Norwegian and NATO forces claim to be keeping a close eye this week on Russian military forces, which launched some of their largest military exercises yet on Wednesday. The exercises, taking place in four locations off Norway’s northwest coast, are widely viewed as a direct response to all the recent NATO, Norwegian and US military exercises in Norway, as each side provokes the other while claiming to promote stability in the Arctic.
“We register increased training activity by the Russians, at the same time we’re also training more,” acknowledges Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen, who expressed concerns about the Russian exercises earlier this month. Now he seems to be downplaying them, telling newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesaday that he’d received reports that the Russian military was operating in a “professional and predictable” manner, as opposed to their earlier alleged jamming of GPS signals in Finnmark and simulated attacks on Vardø and Bodø in 2017.
“Russia has informed us (of the current exercises) in a proper manner on this occasion,” Bakke-Jensen told Aftenposten.
He repeated, however, that the Russian activity this week is taking place much farther west and south than ever before “and we react to that. We think it’s unnecessary.” He also said that the current exercises are “bigger than we have seen for a very long time. Most of the northern fleet’s vessels are out sailing and we’re seeing increased aircraft departures from (Russia’s) Kola (Peninsula). It looks like Russia is exercising its bastion defense.”
‘Negative spiral of tension’
Norway’s defense ministry also points to increased activity last week, when Russia set up a missile system near the border to Norway. Nine Russian military aircraft also flew along the Norwegian coast the same day, reports Aftenposten, while many Russian vessels sailed along Norway’s coast after an exercise in the Baltic. Norwegian fighter jets, on behalf of NATO, met nine military flights along the coast as well, also within Norway’s economic zone.
The current exercises will involve shooting with live ammunition and firing rockets, to create “realistic” action. Norwegian aviation authorities have warned all civilian pilots to avoid the exercise areas that are located at sea between 55- and 80 nautical miles (roughly 100-150 kilomters) west of Norwegian territory between Mo i Rana and Andøya.
Some analysts claim the Russian military activity is “natural” since the country has undergone some major military reform. “The Russian Navy was down on its knees just 10 to 15 years ago,” Ståle Ulriksen of Norway’s Sjøkrigsskolen told Aftenposten. “They’ve gradually built themselves up again.” New training is thus necessary.
Ulriksen, however, is worried about the current situation: “We’re in a negative spiral of tension, and it’s not just Russia that’s pushing it in a negative direction.” He pointed to NATO’s large Trident Juncture exercise in Norway last year, and how the US sent is large aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S Truman, to the Norwegian Sea.
“You have to remember that the northern areas are of vital importance to Russia,” Ulriksen said. “When an American aircraft carries comes sailing up the coast, they react.”
Julie Wilhelmsen, a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, has also said that all the activity amounts to heckling or teasing the Russians. She also thinks Norway is, to a much greater degree, has been laying the groundwork for more constant US military presence in Norway. “In that way, Norway contributes to a development that the Russians fear,” Wilhelmsen told state broadcaster NRK last week. “They don’t want the Americans any closer to their borders.” NRK noted that Canadian forces are also taking part in monitoring the Russian exercises this week.
Problematic for Norway
No rules are being broken during the current Russian exercises, but commentators note the tensions and exercises are problematic for Norway, not least because of the US presence and Norway’s reliance on it. Norway currently finds itself in an uncomfortable position, after one of its frigates was irreparably damaged in a collision last fall and another has been committed to NATO’s new standing naval force. Aftenposten called Norway’s old Orion surveillance aircraft “worn out,” while Norwegian military personnel are in the process of moving from the naval air station at Andøya to Evenes.
Fewer of Norway’s old F16 fighter jets remain available, while the new F35s meant to replace them aren’t yet fully in force. Even if all five of Norway’s frigates were available, they lack helicopters with effective submarine surveillance equipment. Norway’s sub fleet is also in a renewal process.
This is why the US forces have stepped in and, according to Aftenposten, are carrying out many of the current surveillance operations along the Norwegian coast. The presence of US Poseidon surveillance aircraft, the same type that will replace Norway’s old Orions, also provokes the Russians, while British surveillance aircraft are also flying over the Barents Sea.
Norwegian defense officials claim that’s all “coincidental,” noting that NATO chooses how the Russian activity will be monitored. On Tuesday, a US general told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that no one wants to provoke the Russians, but at the same time they want to make it clear that “we can defend ourselves.” The goal, claims not only Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen but also US General Jeffrey Lee Harrigian, is to keep Arctic waters secure and stable.
Russia’s military exercises are scheduled to continue through August 17.