NEWS ANALYSIS: While Sweden’s military continued to hunt this week for what many fear could be a Russian submarine in Swedish territorial waters, concerns are rising in Norway over military preparedness in the Arctic. Tensions are high on the eve of a meeting between Norway’s and Russia’s foreign ministers in Norway’s most northern county of Finnmark this weekend.
The long-planned meeting between Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende and his Russian counterpart Sergej Lavrov is meant to commemorate the liberation of eastern Finnmark from German forces in late 1944, six months before the end of World War II. Soviet forces at the time crossed the border from the then-Soviet Union into Norway at Kirkenes and pushed German troops westward. Tragedy continued, though, as the retreating Germans forcibly evacuated all residents of Finnmark and then proceeded to burn and destroy nearly everything in their wake, ostensibly so there would be nothing left for the Soviet Russians.
King Harald V and Prime Minister Erna Solberg also plan to attend 70th anniversary ceremonies of the liberation of eastern Finnmark in Kirkenes on Saturday. While the Soviets’ role in the liberation has long been deeply appreciated by many Norwegians and nurtured the so-called “special relationship” between the two countries and neighbours in the north, concerns have turned to alarm over how Russia has been treating its other neighbours of late. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the crisis in Ukraine and, most recently, the Swedes’ fears of a violation of their own territorial integrity have further raised alarm in recent days.
“We have thought that there would peace in our time, but now there is no guarantee of that,” Christian Tybring-Gjedde, defense policy spokesman for the Progress Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. The Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) currently shares government power with Solberg’s Conservative Party (Høyre).
Even though Norway has increased defense spending in recent years, Tybring-Gjedde doesn’t think it’s enough. He’s calling for even bigger increases in the government’s proposed state budget released earlier this month. He also wants to see many more Norwegians called into military service, and more investment in both personnel and equipment, especially in the north.
“Russia has boosted its military capacity quite a lot in recent years,” Tybring-Gjedde, known as one of the most conservative members of his party, told Dagsavisen. “We have to take Russia more seriously.”
Others are also raising questions over whether Norway has adequate defenses in its most northern regions and in the Arctic, where Russian military has been especially active of late. If Norway had reason to suspect that a Russian submarine had infiltrated its waters, it would be much more difficult for the Norwegian military to raise an operation like what Swedish forces have been conducting over the past five days. Retired Vice Admiral Einar Skorgen, a former commander in Northern Norway, told TV2 earlier this week that Norway no longer has enough of a military presence in Finnmark and Troms counties, for example. Total troops have fallen from 165,000 in 1990 to just 5,000 today, Dagsavisen reported.
“Our naval vessels lie partially without crews in Bergen (far to the southwest),” Skorgen told TV2. “If something happens in Northern Norway, it’s not just a matter of sailing on up there. It would take perhaps a few weeks before we could get a vessel in place.”
Jakub Godzimirski, a Russia expert at the foreign policy institute NUPI in Oslo, also noted that the Norwegian coastline “is very long, full of islands and coves. Norway has limited resources to observe something suspicious in its waters.” He said “it’s a big challenge” for Norway to discover a threat, muster the necessary resources, succeed in identifying the threat and then gain control over it.
Defense Miniser Ine Eriksen Søreide still wouldn’t comment on the major military action that’s been going on in neighbouring Sweden since late last week. Meanwhile, her government colleagues and the Norwegian monarch were preparing to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov, with some hoping that will break the ice that’s been forming of late. Norway’s foreign ministry has confirmed that Brende and Lavrov will have “bilateral talks” during Lavrov’s visit in Kirkenes. Russia and Norway currently have imposed sanctions against each other, blocking trade of salmon, oil, gas and other products between the two neighbours. Such trade is important for development of both countries’ Arctic regions.
Leaders in both countries have also expressed a desire to maintain the special relationship between Norway and Russia. As they all dwell in Kirkenes on the horrors of World War II this weekend, they may be reminded that those who dismiss history are doomed to repeat it.