RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Now we're going to head up north. The North Pole isn't owned by any country, but that doesn't stop eight countries with territory facing the Arctic Sea from vying for the resources beneath its frozen waters or jockeying for position in the open waters created by melting Arctic ice. Of the eight, Russia has the world's longest Arctic coastline by far. And it's staking claims to the oil, gas and profitable shipping lanes of the region. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly traveled north of the Arctic Circle to check out reports of Russia's military buildup there.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: You don't have to spend long in Murmansk to figure out this town is all about icebreakers. Murmansk is the largest city in the Arctic and the gateway for Russian ambitions at the top of the world. Russia already has more icebreaking ships than every other country combined. It is racing to build more. Just two weeks ago, they floated the world's biggest nuclear icebreaker. Here in Murmansk, they're racing to build a dock big enough to hold it. Meanwhile, the name of the nightclub in our hotel is the Russian word for - you guessed it - icebreaker. It was shut when we checked in, so instead we headed for the water.
(SOUNDBITE OF MORSE CODE)
KELLY: Morse code onboard the Lenin. The Lenin was Russia's first nuclear icebreaker, launched in 1957. These days she sits in port, and you can prowl around.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If we go, for example, through northern sea route, we will spend only 23 days. So we save 10 days.
KELLY: That's Yaroslav. He's showing us around the radio room on the Lenin and pointing to a big map on the wall. It shows how much shorter shipping routes are if goods can be routed north instead of south and all the way around the Suez Canal. Less time at sea means bigger profits for shipping companies. And as global warming thaws previously frozen trade routes, Russia is making a play for them. Pavel Felgenhauer, defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta newspaper, says this takes both commercial and military forms.
PAVEL FELGENHAUER: They're reactivating Soviet airstrips, radar bases, planting long-range anti-aircraft capabilities.
KELLY: Then there's the Russian military's recent purchase of helicopters specially equipped to fly in the frigid air of the Arctic. And they're modernizing the nuclear submarine fleet. In Washington and in European capitals, especially next door in the Baltics, the build-up is being watched with alarm. Many in the West call it aggression, deliberate provocation. This is not the way they see it here in Russia. Ambassador Vladimir Barbin is Russia's diplomatic point man for the Arctic. He told me Russia's goal in the region is sustainable development.
VLADIMIR BARBIN: We're not trying to dominate. We are trying to cooperate. We are not seeking conflicts or confrontation in the Arctic. So it is not in our agenda.
KELLY: Ambassador Barbin did stress that Russia will defend itself against what he calls very provocative NATO rhetoric and exercises on its western border. You hear this view everywhere in Russia, both from people who support the Putin regime and those who hate it, that it is the West that is the aggressor, not Russia. Andrei Privalihin (ph) hosts a popular radio call-in show here in Murmansk. Over coffee in a hotel bar, he stabbed his finger at me and demanded, remember 1989?
ANDREI PRIVALIHIN: When Germany united - West Germany and East Germany - and you promised no step to the east from NATO. You promised us. You promised. And what we can see in reality - what you are doing?
KELLY: Privalihin, born and raised in northern Russia, glares at me. It is probably true there's a new Iron Curtain, he says, but we Russians are not the builders. After the tongue lashing, I need fresh air.
We've driven around to the other side of the bay so we can see the full harbor of Murmansk spread out before us, although there is a Russian oil tanker blocking my view and a couple of icebreakers, some big freighters coming through.
Down a gravel path, we spot a group of fishermen. Dmitri Diman (ph) says they're just out for fun. His real job is working for Atomflot, the company that maintains Russia's nuclear icebreaker fleet. He offers to share his salmon on brown bread and a homebrewed tipple.
DMITRI DIMAN: You want to taste our local drink?
DIMAN: Do you want to try?
KELLY: I'll try.
There's a ceremony involved. Dmitri whips out Soviet shot glasses emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.
KELLY: This is made with - you said local herbs, blackberry, pine bark.
KELLY: And you made it?
DIMAN: Yes, we made it.
KELLY: All right.
DIMAN: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: (Speaking Russian).
DIMAN: Let's do it.
KELLY: We toast to fishing, a moment of Russian-American camaraderie - bonding over pine bark shots beside the waters that may become the next crisis zone between Russia and the West. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Murmansk, northern Russia.
(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.