Officials at the Russian Embassy in Oslo are none too pleased that Norway’s defense chief, Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, thinks Russia is getting “far more assertive.” After first declining comment, they’re now accusing Bruun-Hanssen of being behind a “primitive, anti-Russian propaganda machine.”
In special summer radio interview aired nationwide on Thursday by state broadcaster NRK, Bruun-Hanssen was questioned on a wide range of topics, from whether he thinks it’s appropriate for men to wear shorts to work during the recent heat wave (he could demur over the military’s use for uniforms) to how much holiday he’s taking this year (three weeks).
It was the portion of the interview about what worries him the most that sparked Russia’s reaction: “The situation with Russia in recent years lands as number one,” Bruun-Hanssen said on the NRK radio program. He went on to note how Russia has become “far more assertive” and “chosen to use military force to attain political goals.” He referred specifically to Russia’s response to Georgia in 2008, to its disputed annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, and to its use of military force to support the Assad regime in Syria.”
Norway trying ‘to scare their own citizens’
Russia decided to shoot back Friday evening. Its embassy in Oslo published an angry statement on social media, claiming that “we evaluate these unorginal remarks as a new example of the work of a primitive but also well-established anti-Russian propaganda machine in Norway.”
The embassy’s lengthy statement questioned whether anyone really wants “a weak and uncertain Russia,” and suggested that Norwegian authorities are only trying to “scare their own citizens, to justify violations of Norway’s own policies regarding its military bases.”
That’s been an especially sore point with the Russians over the past two years, since Norwegian leaders began allowing US military personnel to be stationed at bases near Trondheim and, eventually, in Northern Norway. The US Marines are placed on a rotating basis, but actual US presence is currently continual and in the process of expanding. Norway has opened up for placement of US military not only at Værnes in Trondheim and training with Norwegians in Northern Norway, but also at the Andøya air station north of Lofoten and at Rygge in southeastern Norway, where US aircraft is being placed as well.
The US presence is also controversial in Norway, and Russia has complained about it before. In another complaint last year, the Russian Embassy claimed it was dissatisfied with its Norwegian relations. Bruun-Hanssen’s most recent remarks unleashed the new torrent, with the Russians claiming that they could only feel sorry “for the good and sometimes naive Norwegian population.”
The Russian Embassy also claimed that Bruun-Hanssen rather should have informed the Norwegian people “in more detail” about “the consequences” of NATO allies’ attacks on people in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Norway’s participation in them. Russia pointed to how a “humanitarian super power” and “peace nation” like Norway could go along with NATO bombings of Serbia, for example, and Libya. Russia also wants to know why Norway “specialists” have been training Syrian insurgents and why Norway is sending troops to serve in what US President Donald Trump recently referred to as a “battle group” in Lithuania placed along the border to Russia.
The Russians also referred to Norway’s “fiascos” tied to its own activities “against Russia.” The embassy did not go into detail but seemed to be referring to the December arrest in Moscow of retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg, who remains jailed on espionage charges. Berg has claimed he was duped into being a courier by Norwegian intelligence. Norway’s government, intelligence and defense officials have all refused comment, with the foreign ministry saying only that it is providing consular assistance to Berg in prison.
“It is a paradoxical fact that Norway fights extremism and racism at home, while encouraging nationalistic if not facist political forces in other countries, which in the end contribute to the creation of new, inexperienced states, for example, in the post-Soviet area,” the embassy wrote. It claimed Russia was ready to take part in “serious” talks with Norway, noting that “our two countries are neighbours,” while Norway “tries every time to hide either behind NATO or something else.”
The embassy accused Norway’s current conservative coalition government of “consciously undermining the relations that previous generations have carefully built up,” ending its written tirade on an ominous note: “We want Norwegians to know – confrontation is not Russia’s choice.”
NRK reported Friday night that the Norwegian defense department was aware of Russia’s reaction, but that Bruun-Hanssen didn’t want to comment on it. Russia’s written assault on Norway and Bruun-Hanssen comes just days before Norway takes part in the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels. It’s already expected to be tense, because of accusations by Trump that Norway and other NATO members are too slow in meeting previously agreed defense spending goals.