Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg arrived back home in Norway this week, on an official visit in his new role as secretary general of NATO. He was greeted not only by former political rivals and Crown Prince Haakon, but also by Norwegian researchers who claimed he and NATO are being too hard on Russia.
Stoltenberg landed first in the northern coastal city of Bodø, long the base of key Norwegian military and NATO operations and home to many of the country’s fighter jets. They’ve been busy lately, taking part in one of the biggest fighter jet exercises to ever take place in the Nordic countries.
He was greeted by Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, long the arch rival of Stoltenberg’s Labour Party, but there were hugs and smiles when the man most Norwegians simply call “Jens” stepped off his Belgian Air Force jet as NATO’s top boss. “NATO is more important for our security than it has been for a long time,” Søreide claimed in her welcoming remarks. She also claimed she was “very glad” to have her former political opponent “with me here in Bodø.”
After a visit to the main air station and a demonstration by fighter jets, Stoltenberg and Søreide talked about what she called the “changed” security situation in Europe “and our neighbouring area,” where “Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, along with the country’s increased military capacity and activity are especially worrisome.” She and Stoltenberg are now in complete agreement, she said, that Norway, which shares a border with Norway, must invest in its own security in addition to its contribution as a member of NATO.
‘Backing Russia into a corner’
It’s all the recent sabre-rattling, and Stoltenberg’s own comments about “Russian military aggression” that are worrying some Norwegian researchers and scholars who specialize in Russian relations. They fear that NATO and Norwegian rhetoric, as well as the spate of recent military exercises near Norway’s and other borders to Russia, may “provoke a sleeping bear,” with even a researcher at the defense department’s own college, Tormod Heier, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Russia “has been backed into a corner by NATO. From Finnmark to Crimea, Russia is ringed by western allies. We have to keep that in the back of our minds in order to understand (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s reactions.”
Julie Wilhelmsen of the Norwegian foreign police institute NUPI agreed, warning that Russian culture can often lead to Russians reacting defensively and being insulted by the slightest hint of criticism. That can have dangerous consequences, she told NRK. Researchers noted that NATO remains far superior to Russia despite the country’s recent military buildup and modernization. If Russians themselves view themselves as the underdog, their bark can be much fiercer than if they felt more self-confident, some of the researchers suggested.
‘We will avoid provocation’
Stoltenberg, confronted with the Norwegian researchers’ words of caution during a live early-morning radio interview on NRK Thursday, voiced respect for their opinions but maintained that Russia’s recent aggression and unpredictability made it difficult to be good neighbours. “We want to cooperate with them, but a minimum expectation for any cooperation with a neighbour is that they respect borders,” Stoltenberg said. “And there are borders that Russia has not respected.” He said in Bodø the day before, however, that NATO would continue to respond to Russian fighter jets buzzing NATO’s members’ border but otherwise “will behave as normal” and avoid provocation. “As long as NATO acts properly, is predictable and clear, it’s good for everyone involved,” Stoltenberg said.
He and his government had good relations with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev while Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister, and Putin also visited Norway during his first term as president. “We’ve all had good relations during the early post-Cold War years,” Stoltenberg said, adding that he and other European leaders still have “political dialogue” with Russia: “I met with Russia’s foreign minister (Sergei) Lavrov a few weeks ago, we have open channels for political contact.” He still doesn’t see any immediate Russian threat against NATO countries, “but we have to react when Russia behaves as it has over the past few years.” He cited its annexation of Crimea, its destabilization efforts in Ukraine, its decision to hold major military exercises with no advance waring and its decisions to break some key weapons agreements.
Stoltenberg is also in Norway to make the same request he’s making to all NATO members, to increase defense budgets to 2 percent of GNP. He stressed on NRK that “it’s not me telling them what to do,” but rather that he’s “reminding” all 28 member nations what they agreed to themselves at their major gathering in Wales last autumn.
On the homefront, Stoltenberg was also confronted with recent complaints about Norway’s own lack of preparedness for terrorist attacks or other national emergencies. Some of the responsibility for that has been traced back to Stoltenberg’s own two terms leading the Norwegian government, but he claimed it had no bearing on his new NATO role. He cited similar problems in many other countries and called Norway’s admittedly poor response to a right-wing extremist’s attacks in July 2011 “a well-known issue” that was being addressed, now by the Conservatives-led government that succeeded him.
As he prepared to be formally received at the Royal Palace in Oslo where he used to meet the monarch weekly, at the Parliament where he served so long and at the prime minister’s residence where he once lived himself, Stoltenberg admitted he can’t follow his passion for Norwegian politics as much as he used to. “The daily agenda is full of other things now,” he said with a laugh, but he’s still interested in local issues. He was also set to deliver a lecture at the University of Oslo on Thursday as his visit runs into the upcoming weekend.