NEWS ANALYSIS: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed a “strengthened cooperation” signaled by government ministers of the Nordic countries late last week, and that’s no surprise. His own father, veteran Norwegian diplomat Thorvald Stoltenberg, urged much tighter military cooperation with Norway’s neighbours as early as 2009, and the NATO boss doesn’t think the latest manifestation of that should provoke Russia.
The elder Stoltenberg, a former defense minister himself, headed an examination of Nordic defense operations six years ago, when relations between Norway and Russia arguably were more congenial than ever before. Thorvald Stoltenberg’s group delivered a report with several concrete proposals for closer defense cooperation among Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
His son Jens Stoltenberg, who was prime minister and leader of the Norwegian Labour Party at the time, followed up by having his own defense ministers nurture relations with Sweden, for example, even though Sweden is not a member of NATO. Stoltenberg’s Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide, who later became foreign minister, also put more priority on defense operations closer to home, after years of Norwegian participation in military operations from Afghanistan to Libya and Chad. Eide and other Nordic defense ministers carved out new agreements to work more closely together.
Now they’ve been joined by defense ministers of the Baltic countries, where NATO already has carried out military exercises in recent years. They wrote in a commentary published in Oslo newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that they plan to have more joint exercises, more industrial cooperation, exchange more of their intelligence gathering and work more closely together on the cyber front.
Asked whether the plans contained anything that was really new, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the pact as “a strengthening and deepening of a cooperation that has been developed over several years, and is positive for all the Nordic countries.” He’s not concerned that it involves two large countries that are not members of NATO, Finland and Sweden.
Jens Stoltenberg told Aftenposten that the plan also involves a strengthening of Nordic cooperation with NATO, “in part because three of the countries are members of NATO and in part because NATO has had close cooperation with Finland and Sweden. We visited Finland a few weeks ago and then I was reminded how comprehensive that cooperation really is. This will strengthen both our defense capability and opportunities to use our resources better.”
‘No basis’ for Russian provocation
Stoltenberg also rejected a comment made on Friday by Norwegian Professor Janne Haaland Matlary that the Russia would likely view this message (from the Nordic and Baltic ministers) as a sign of aggression. “We must expect negative reaction from the Russians, not that it should carry any weight,” Matlary, who is a member of Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide’s advisory group, told Aftenposten.
Stoltenberg didn’t agree with that over the weekend. “There’s no basis for this to provoke the Russians,” Stoltenberg said, pointing to the cooperation that’s already been carried out for many years.
The defense ministers of Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden and the foreign minister of Iceland, however, did point out at the outset of their commentary that Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea represent “the greatest challenge” to the European security situation. They also noted that the security of the areas surrounding the Nordic countries has deteriorated markedly in the past year. “The region continues to be characterized by stability, but we must be prepared that crises or actions can take place,” the ministers wrote. “We must declare that it’s no longer ‘business as usual,’ and we have a ‘new normalcy’ to face up to.”
The Nordic ministers were thus “meeting this situation with solidarity and deeper cooperation.” Shared “solidarity” based on a “defensive starting point” with the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) “strengthens our security in our region.”
Russia responded, not through its embassies in Oslo or the other Nordic capitals but rather in a comment from its foreign ministry to news bureau Reuters that it was “especially worried” that Sweden and Finland were moving towards stronger ties to NATO.
One Norwegian officer who took part in NATO’s recent exercises in Latvia noted, however, that Russia has done the same, mounting its own military exercises close to Nordic and Baltic borders. Russian fighter jets and other military aircraft have also been buzzing the Norwegian coast for many months, a Russian submarine is suspected of entering Swedish waters last year and the Russians have made their presence in the Arctic known.
“I maintain a professional attitude towards all this,” David Seppola of Norway’s Telemark Battalion told Aftenposten. “They surely think the same thoughts that we do, and carry out training and exercises in the same way. That said, we are going through a reality check about who we are and what we’re doing.”