Russians ‘trained to invade Svalbard’

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UPDATED: A Norwegian website dedicated to preventing another invasion of Norway was reporting on Wednesday that Russian forces mounted a mock invasion of Svalbard during recent military exercises in the Barents. Norwegian forces were reportedly caught completely by surprise, and NATO was not pleased, while Norway’s military intelligence chief and defense minister deny any such invasion training occurred.

Svalbard, pictured here on Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May, is now in the midst of economic transition from coal mining to tourism and climate research. It’s arguably most important for its strategic location in the Arctic, attractive to both Russia and NATO’s member countries. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The website AldriMer.no (external link) reported that the Russians, during their major military exercise called Zapad 2017, waged two simulated attacks on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard that’s under Norwegian control.  Norwegian fighter jets were determined to be unable to fend off the attack, allowing the second wave of Russia’s staged military offense to proceed without resistance.

The website  is called Aldri Mer (never again) to stress that Norway must never again be invaded as it was by Nazi German forces in 1940. It bills itself as an “independent, journalistic project” headed by the well-regarded investigative journalist Kjetil Stormark. It’s widely viewed in Norway as a credible source of information on defense and military issues.

NATO’s ‘discontent and concern’
In this case, AldriMer.no cited six different anonymous sources from within the Norwegian defense establishment as well as within NATO, of which Norway is a founding member. Not only could NATO officials be provoked by the Russian “attack” on Svalbard, they also have reportedly “expressed discontent and concern” over Norway’s failure to provide intelligence that would have warned both Norwegian and NATO forces about it.

That, according to AldriMer.no, set off a series of “crisis meetings” between NATO and Norwegian military officials in recent weeks, to discuss what one source called “the complete loss of situational awareness in the north.” Even though Norway has officially identified Russia as a major threat and boosted its surveillance capacity in the Arctic, sometimes controversially, its new so-called “spy ship” MS Marjata was reportedly unavailable or operating at reduced capacity, as were maritime patrol aircraft based at Andøya in Northern Norway.

The apparent lack of preparedness was so dramatic that AldriMer.no produced its own English version of its extensive report on Russia’s simulated attack on the otherwise Norwegian website, which can be read here (external link).

Norwegian military officials initially refused to comment on the report in AldriMer.no, also after Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) topped its morning newscasts with it. Lt Col Ivar Moen of the Norwegian Joint Military Headquarters outside Bodø claimed any comment “would compromise classified information,” nor did Norwegian authorities “want to speculate” over the “scenarios” used by Russian forces in their exercises.

‘No comment’ evolved into full denial
After NRK gave AldriMer.no‘s story top billing on its morning newscasts, the head of Norway’s militiary intelligence unit (Etterretningstjenesten) denied any simulated invasion of Svalbard occurred. Lt Gen Morten Haga Lunde claimed Aldri.mer’s report contained errors, while insisting that his intelligence unit has “extremely good oversight and an understanding of the situation” in areas bordering Norway, “especially” before and during the Russian exercises.

Lunde told NRK that intelligence gathered about Russia’s military exercises was passed on to military and political leaders in Norway. “Sharing it with NATO and allied partners is standard procedure, and we have received good feedback for this reporting,” Lunde told NRK.

The chief of Norway’s military-led intelligence unit E-tjenesten, based here in Oslo’s eastern forested hills of Østmarka, denies any simulated invasion of Svalbard occurred. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, widely tipped to take over as foreign minister on Friday, was visiting one of Norway’s major military installations at Porsanger in Northern Norway Wednesday along with her fellow minister in charge of EU affairs, Frank Bakke-Jensen, who’s from Finnmark and has emerged as her possible successor as defense minister. Søreide made it clear she believes Lunde’s account of how the Russian exercises were conducted.

Lunde’s military intelligence unit “has not seen or reported this type of simulated attack,” Søreide told NRK. “On the contrary, they have had an extra good understanding of the situation, and reported their findings to both Norwegian authorities and to NATO.” She confirmed that Norwegian military intelligence has received “much praise in NATO … for seeing many things other countries don’t see, precisely because they (the Norwegians) have such good surveillance and presence” in the Barents.

Søreide discounted AldriMer.no‘s six anonymous sources and claimed that the military intelligence unit had responded to the website’s questions. “Aldrimer.no chose not to publish their answers,” Søreide said, suggesting that was cause for reflection.

‘Clarification problem’
Stormark, editor in chief of Aldrimer.no, was standing by his story Wednesday morning. He said he was aware that military intelligence officials from what the Norwegians call E-tjenesten had “oriented” the government that Russia did not train for an attack on Svalbard, “so they have a clarification problem when we report something else.” He cited “extremely competent analysts” in both NATO and other portions of the Norwegian defense establishment “who analyze the Russian training patterns quite differently from how E-tjenesten does.”

Stormark pointed to a lack of openness over how Russia trained in the Arctic in September: “Norwegian authorities don’t want to reveal any details, but ask to be believed that they have full control when NATO sources say something else. Russia used both marine forces, bomber aircraft and amphibious attack vehicles that can land considerable forces. Russian special forces and infantry division did not, of course, actually land on Svalbard, but it was quite clear what they were training to do.”

Ongoing tensions
Russia’s recent major Zapad 2017 exercise was carried out at the end of September, with varying accounts of how many troops it involved. There already have been complaints that it jammed GPS systems on commercial airliners flying close to Norway’s border with Russia east of Kirkenes, and even as far west as Alta.

NRK also picked up on how the Russian exercises may be signalling Moscow’s own discontent over how Norway controls Svalbard, which is international territory but under Norwegian control since the Svalbard Treaty was signed in the 1920s. Russia also has a physical presence on Svalbard, at its community of Barentsburg that long has been tied to its coal mining operation there, but which also has recently been boosted by new investment and renovation.

Russia has complained in recent months over its relations with Norway and how Norway administers Svalbard, while disputes also have arisen over Norway’s claims to the seabed (and its potential resources) around Svalbard. NRK commented Wednesday that Russia’s reported mock invasion of Svalbard should not have been surprising, given tensions in the area, and characterized any such “invasion” as a display of force and how “professional” Russia’s military has become after the Soviet Union collapsed.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund