Both Norwegian and Russian military alarms were sounding over troop levels and movements in the Arctic on Monday, on both sides of the border. It was unclear whether it amounted mostly to sabre-rattling or imminent security concerns.
In Norway, a retired top military boss warned the Norwegian government that Norwegian defense capability is, at present, all but non-existent. Jacob Børresen, a former commodore and military secretary in the defense minstry, blasted current Defense Minster Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party for failing to win government support for a military build-up.
“The situation is just terrible, to put it bluntly,” Børresen told newspaper Dagsavisen. He fears Norway’s military as it now exists is not capable of handling war or a serious security crisis, even as a major winter military exercise, Joint Viking, played out in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark.
The biggest challenge, Børresen told Dagsavisen, is Norway’s lack of military personnel. The number of active personnel is much too low both in the Norwegian Navy, the Air Force and the Army in addition to the defense department’s logistics organization FLO, he claimed.
“Military staffing is based on extremely modest peacetime levels,” Børresen said. “If the military had to go to war, I’m afraid that the entire organization, and especially the support apparatus, will collapse.”
Børresen, whom Dagsavisen described as a “free-speaking” former officer, warned the government and Norwegian politicians against thinking that Norway has a well-functioning, modern military. “In my opinion we don’t have a military defense any longer,” Børresen said. “We have armed forces – some vessels, some ground troops, a few fighter jets. Our special forces are world class. But they won’t hold out. They’re not worth much except as part of a military alliance.” While Norway is part of NATO, he argues, Norway’s own military “has been all but phased out.”
His harsh criticism of Norwegian defense preparedness comes as newspaper Nordlys in the northern city of Tromsø carried a story by the same journalist, Kjetil Stormark, that focused on increasing concern that Russian forces could invade Norway’s far northeastern county of Finnmark, under the guise of protecting its interests on the neighbouring Kola Peninsula. That prospect earlier has been publicly dismissed by both military and political officials alike, but Stormark cited high-ranking sources who are voicing such concern. And Erik Gustavsson, chief of the defense staff, welcomed debate over military capability. He admitted staffing was low.
“We have a balanced military defense today, with good material, well-educated and trained soldiers and we have shown in operations that we are very professional,” Gustavsson told Dagsavisen. “But the bredth and depth of the military, with respect to staffing, is our Achilles heel at the moment.”
In Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin emerged from 10 days out of the public eye to order the Russian Navy to launch a major military exercise in the Arctic. “Strategic formations” in the far north were said to be especially important, with Russian news bureau RIA reporting that 40,000 soldiers, 41 battleships, 15 submarines and 110 military aircraft will take part in the exercise on the Kola Peninsula. That compares to the 5,000 soldiers taking part in the Joint Viking exercise in Finnmark. The Russians’ goal, reportedly, is to test military preparedness.
Russian military officials were sounding their own alarms over NATO exercises in the Nordic countries. Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Mishkov told Russian news bureau TASS that the Russian government was “very worried about the increasing number of NATO exercises near our borders. It’s especially surprising that this is happening in Northeast Europe, which is the most stable region on our continent and perhaps the entire world. These NATO exercises lead to destabilization of the situation and increased tension.”
There’s little question that Russia’s military dwarfs Norway’s alone, and Russia has been keen to show off its renewed military strength that analysts claim has cost the country dearly. Norwegian Defense Minister Søreide, meanwhile, doesn’t deny that Norway’s own military wouldn’t be able to hold out for long if under attack.
“Ambitions, structure and resources are under pressure, and will come into imbalance without a major change of course,” Søreide wrote in an email to Dagsavisen. “This is a result of more than two decades of planning when tensions have been low in our region.”
She said a new long-term plan for the military will be put forth next spring. The government, meanwhile, will continue to increase the defense budgets and put a priority on operative activity and preparedness.