NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the opposition in Parliament, could agree on at least one thing on Wednesday: Russian cyber attacks on Members of Parliament and its employees mark a serious “downturn” in relations with Norway. Tensions had already been rising, prompting Norway to step up defense efforts in the north where the two countries share a border.
“Relations between Norway and Russia have upturns and downturns,” Støre told state broadcaster NRK on his way into the new session of Parliament’s first “question time” with the government on Wednesday. “This is a downturn.”
Nor does it stimulate any close cooperation, Støre noted after Solberg’s foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, publicly announced for the first time that Russia was behind the hacking of email accounts at the Parliament that was discovered in August.
“That kind of behaviour in violation of Norwegian law does not stimulate cooperation between Norway and Russia,” said Støre, a former foreign minister himself at a time when Russia and Norway had much more friendly relations, had settled some border disputes and even engaged in some joint military exercises. That was before Russia, under the firm grip of Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea, intervened in Ukraine and routinely has been accused of interfering in democratic elections in other countries, not least the US.
‘Rogue state’ with a ‘sinking’ reputation
Now it seems like a new Cold War is getting even colder after years of ominous signals and power plays from Putin. “Russia has become a rogue state,” veteran MP Michael Tetzschner of the Conservatives told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “Putin’s regime is in the process of leaving a trail of blood and poison behind him that’s not worthy of a civilized state.”
Those are tough words but reaction from Norwegian MPs was unusually strong after Norwegian intelligence and cyber defense agencies tied the recent hacking at the Parliament to Russia. Tetzschner, who represents the government on the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, is upset not only by the recent alleged hacking but also a pattern of such attacks against other allied countries and “armed efforts to change post-war borders. This is very serious.” Tetzschner added that Russia’s international reputation is steadily sinking, not least after the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksej Navalnyj.
There’s been a string of other incidents, too, from alleged Russian jamming of GPS signals in Finnmark that have affected civilian aircraft to other jamming of networks in connection with NATO exercises in Northern Norway. There have been embarrassing cases of spying on both sides, numerous incidents of Russian fighter jets buzzing the Norwegian coast and constant rumbling about military build-ups. There also have been reports of Russian submarines allegedly entering Norwegian waters and even some fjords. Russia itself has called its relations with Norway “unsatisfactory.”
Solberg insisted that relations with Russia remain important, “but it’s also important that Norway is clear when we experience that mistakes have been made by other countries,” she said while heading into Parliament on Wednesday.
More defense build-up
Her comments come less than a week after her defense minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, presented a defense budget aimed at rebuilding defense forces in Northern Norway that were dismantled when the Cold War was thought to have ended when the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s. Now the regions of Porsanger and Sør-Varanger (the latter of which is located along Norway’s border to Russia) will be getting new investments in army personnel, buildings and material.
Evenes, farther to the west, is being allocated NOK 1.3 billion for a new air base for fighter jets and surveillance aircraft. Military intelligence agency E-tjenesten will be strengthened in both Vadsø and Vardø where there’s long been enormous radar installations and allied listening posts, to the degree that Vardø residents have complained of feeling like their town is not only on the first line of defense but a target of the Russians as well.
“We’re going to building up a lot in Finnmark,” Bakke-Jensen told newspaper Klassekampen last week, just ahead of presentation later this week of the defense department’s latest version of its long-term plan. “We don’t know what the next crisis will involve, and we’re living with a complex picture of potential threats.”
Bakke-Jensen also recently signed a new defense cooperation agreement between Norway, Finland and Sweden (which is not a member of NATO) to strengthen defense in the northern areas. A meeting of the three ministers was held at Porsangmoen in Finnmark, with Sweden’s defense minister calling it “a signal to Russia.” Bakke-Jensen said the three had “arrived at a mutual acknowledgment that the next crisis won’t just affect one country but all three Nordic countries. Then it’s important that we’re able to cooperate at many levels.” The three countries already work together through the NORDEFCO alliance that also includes Denmark and Iceland.
Fighting ‘disinformation,’ too
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported extensively this month on how top defense officials also think Norway is being subjected to massive campaigns from abroad aimed at influencing public opinion. They think the “disinformation” campaigns are coming from both Russia and China, not least during the current Corona crisis. In one case, Norwegian authorities discovered in April that several Russian-language websites were spreading reports that Norway and Sweden were responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, and that instructors from NATO countries were training and offering guidance to Ukrainian military forces.
“That was a concrete example of disinformation directed at Norway,” Trude Måseide, director of communications at Norway’s foreign ministry, told DN. In another case, reported by newspaper VG in late September, false cloned versions of a website for the digital “Army Summit 2020” organized by the Norwegian Army and a civilian organization tried to take the event hostage. “Someone was trying to undermine our credibility,” Major Erik Skomedal, a spokesman for the Army, told VG.
Russian officials are quick to fend off all accusations of hacking, disinformation or other alleged interference in Norwegian affairs. The stories in DN and quotes from Norwegian defense officials were branded as “new attempts at propaganda to demonize Russia.” Russia’s ambassador to Norway, Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishvili, also suggested they represented a “seasonal worsening” of the portrayal of Norwegian-Russian relations just in time for the political negotiations over the state budget for next year. He warned that such reports were “extremely destructive” for relations between Russia and Norway.
Locals want to remain ‘good neighbours’
Residents of Finnmark, which lies closest to the Russian border, have long stressed the need to be “good neighbours” with Russia, especially in the northern areas. The Labour Party has also championed good relations, and it was during the government term of now-NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that Norway and Russia agreed on a border in the Barents Sea 10 years ago, and relaxed border restrictions at the crossing east of Kirkenes.
“Good relations create peace,” claimed Labour MP Espen Barth Eide, another former foreign minister, just last month. He was criticizing Solberg’s government at the time for not maintaining a good dialogue with Russia, claiming that “relations with Russia are an underestimated portion of Norwegian foreign policy.”
That seemed to change this week with the revelations of Russia’s alleged hacking of email accounts that could include his own. DN reported, meanwhile, that officials at the Parliament fear personal information has been compromised and both MPs and employees may be set up as targets of extortion.
Plea for peace from the past
Both sides might do well to listen to the 103-year-old Mikhail Vasiljevitsj Podgurskij, one of the last surviving members of Russian forces that stormed over their northern border to Norway in the fall of 1944 to push out Hitler’s Nazi German occupying forces. That led to the liberation of Finnmark, with the Russians later pulling out again themselves.
Podgurskij was recently honoured at the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow for his contribution to the liberation of Eastern Finnmark. Aftenposten reported how Russians and Norwegians present at the ceremony all listened when he spoke with a message to both his own Russian President Putin and Prime Minister Solberg. The war veteran urged continuation of the post-Cold War cooperation that had begun before Putin rose to power and has since stalled under Putin’s leadership.
“Now I’m worried there will be a new war,” Podgurskij said. “The world must learn how we can live peacefully together. Norway and Russia have shared a difficult past. Now we must continue our cooperation.”