For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Norwegian military plans to send 5,000 soldiers to a major training exercise next month in the far northern county of Finnmark, which borders on Russia. Researchers think the exercise will be viewed as a Norwegian response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that the Norwegian military wants to show that it can defend Finnmark. The large exercise planned for March is called “Joint Viking” and will involve the Norwegian army, navy, air force and civil defense troops (Heimevernet).
“If we’re to have a credible defense that can defend the entire country, we also have to train in the entire country,” army spokesman Vegar Gystad told Aftenposten. “In 2013 we were in Hordaland (on Norway’s southwest coast), last year we were in Troms, this year we’re training in Finnmark and next year in Trøndelag.”
Asked how Russian authorities may respond to so many soldiers so close to the border it shares with Norway, Gystad said that “the Russians have known about this exercise for a long time. During other exercises in the north, the Russians have held training on their side of the border in the north.” He said he wasn’t aware whether that will happen this time as well.
It’s the first time that Brigaden Nord (The Northern Brigade) will train in Finnmark, and the first time troops from all over Norway will train in Finnmark since 1967. Most of the other military exercises in Northern Norway have taken place in Troms County, farther to the west.
Researcher Jakub Godzimirski at the Oslo-based Norwegian foreign policy insitute NUPI said the Norwegian military earlier has restricted itself to holding exercises farther away from Russian territory. He said next month’s exercise contained “a classic element of deterrent,” and that it seemed more important for Norway to reassure its allies who are worried about Russia, than to reassure Russia.
“This will be used in Russian propaganda,”Godzimirski told Aftenposten, “but the Russians themselves have much worse things on their conscience, so I don’t think this will have great consequences.” The Russians, for their part, have been displaying a show of force along the Norwegian coast for months with their fighter jets and conducting exercises in the Barents Sea. Russia was also widely believed to be behind sightings of a submarine in Swedish waters off Stockholm last year.
Gystad acknowledged that “we expect there will be more tension around the exercise and more speculation,” given the tensions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its support for Ukrainian separatists.
NATO confirmed this week that it will also conduct a much larger military exercise in Norway in 2018, involving 25,000 troops from all the NATO member countries.
Norway’s police intelligence unit PST, meanwhile, announced this week that it thinks both Russian and Chinese officials are trying to recruit spies in Norway. On Friday, the chief of civil defense in Åndalsnes, in the scenic central county of Møre og Romsdal, told local newspaper Åndalsnes Avis that he believes Russian and Chinese spies have been active around the local Setnesmoen military camp.
“We can see cars from, for example, the Russian and Chinese embassies driving around the area here,” Lt Col Per Olav Vaagland told Åndalsnes Avis. “It’s of course not illegal to drive on our roads … but it’s important for us to know about it and chart it.” PST had no comment on the alleged spying.