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Russia moves first troops to Arctic base near Finnish border

Russia is stepping up its military activity in the Arctic region. As part of this effort, Russian Armed Forces reopened an abandoned military base on the Kola Peninsula in the Russia city of Alakurtti recently, just 60 kilometres from the Finnish border.

Kartta Suomen ja Venäjän rajasta.
Map of northern Finland indicating Rovaniemi, the Finnish border city of Salla and the Russian city of Alakurtti. Image: Yle/Uutisgrafiikka

Russia is moving military forces to previously under-occupied military basis in Arctic territory that once belonged to Finland. The troops are stationed at Alakurtti Air Base--a naval air base in Murmansk Oblast, Russia located three km northwest of the Russian municipality of Alakurtti, north of the Arctic Circle. It is 60 kilometres from the border city of Salla in Finnish Lapland.

Once operated by the Germans, the base was transferred to the armed forces of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Prior to the Moscow Peace of March 1940, the area around Alakurtti was part of Finland. Different Russian army and navy units have been based there through the years, but since 2009 the town has hosted mainly civilians and border guards and the air base has been largely silent.

In March 2014 the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that the Murmansk regional administration and the Western Military District were preparing housing blocks and infrastructure to house some 3,000 soldiers and officers from Russia’s Northern Fleet. An unconfirmed source also reported the air base would house a newly created Northern Fleet signals intelligence unit, charged with tracking military, maritime, and air movements and activities, supporting developments in the Arctic and the Far North, and searching for threats from the West.

Motorized infantry arrived by train

ITAR-TASS reported on Wednesday that the first motorised infantry brigade troops arrived at the reinstated base on Tuesday by train. The infantry is motorised, in that it also contains trucks that are available to transport the unit when necessary.

Russian papers predicted last spring that the troops would be transferred last December and said the brigade would likely be comprised of 7,000 soldiers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new military strategy emphasises protection of Russian interests in the Arctic, and Alakurtti is not the only abandoned base that is being revived in the north for this purpose. According to ITAR-TASS, the Russians are transporting equipment and opening several new air bases in the north, with a dozen bases planned for opening in the coming months.

The arrival of soldiers in Alakurtti will mean a dramatic change for the northern community. For the past few years, the population has only been a few thousand, so in the future troops will outnumber residents by a large margin.

Americans in Sodankylä

On the Finnish side of the border, things are quieter--but there's still a military presence. This week five US Marines and three army soldiers from Alaska are participating in a winter combat training course arranged by the Jaeger Brigade of the Finnish Defence Forces in the Finnish Lapland village of Sodankylä.  

The first part of the course teaches theory and winter warfare criteria, in addition to survival skills that promote optimal performance. The second stage applies the knowledge learned in the first stage in practical exercises.

The course is a continuation of bilateral cooperation between the Finnish Defence Forces and the US Marines, whereby both forces send students to the other country to participate in training courses. The Army says the objective of the exchange is to develop better national defence capacity.

The Marines also spent some time in military training at the Finnish Army’s Guard Jaeger Regiment in the Helsinki island district of Santahamina during their stay. The joint Finnish-American exercises were first arranged in January 2014.

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