NEWS ANALYSIS: A new report from the Norwegian defense department’s own research institute highlights four reasons why Russia has become more dangerous for Norway, and two reasons why it hasn’t. A senior researcher at Norway’s foreign policy institute NUPI, meanwhile, is challenging Norway’s new defense and foreign ministers to evaluate whether current policies actually improve security. She doesn’t think so.
As debate swirls over the state of Norwegian defense and whether Russia is a friendly neighbour or a rising threat, questions also keep flying over how Norway should respond. Its recently re-elected conservative minority coalition government named new defense and foreign ministers last month, and many want to grab their attention and their ears.
Among them is NUPI senior researcher Julie Wilhelmsen, one of Norway’s experts on Russian foreign- and security policy. She’ll be among featured speakers when NUPI, which emerged this week as a target of hacking itself, hosts its annual Russia Conference in Oslo on Friday. The conference is so popular that not an empty seat was available days before it was due to begin.
Wilhelmsen has already been challenging Norway’s new ministers, in a speech before the venerable Oslo Militære Samfund last month and published for a broader audience this week. In it, she paints a gloomy picture of relations between Russia and the West in general. Both sides now seem more engaged in a spiral of escalating tension, building up their defense apparatus and viewing each other more as rivals and enemies. That’s led, in Wilhelmsen’s view, to a tendency towards launching programs that can seem more offensive than defensive.
As she raises the question of how real any Russian threat may be, and how Norway should relate to it, Wilhelmsen stresses that counting bombs and canons and increases in bombs and canons won’t help if Western allies including Norway and NATO don’t try to see how Russia sees itself, its role in the world and not least its neighbouring areas, including Norway.
There’s no question that alarm mode set in when Russia invaded Crimea and intervened in Ukraine in 2014. NATO and the US in particular have been responding to that sign of aggression ever since. “Everyone has been very preoccupied with trying to discourage and deter Russia,” Wilhelmsen told news bureau NTB recently. She’s critical of Norway’s decision to allow US soldiers to train in Norway on an ongoing rotation basis. Russia has viewed that as a provocation, along with NATO’s establishment of more troops along borders in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, and reacted negatively. NATO and Norwegian policies have also involved military build-up, including the arrival of Norway’s new F35 fighter jets and defense reforms.
Asked whether such current defense policies have put Norway on the wrong track, Wilhelmsen told NTB: “I thinks perhaps it looks like that.”
It’s not easy handling an increasingly authoritarian Russia keen on playing a leading role on the world stage. Wilhelmsen presented a challenge for Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen, who comes from Finnmark in Northern Norway where few forget that the former Soviet Union helped liberate Norway from Nazi German occupiers at the end of World War II: “He must evaluate whether the policies that have been carried out (in recent years) are policies that give Norway the greatest amount of security.”
Norway’s own defense researchers at FFI (Forsvarets forskningsinstitutt) have also questioned what’s happened in recent years, not so long after Russian and NATO troops actually carried out some exercises together. Russian troops went into Crimea and Ukraine, of course, but FFI notes and Russia also launched a major military reform in 2008 and created a professional defense force that outnumbered draftees for the first time in 2014. Russia has also nearly doubled its defense budget in the past 10 years, has invested heavily in new aircraft, submarines, missiles and other military equipment, and engages in more training and for longer periods than it did prior to 2007.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week how FFI thinks that has made Russia more dangerous, as have its moves toward a more authoritarian and less democratic regime and new importance on showing military muscle abroad, as in Syria, and closer to home. The latter has been evident in recent Arctic military exercises and a sharp rise in fighter jet flights buzzing Norwegian territory and south to the UK’s. Russia has also tested its new equipment, military force and, arguably, Western tolerance in Crimea and Ukraine through so-called hybrid warfare.
On the other hand, FFI notes that Northern Norway can’t be compared to Ukraine, since Russia views it as more stable than the situation in the Black Sea or even the Baltic. Russia also remains weaker than the combined forces of NATO. NATO’s European members alone collectively spend five times as much as Russia does on defense, FFI notes, despite the US’ and especially US President Donald Trump’s complaints that Europe isn’t doing its fair share to keep NATO strong.
“Seen from Scandinavia and NATO’s eastern members, Russia still has military superiority in the region, but Russia hardly wants to land in a conflict with the world’s strongest military alliance (NATO),” FFI researcher Kristian Åtland told Aftenposten. Nor has either Russia or the former Soviet Union ever been in conflict with Norway, despite hundreds of years of sharing borders and cultural similarities, especially in the far north.
It’s ultimately up to new Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen to set the tone for Norway’s government, and perhaps that had something do with why Prime Minister Erna Solberg chose a fisherman’s son from Båtsfjord in Finnmark to have political control over the defense ministry. As newspaper Dagsavisen noted this week, Bakke-Jensen grew up near Norway’s border with Russia, and in an area where there’s long been cooperation on trade and even search and rescue issues. Relations with Russia have indeed chilled and Bakke-Jensen is one of Norway’s few defense ministers to have served in the military himself, including being part of UN forces in Lebanon, but he’s literally grounded in a way that’s unique among NATO’s defense ministers.
“I’m from Finnmark (which shares a roughly 90-kilometer long border with Russia, along with the one extending into the Barents Sea) and I’m used to having a dynamic relation with Russia,” Bakke-Jensen told Dagsavisen. “Even though the defense policy cooperation isn’t there any longer, we have continued to have a good people-to-people cooperation. That’s firm.”
He objects, though, to Russia’s claims that the US troops training in Norway have raised tensions. “We listen to what Russia says, but we think they’re wrong,” Bakke-Jensen said, continuing to stress that the US has no permanent troops on Norwegian soil. “We decided when we joined NATO that we wouldn’t have bases with foreign forces and we don’t have them now.” He said he recently had a meeting with the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis “to make sure Mattis understands the distinction between having foreign bases on Norwegian soil and allied exercises. I stressed the importance that our base policy isn’t violated. Mattis said ‘of course’ (he understood).”
Bakke-Jensen added that “if we didn’t tell Russia they’re wrong, we’d be allowing them to steer our policies.” It’s questionable whether he’ll take up Wilhelmsen’s challenge: “We need to show Russia every day that we are able to defend ourselves. When Russian jets buzz our coast, we send our jets up to register them. When Russian submarines pop up in the Barents Sea, we’re there with surveillance aircraft and show them we can identify them. We train with allies to show Russa that NATO is a defense alliance that works.” The great Russian defense debate thus looks likely to continue.