NEWS ANALYSIS: “This is the most important summit meeting of the alliance for a long time,” Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide declared as the NATO summit got underway in Wales on Thursday. She was referring to what her ministry calls “Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine,” and since Norway never joined the European Union (EU), its membership in NATO has become more important than ever on European political issues.
Norway was intent on making its voice heard at the summit, with its prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and their top aides all in attendance, along with the presence of top military brass and a modern Norwegian naval corvette in Cardiff’s harbour. The idea, Søreide’s ministry admitted, was to illustrate that Norway is a country that prides itself on high quality.
Norway has also been among the relatively few European members of NATO to increase its military budgets in recent years, something the US is demanding other European nations to do so as well. While Norway has the economic muscle pumped up by its oil revenues to spend more on defense, other European nations have been hard-pressed economically to boost defense spending. Faced with a new looming threat from a super power that most countries thought had become friends with the rest of the civilized world, European governments are realizing that they’re once again going to have to make defense spending a priority.
Foreign Minister Børge Brende, among the top Norwegian government officials attending the NATO summit, wrote last summer that the crisis in Ukraine has confirmed NATO’s importance for countries with “common values” and as an anchor for security policy. At a time when many think power in Europe has shifted from NATO to the EU, NATO still gives Norway an outlet and channel that it doesn’t have at the EU.
Norway’s larger defense budgets and its recently streamlined, “professional” military should give it a gold star at NATO, and on Thursday, Norway also announced it would lead a NATO support fund for Ukraine. Norway announced earlier this week that it would be sending emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine and now Prime Minister Erna Solberg has agreed that Norway will lead and contribute financially to NATO’s efforts to re-train military personnel in Ukraine. The fund will also be used to strengthen the Ukrainian military’s competence within logistics, command and control, communications and cyber defense.
After NATO operations extended far beyond Europe’s borders in recent years, Norway is also among those members who think it needs to concentrate more on its own region, something the Ukrainian situation is forcing it to do. NATO’s 28 member countries are currently split, though, over how to respond to Russian aggression. That’s where Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s incoming secretary general known for his skills at seeking consensus, may help draw the alliance together, even though answers will be needed at this summit before Stoltenberg takes over October 1. Options include tougher sanctions, freezing Russia out of the international organizations it has joined since the Berlin Wall fell, and a strengthening of NATO forces in eastern Europe, not least the Baltics. Norway also confirmed on Thursday that it will send 150 soldiers and equipment to take part in looming NATO exercises in Latvia.
There was some good news for NATO members this week. Despite Russia’s military build-up in recent years, NATO remains well ahead of Russia in total defense investment, according to the international peace research institute in Stockholm (SIPRI). The goal is for all NATO member states to devote at least 2 percent of their gross national product to defense. The US is clearly growing weary of providing two-thirds of NATO’s funding and wants European nations to provide more.
Norway has, and is also hosting a major NATO Response Force military exercise this month with 6,500 soldiers from several NATO countries participating. “Collective defense and improved ability to respond quickly to crises is critical,” defense minister Søreide said. “This is in line with long-term Norwegian priorities. Norway has for many years urged NATO to concentrate to a higher degree on our own area.”
The serious conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East can’t be ignored, but analysts were expecting the NATO summit to end with a stronger emphasis on Europe. “Defending the alliance’s member countries remains NATO’s most important duty,” Søreide said. As a wealthy member of NATO that shares a border with Russia and is relied on to patrol the northern Arctic areas, Søreide stands a good chance of being heard, and can only hope NATO’s importance as a political arena doesn’t lose more ground to the EU.