MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia is to reestablish its military presence in the resource-rich Arctic by re-opening a Soviet-era base to patrol the increasingly navigable Northern Sea Route, President Vladimir Putin said Monday.
Putin said 10 naval ships had arrived at the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean, as Russia asserts its rights over an area where vast energy resources are becoming more accessible as the sea ice retreats.
"Our forces left in 1993, but this is a very important point in the Northern Arctic," Putin said during a video-conference with defence ministry officials.
He said Russia wanted to "ensure the security and effectiveness of work on the Northern Sea Route, so Russia can effectively control this part of its territory."
Russia hopes to exploit the shipping lane, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, as a channel for shipments of oil and gas to markets in Asia.
In 2007, Russian submarines placed the country's flag on the seabed more than two miles under the North Pole, staking claim to hydrocarbons estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
Warmer temperatures in the Arctic Ocean have increased the length of time that the passage remains open to shipping.
Ten ships from the Northern Fleet -- three warships, four atomic ice breakers and seven supply ships -- arrived last week, Putin said.
The taskforce, led by the navy's most powerful battleship, the Peter the Great, arrived two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union led Russia to abandon its base there.
The commander of the northern fleet, Vladimir Korolyov said that the ships' crews had built a temporary camp on the islands where temperatures that can fall to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit).
"We will not only recreate the military base, but we will also restore the aerodrome," Putin said.
The aerodrome will be expanded to allow heavy cargo planes to land all year round, first deputy defence minister Arkady Bakhin told the RIA-Novosti news agency on Saturday.
"We have arrived, or rather we have returned permanently, because this is truly Russian soil," Bakhin said.