NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s a reason why US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and several other top American defense officials have been trooping to Norway since early September. Keen to send troops to a loyal NATO ally that shares a border with Russia, they got what they wanted without having to win the hearts and minds of Norwegians in general.
After weeks of media reports that the US wanted to set up a base of sorts with around 300 soldiers at Værnes (near Trondheim in central Norway), the government finally confirmed the plan that had been hatching since the beginning of the year. On Monday evening, the government “oriented” the Norwegian Parliament’s expanded foreign affairs- and defense committee that even more than the reported 300 US troops (330) will arrive early next year.
Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party, who has called the US “our most important ally” countless times, said US Marines will train with Norwegian forces and other allies at various places around the country. They may all use American military equipment that will be stored at Værnes, which isn’t too far from the air station that will be used to base the new F35 fighter jets Norway is about to receive from US defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
Søreide tapped into a wealth of political phrases and interpretations of Norwegian law when justifying the establishment of what many view as a US military base on Norwegian soil. “Værnes won’t be an American base,” Søreide countered to Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen on Wednesday. Since the US troops will come and go on a rotation basis, she said, “we’re not talking about a permanent base for American forces in Norway or the establishment of an American base in Norway.” She prefers to view the entire project as merely an “extension and deepening” of long-standing Norwegian-American military cooperation, with clear limits. She stressed the “cooperation” would be evaluated during the course of the year.
Several other military experts and commentators view the project, which was initiated and is about to be implemented at the request of the Americans, quite differently. Some are even calling it a “political bluff.” Newspaper Dagsavisen, for example, editorialized on Wednesday that it can represent a violation of a declaration made in 1949 that placement of allied forces on Norwegian soil would not be allowed in peacetime. The declaration was aimed at placating the then-Soviet Union after Norway joined NATO. There also have been heated debates over the years on whether earlier storage of allies’ military equipment also violated the declaration against bases for non-Norwegian troops.
Now Norway and the US are engaging in both, with Dagsavisen calling Søreide’s justification for granting the US request for a military presence in Norway “dangerously close to a political bluff.” Stationing American soldiers in Norway is something “entirely new,” write paper, and it “sends the wrong signal to our neighbour, Russia, in a tense political situation. We don’t think Norway is well-served by that.”
The director of the Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO, Kristian Berg Harpviken, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), meanwhile, that the Værnes project represents “a fundamental change” in Norwegian defense policy. “This is quite clearly an answer to the worsening security situation and worsening relations with Russia,” Harpviken said.
Ståle Ulriksen of the Norwegian foreign policy insitute NUPI also questioned Søreide’s creative explanation for the new “concrete cooperation” with US troops on Norwegian soil. She enthusiastically refers to it as a “unique opportunity” for Norwegian troops to train with American troops in Norwegian conditions. That will strengthen the Norwegian military’s ability “to operate with our closest ally.”
Ulriksen described what Søreide won’t call a “base” as a hybrid between having a permanent military base and an agreement on regular military exercises. “Whichever term you want to use has to do with politics, not the law,” Ulriksen told news bureau NTB.
He noted, however, that there is “no doubt” that Søreide, the Norwegian defense establishment and their counterparts in the US are “forming the basis for a larger, regular presence of American forces in Norway. Much of the (US) equipment will remain in Norway, even though the soldiers will be rotated.” Like Harpviken, Ulriksen also believes the project “clearly” represents a change in Norwegian base policy.
The Russian response so far has been “astonishment” over the plans for US troops at Værnes. Maxim Gurov, press attaché at the Russian Embassy in Oslo, told Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen that Norway’s base policy from 1949 survived through the entire Cold War and has been an “advantage” for Norway as a partner compared to other NATO countries. Now that “advantage” may disappear.
Since the Labour Party already has supported the project fronted by Norway’s conservative minority coalition government, the presence of US troops at Værnes would win majority support in Parliament despite the objections and concerns of several smaller parties including one of the government’s own support parties, the Liberals. Representatives from Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county that borders on Russia, have also voiced concerns that the Værnes operation is a provocation. Søreide has noted that the issue, however, “is for the government to decide, but we of course consult the Parliament in the normal manner in such cases.”
Since there were no such “bases” even during the Cold War, Adresseavisen asked Søreide whether it’s now even colder. “No, not in any way,” responded Søreide. She continues to insist that the new “concrete cooperation” is merely an extension of long-standing joint-training programs and she stressed that allied forces are often in Norway for training exercises. This week alone, she said, 200 troops from the US Marine Corps are training with Norwegian forces in Indre Troms (Northern Norway) for the fourth week in a row, while three Dutch naval vessels are in the Sognefjord taking part in another Norwegian exercise. She reminded that NATO itself earlier had permanent command centers at both Kolsås (west of Oslo) and in Stavanger.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, remarked this week that Russia is both flexing its military muscle “and trying to split Europe” into various political and economic camps. Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister from the Labour Party, claimed Russia has not succeeded, though, and that NATO is more unified than it has been for a long time. His remarks came as NATO members’ defense ministers, including Søreide of Norway and Carter of the US, gathered in Brussels for meetings to follow up on the NATO summit held in Warsaw in June. Søreide told news bureau NTB that it would “directly be in Russia’s interests” to attempt to divide the EU on issues ranging from sanctions against Russia to military resources.
While she downplayed the significance of having 330 US Marines in Norway at all times over the next year, she mentioned another sobering fact in a written defense of the project published in Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “In a crisis, Norway is dependent on our allied forces,” Søreide wrote. “The fact that our closest ally trains in Norway is positive for Norwegian security.”