The population of the Arctic island of Vardo has shrunk to half of what it was 20 years ago, and the fishing industry that sustained its residents for generations has mostly collapsed.
But the local power company, citing a mysterious surge in electricity demand, began work last month to increase energy supplies, laying a thick new cable in a tunnel under the icy waters that separate the island from the Norwegian mainland.
The new electricity cable, along with the recent appearance of earth-moving equipment atop a rocky plateau overlooking Russia across the sea, points to one business that is flourishing in this part of the Arctic: snooping on Russia’s expanding fleet of nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles in the Barents Sea.
The extra electricity is needed to power an American-funded radar system under construction on an island in sight of the Kola Peninsula, a frigid Russian territory studded with high-security naval bases and restricted military zones.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has made strengthening his country’s military and economic role in the Arctic a priority. He has vowed to make Russia the dominant player in the high north as climate change opens up new shipping routes from Asia to Europe, new gas and oil prospects and a new arena for great power rivalry.
The bedrock of Russia’s Arctic ambitions, said Katarzyna Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute of Defense Studies, is the role of the region in Russia’s nuclear deterrence and naval strategies. At the center of these is the Borei submarine, a new generation of strategic weaponry that can carry at least 12 ballistic missiles, each armed with multiple nuclear warheads.
The first of at least eight Borei class submarines that Russia plans to build, the Yuriy Dolgorukiy, is now part of Russia’s Northern Fleet. Russia operates scores of submarines, including six Delta IVs armed with multiple ballistic missiles, from a string of bases on the Kola Peninsula, which is just 40 miles across the churning sea from Vardo.
“This place is very, very important for America and for the Western world so that they can keep an eye on what the Russians are doing,” said Lasse Haughom, a former mayor of Vardo and a veteran of Norway’s military intelligence service.
“Russia wants to look into our secrets, and the United States and Norway want to look into their business,” Mr. Haughom added. “That is the way the game is played.”