Norwegian researchers, military leaders and intelligence officials who follow Russia closely now contend that a recent burst of military activity in the Arctic does not signal any real threats, to either Russia or Norway. Russian President Vladimir Putin may be trying to frighten the west, they say, but there’s no real fear that Russian troops will march over the border into Norway any time soon.
Newspaper Aftenposten ran a story on Wednesday headlined “Does Norway have reason to fear Russia?” The story came after days of reports about major military exercises on both sides of the border Norway shares with Russia in the Arctic north, and after Putin told a Russian broadcaster that he’d readied nuclear weapons last year in his drive towards annexation of Crimea and Russia’s highly controversial intervention in Ukraine.
The answer to Aftenposten’s question, though, is “no,” according to a series of interviews with local so-called “experts” on relations between Russia and Norway.
“Despite recent tensions, Russia is no threat to Norway,” Julie Wilhelmsen, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told Aftenposten. “We must not forget that Norway is something entirely different from Ukraine. The driving force behind Russian policy is to hinder western influence on the old Soviet states.” Norway does not fall into that category, and neither she nor several other local experts think there’s cause for fear that Russian soldiers will march into Kirkenes.
“That sort of fear has little support among those who understand Russia,” agrees Yngvar Steinholt, an assistant professor at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. “Unfortunately a ‘Cold War’ body of thought is developing now, that Russia is a great military threat to the west. That’s incorrect.”
Some contend the threat either consciously or unconsciously is being nurtured by players both within the military and the defense industry, especially during large military exercises like Norway’s “Joint Viking” and the much larger Russian version launched by Putin this week.
“It’s in the interests of both the Russian and the Norwegian military to promote the threat to increase defense budgets,” claimed Indra Øverland, another researcher at NUPI. “That’s clear.”
Steinholt stressed that Putin has tried to justify Russia’s military operations in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine as a means of “protecting” ethnic Russians who settled there during the Soviet era. In Norway, there’s no basis for such territorial demands, he said.
Sverre Diesen, Norway’s former chief of defense, doesn’t fear Russia either. “The possibilities for armed conflict with Russia aren’t affected by whether political relations are good or bad,” Diesen told Aftenposten. “For the Russian leaders, it’s more a calculation of risk versus reward.” The risk of losing is considerably higher than the possibility of reward, despite Norway’s far inferior military capabilities. NATO would surely become involved, and it’s viewed as having military capability superior to that of Russia.
That suggests Russia will continue to limit its aggression to operations unlikely to trigger NATO involvement. “As long as we can hinder Russia from carrying out such operations, there’s little probability of military conflict,” Diesen said.
Svalbard may be vulnerable
Concerns remain about Russian intentions in the Arctic. “I think the far northern areas should concern us more than the mainland,” Pavel Baev, another researcher specializing in Russian relations at the Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO, told Aftenposten. He seems to have moderated his outlook since suggesting just last month that Russia does pose a threat, but he still worries about vulnerable Norwegian territory in the Arctic.
“We could, for example, see some Russian provocation on Svalbard, or resumption of nuclear testing at Novaja Semlja,” Baev told Aftenposten. Norwegian politicians are already more eager than ever to assert Norwegian presence and authority on Svalbard, even if it means funding ongoing operations of a coal mine that serves as the largest local employer, despite all the environmental concerns and carbon emissions it can create.
There’s also rising concern about who might succeed Putin when he finally releases his grip on Russia. “The biggest danger is that thoughtless pressure from western nations can spawn more dangerous power mongers than Putin,” Steinholt said. “That’s the danger of the Cold War rhetoric that worries me.” Residents of Northern Norway, who have long had friendly ties with their Russian neighbours over the border, also dislike such rhetoric and want to preserve what many Norwegians view as Norway’s “special relationship” with Russia.
It also worries intelligence officials, according to the researchers. “Putin manages to balance the factions in the Kremlin against each other,” Wilhelmsen said. “If he disappears, there will be a battle among these factions, with security forces on the one side and the more reform-friendly on the other. It’s probable the conservative players will prevail.”