is now the head of NATO, and has been warning Europe and the US to take the Russian military threat seriously.

And before you ask—no, this is not a marketing stunt for the new James Bond film.

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