Norwegian politicians from the ruling Conservative Party are offering different versions of why the US is suddenly using a base in Northern Norway for surveillance flights in the Arctic. Russian officials, meanwhile, have called build-ups of US troops and military equipment elsewhere in Norway “clearly unfriendly,” and threatened that it won’t occur “without consequences.”
Announcements this week that Norway not only was allowing but had asked the US to double its number of troops training on a rotation basis at Værnes and Setermoen have clearly irked the Russians. The Russian Embassy in Oslo has issued an indignant response, while Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry in Moscow claimed the heightened US military presence on Norwegian soil “undermines” Russia’s relations with its neighbouring Norway.
The US defense department also plans to invest in and use Norway’s Rygge air base near Moss in Southern Norway, while four US surveillance aircraft have landed at the Andøya air base in Northern Norway that was slated for closure. Confusion reigned after a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives stated that the US flights helped offset Norway’s own lack of surveillance capacity, while the Conservatives’ defense minister claimed the two issues were unrelated.
The Russian Embassy in Oslo claimed it didn’t matter whether the larger US troop military presence occurred “at Værnes in Central Norway, at Rygge in Southern Norway or at Setermoen in Northern Norway – such steps awaken serious concern with us.”
A Russian statement published late Thursday night claimed the near doubling of US Marines at Norwegian bases at Værnes and Setermoen was “at odds” with Norway’s resolution from 1949 against opening bases in its terrority to foreign forces as long as Norway is not under attack or under threat of attack. The Norwegian government’s decision to do so now “makes Norway not completely predictable, can raise tensions, press forward an arms race and lead to destablizing the situation in Northern Europe,” according to the Russians.
Russian officials aren’t buying Norwegian insistence that since the US troops are placed on a rotation basis, they can’t be viewed as actually being based in Norway. “Even though concrete people are swapped, the presence (of US forces) is ongoing,” claimed the Russians in their statement.
The Russians also expressed concern over how the US is pressuring Norway to further boost its defense budget. They think Norway is already spending too much on defense in relation to its fellow NATO allies, while Russia has cut its own defense spending the past two years, albeit after huge increases in earlier years.
Confusion over Andøya
The Russian reaction was not unpredictable, especially after several opposition politicians in the Norwegian Parliament complained about the US troop expansion and expressed fears it would provoke Russian officials. Several Norwegian politicians are also upset over what’s happening at the Andøya air station.
Questions were swirling Friday after a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party had a different explanation for why the US has landed four surveillance surveillance aircraft at Andøya, at a time when Norway’s own surveillance fleet is under pressure and being controversially moved from Andøya. MP Hårek Elvenes wrote on the website Nordnorskdebatt.no that “the Americans were stepping in with surveillance aircraft to strengthen surveillance capacity” while Norway waits for new surveillance aircraft of its own. Norway has ordered five of the Poseidon aircraft the US uses, with delivery in 2022.
Elvenes added that Norway’s surveillance capacity “is not as good as it should be,” adding that it was “not unnatural” for a Norwegian ally (like the US) “to support our capacity.”
Letting ‘the cat out of the bag’
Newspaper Aftenposten noted how Elvenes’ comments were at odds with those made by his own party colleague, Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen, who had claimed earlier in the week that the presence of US surveillance aircraft at Andøya had nothing to do with the controversial reduction of Norway’s own surveillance activity at the base. Bakke-Jensen had told Aftenposten that Norway’s own Orion surveillance aircraft “handled their assignment well enough and will in the time ahead.”
Elvenes, meanwhile, told Aftenposten that “the fact is that the American surveillance aircraft increase surveillance capacity that Norway needs and appreciates, in an unstable security situation.”
That “let the cat out of the bag,” responded MP Liv Signe Navarsete of the opposition Center Party, which has been fighting to keep Andøya open and staffed in order to secure jobs in an outlying community that relies on a military presence. She now thinks the four US surveillance aircraft that are using Andøya are likely to remain there, not least since Norway’s own new Poseidon aircraft won’t be fully operable for several more years.
Bakke-Jensen responded only that “the allied aircraft flying from Andøya aren’t flying instead of, but in addition to our own aircraft.” He referred to the new US presence at Andøya as a “normal” situation between allies that’s existed for decades, and simply part of allies’ military cooperation.