HAROLDSWICK, UK — On the highest hill at the northern end of the northernmost island in Britain stands a dome that looks like Epcot Center’s ugly cousin.
This is Royal Air Force Saxa Vord, a former radar station on the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands, a British archipelago in the North Sea. From its latitude north of St. Petersburg and the southern tip of Greenland, Saxa Vord’s radar system gave the first warnings of Soviet planes entering UK airspace.
At the height of the Cold War, thousands of men were stationed at this grassy, windswept hill. Its radar helped intercept bombers and reconnaissance aircraft almost every week from the 1960s until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Saxa Vord’s importance waned as politics and technology evolved, until the station closed in 2006. Today, the old barracks at the foot of the hill are a hotel. Grazing sheep wander blithely past signs warning trespassers away from what looks more like the forgotten set of a seventies-era spy flick.
Earlier this month, a team of Royal Air Force engineers came to Unst with orders to tear the old base down.
At the last minute, however, their orders changed. Team members said they were instructed to refurbish the site instead.
The decision to spare the dome wasn’t directly motivated by the growing tensions between Russia and the UK, an RAF spokesman said. There are no plans to reinstate a radar system at Saxa Vord.
But for now at least, the boarded-up buildings and imposing geodesic dome will stay. Just in case.
“There is no intent to use the facility, but the decision has been to keep it there for emergency purposes,” the spokesman said. “If you have a dome there it gives you options.”
New paint and weatherproofing on an old military base hardly represents a return to Cold War-era defense levels.
But as NATO warns of an imminent threat of a Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine and US and European sanctions against Russia take effect, the activity at Saxa Vord is a sign of just how close an eye Western governments are keeping on the Kremlin.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and subsequent support for a rebellion in Ukraine’s east have forced relations between Russia and the UK and Europe to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Russia is expected to dominate the agenda at an upcoming NATO summit in Wales in September.
The organization has already committed to a series of military exercises in Eastern Europe this fall in a none-too-subtle reminder to Moscow of Western power and interest in the region.
On Monday, the Ukrainian military announced that Russia has amassed some 45,000 troops along its eastern border with Ukraine, equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.
The build-up prompted the NATO chief to warn of a “high probability” of a Russian invasion.
“I call on Russia to step back from the brink. Step back from the border. Do not use peacekeeping as an excuse for war-making,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in response to reports that Russia could use a convoy of humanitarian aid now on its way to Ukraine as cover for a ground invasion.
Although many of the players may be the same, the script for this conflict is far different from what took place in the 1970s and 1980s, experts say.
“People revert to Cold War mentalities for better or for worse,” says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London think-tank Chatham House. “But the comparison with the Cold War is problematic.”
The Cold War was an ideological clash between two equally powerful giants, he says. Russia’s current incursions into countries it sees as part of its sphere is a different game.
“We forget these days that Russia is nothing like an equal power, though it wants to be treated like one,” Nixey says.
Still, Saxa Vord’s reprieve represents more evidence that NATO countries are taking what they say is Moscow’s threat to European security seriously.
Back during the Cold War, when a Soviet plane was detected on the base’s radar, an RAF pilot would be dispatched within minutes to escort the plane out of British airspace, even for legal flights, according a Ministry of Defence history written at the time of the base’s closing.
The point was to show that the UK knew exactly what was going on in its skies and had the capability to confront trespassers immediately, lest the Kremlin get ideas about launching stealth air attacks on Britain.
Today, there may no longer be any fear of a Russian attack against the UK, but in war — cold or otherwise — optics matter.
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