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Russia Ramps Up Its Military Presence In The Arctic Circle


And how about we visit the Arctic Circle right now? That is where NPR's Mary Louise Kelly finds herself this morning. She is reporting on Russia's military buildup up there at the top of the world. This is something that's raising fears that the Arctic could become the next crisis zone between Russia and the West. Mary Louise is also there above the Arctic Circle on what is the longest day of the year. Mary Louise, good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So just be my geography professor for a moment, if you can. Tell us exactly where you are here.

KELLY: I am in the city of Murmansk, which is the biggest city above the Arctic Circle, about 300,000 people. And yeah, I mean, to give you an idea of how far north we are, if you were to stand in Anchorage, Alaska, and then get in your car - or maybe in your snowmobile - and drive...

GREENE: Right.

KELLY: ...Another 534 miles north, that's where we are. We are up there. The interesting thing about Murmansk - it never freezes because of the Gulf Stream, which is precisely why this is such a valuable port for Russia.

GREENE: And is this where you're seeing this military buildup, in this port?

KELLY: Well, this is what we came up here to investigate. And we've been able to see, for example, the military installation where they are building a new dock because the existing facilities are not big enough for these giant nuclear icebreakers that are coming off the production line. You can see Russia is building bases. They are refurbishing the submarine fleet. They are ordering helicopters that are specially designed to fly up here in the frozen air of the Arctic.

And all of this, of course, speaks to Russia's ambitions in the Arctic. Russia is deeply interested in the mineral resources and the oil and gas beneath the sea here. And as global warming melts the waters heading north toward the North Pole - as this region opens up, Russia is keen to dominate it.

GREENE: And, Mary Louise, you were able to do something I was never able to do reporting in Russia - get into one of these closed cities where there's a lot of military activity, right?

KELLY: Right. They call them the ZATO. This is the Russian acronym. And they are secret military installations where they maybe have nuclear research underway or weapons building, military intelligence. Basically, the ZATO are zones where the work is deemed to be so sensitive they don't even let most Russians in without a special permit. Forget foreigners. In Soviet days, these cities didn't even appear on a map. It was like they didn't exist. And there are still dozens of them. We got to visit one that was just opened this past year. It's called Roslyakova. We went in. We talked to people. And I'm going to have that story for you in the coming days.

GREENE: We'll look forward to that. I got to ask you. When I went up there in Murmansk a number of years ago, I got a hotel without blackout curtains. And that sun was just bright all day...

KELLY: (Laugher) Rookie mistake.

GREENE: ...And all night. Did you make the same mistake?

KELLY: I got the blackout curtains. This is a good thing. And the funny thing is nobody up here seems to give a hoot about the fact that it's the summer solstice today. I mean, I thought that in a place with winters as long and dark and miserable as they get here, they would throw a big old party.


KELLY: Everybody I've talked to - they're not that excited about it.

GREENE: Well, you can be excited.

KELLY: I have been excited. I will say I have taken full advantage and toasted the midnight sun.


KELLY: We met a group of fishermen down on the water at the harbor here in Murmansk and got to chatting. And they offered up this home-brewed spirit, which they told me what - they'd made with blackberries and the bark of a pine tree. And I have to tell you, David, standing there in the freezing wind - it's about 40 degrees here today - it tasted pretty darn good.

GREENE: I can imagine. Well, toasting the summer solstice and doing reporting on the Russian Arctic, that's our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise, thanks a lot.

KELLY: Pleasure, David, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.