NEWS ANALYSIS/UPDATED: As conflict escalates between Russia on the one side and Ukraine and most of the rest of Europe on the other, the Norwegian government has so far come out solidly in favour of the acting government in the Ukrainian capital. As Foreign Minister Børge Brende pays his respects in Kiev, though, it’s not easy for him or other Norwegians to give up what have been relatively good relations with Russia, with whom the country shares a border in the vitally important far north.
For Norway, the drama involving and, many believe, choreographed by Russia is one in which Norway never would have wanted to play a part. Russia and Norway have cooperated for centuries on so many issues, from trade in the far north to, more recently, border issues in the Barents Sea. Now, however, Norway faces the dilemma of being once again caught in the middle of a conflict between its western allies and neighbouring Russia, raising prospects of a new “cold war” that’s getting chillier by the day. Norway also sees a moral obligation to do what’s right, and can’t condone seeing a large and powerful country all but take over parts of a smaller and much more vulnerable one.
It’s no surprise that Norway has so far been following the lead of the European Union (EU), the US and, of course, NATO, of which it’s a member. Brende was at the Norwegian Parliament on Tuesday to propose that Norway also impose the same sanctions against Russia that the EU is, freezing bank accounts and denying visas to around 20 persons in Russia and Crimea. He won support and said later on Tuesday that Norway will adopt the same sanctions. Brende also condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in Moscow on Tuesday that Russia was annexing Crimea, saying that Norway will still view Crimea as part of Ukraine.
It marks the first time in many years that Norway is going along with direct punitive measures against its neighbour to the east, apart from the expulsions of a few Russian diplomats suspected of spying in the country. Some argue that the sanctions aren’t very tough, but Brende thinks they are, and promises more if Russia doesn’t back off.
“If there’s a further increase of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, there will be more reaction,” Brende told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. “It’s important that Europe stands together in its condemnation of Russia’s violations of the rule of law, and that’s what Europe has done. Now Norway will follow up the measures that the EU has initiated.”
There has been some criticism within Norway of the government’s position, with newspaper Bergens Tidende publishing a commentary by Russian historian Bjørn Nistad, in which Nistad questions the legitimacy of the acting government in Ukraine and accuses Brende of dealing with fascists in Kiev. The ministry called that “absurd” and referred to the commentary as “distasteful propaganda.” Brende maintains that Russia “has shown a total lack of willingness to respect the rule of law,” and it’s statements like that which are surprisingly strong for a Norwegian foreign minister.
The level of tension and sheer proximity of the potentially explosive situation in Ukraine is clearly being taken seriously indeed in Norway, and making everyone nervous. Brende cancelled an important trip to the Middle East this week to stay home to deal with the situation, as King Harald headed for Northern Norway to oversee the major winter military exercises known as “Cold Response.” While there, the amiable monarch admitted to reporters that he’s worried about the situation in Crimea. “I think we all are worried about it,” King Harald told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
While Russian military representatives took part as guests in the Cold Response exercises this week, which involve 16,000 troops from 16 countries including the US, speculation was rising that another major military exercise involving Norway, Russia and the US in the Barents Sea, called “Northern Eagle,” would be cancelled. Since the US has frozen its bilateral military cooperation with Russia, because of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, Northern Eagle “probably won’t be conducted as planned in May,” Marita Isaksen Wangberg of the Norwegian Defense Ministry told news bureau NTB.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian military just took delivery of a new vessel that’s undergoing further technical enhancements for use as a surveillance ship by Norway’s military intelligence unit, E-tjenesten. The vessel “will be an imporant part of E-tjenesten’s work in the northern area,” its top military chief Kjell Grandhagen said last week. That means the ship will be used to spy on Norway’s Russian neighbours just like Grandhagen says they’re spying on Norway.
Bernard Duncan Lyng, a military veteran and former security and preparedness chief at Statoil, agreed with Grandhagen recently in Tromsø newspaper Nordlys that Norway’s proximity to Russia, the development of Russian society and Russia’s military power and interest in the northern areas make it critical for Norway to watch Russia closely. He worries that Svalbard, which is controlled by Norway under an international treaty but where Russia also has a physical presence, could, for example, become Norway’s “Ukraine syndrome.”
That’s because Russia has claimed that it’s gone into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula because of a need to protect Russians living there. If that argument is carried further, it may envision similar threats and do the same on Svalbard, or even in Norway’s eastern county of Finnmark, where Russians and Norwegians now freely travel in the border area where even many road signs are also written in Russian. Some may scoff at the prospect, but in Norway’s far north, the concerns are real.
Debate is thus brewing over whether defense budgets should be increased given Russia’s sabre-rattling and military escalation in and around Ukraine. While European military forces have been slimmed down, Russia has been building its military muscle, and some Baltic governments now see Russia as a threat. More than 20 years of goodwill, reconciliation and even friendly relations between Russia and its European neighbours seems to have been wiped out in a matter of weeks because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to maintain control over Ukraine. As commentator Per Kristian Haugen wrote in Aftenposten last week, no country with a border to Russia, including Norway, can quietly watch Russia simply take over part of another neighouring country. Those willing to allow an annexation of Crimea by Russia are quickly being reminded of Germany’s annexation Czechoslovakian territory in 1938, and what that led to.
Asked whether Brende expected that Russia would suddenly emerge as such an enormous foreign policy problem when he took office just five months ago, Brende replied that “I hadn’t foreseen such violations of international law and lack of respect for territorial integrity. But I had to quickly learn to deal with such daily violations in Syria.”
Brende claims he and other EU leaders are working hard to avoid another Cold War with Russia, noting that the coming weeks and months will be of great importance as the drama plays out. “When countries cooperate, we all win,” Brende told Aftenposten. “The alternative is that we can all be losers.”