UPDATED: Norwegian fighter jets joined others from NATO allies in responding to Russia’s latest show of force over the North Sea, the North Atlantic and both the Baltic- and Black Sea this week. They tracked and flew up alongside at least 10 Russian bomber jets that were sent out shortly after NATO members’ meeting of foreign ministers last week.
The Russians have also been carrying out major military exercises in the Arctic, involving long-range bomber jets and submarines. A former officer in Russia’s northern fleet told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Russia is reacting to how US bombers allegedly practiced missle attacks on targets within Russian territory.
“We’re back in the Cold War,” Russian military expert Dmitrij Litokvin told NRK. The Russian Navy has also released video of nuclear submarines breaking through the polar ice and surfacing in the Arctic. “What’s happening now is a demonstration of Russia’s strength and possibilities.”
It all started during and just after last week’s NATO meeting in Brussels. First came the video, then what NATO called an “unusual” number of Russian aircraft in the skies over Europe on Monday (March 29). NRK reported that some of the Russian jets spotted are capable of carrying nuclear bombs, but they all stayed in international airspace and over international waters.
At least two of Norway’s older F16 jets were among the NATO allies’ response, flying out to identify the Russian aircraft and follow them while also making their own presence known. There was no immediate explanation from Russian officials for all their activity in the air, but NRK’s correspondent in Moscow noted on national radio Wednesday morning how Russia has earlier viewed the recent presence of new US bomber jets in Norway as a “provocation.” Russia has also complained for years about the increasing presence of US troops and equipment in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, however, it’s been increasing its own presence in the Barents and close to its borders with NATO countries.
Monday’s airborne exercises, which raise the risk of accidents, were another sign of rising tensions between Russia and NATO, an issue that NATO’s Norwegian secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, addressed at last week’s gathering of foreign ministers. It was the first time in more than a year that they met in person, albeit face mask-to-face mask, since the Corona crisis began, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide faced quarantine upon return in order to join in.
‘Revitalizing the alliance’
The main attraction was the opportunity to meet the US’ new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and he followed up on new US President Joe Biden’s claim that “America is back” after four years of the Trump Administration. Blinken called NATO the “cornerstone” of peace, progress and stability in both the US and Europe, and that he was at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels to reinforce the partnership. “We want to revitalize the alliance together with Europe,” Blinken said.
While NATO’s relations with the US are back on track, relations with Russia have dipped to the freezing point. News bureau NTB reported how Stoltenberg claimed in his address that Russia continues to repress and persecute political opposition at home while acting “aggressively” abroad. He accused Russia of attempting to influence foreign governments, of disinformation and propaganda campaigns, alleged hacking attacks and attacks with chemical weapons both in Russia “and on our territory.” Stoltenberg was referring to the attacks on expat Russians abroad and, most recently, on opposition leader Aleksej Navalnyj, while calling for an impartial investigation into Navalnyj’s near-fatal poisoning and for his immediate release from prison. He also noted, however, that NATO will continue to work for better relations with Russia while also dealing with the “difficult relations.”
Søreide and the Norwegian delegation supports all that, telling NTB how “we are NATO’s eyes and ears in the north. Because we’re neighbours, we see the politial and military developments clearly.” She said Norway “can inform NATO about Russian military operations and training patterns and clarify whether something is new or unusual about Russian activity.
“But we can also inform about areas where dialogue is possible. We put a lot of resources into political contact with Russia,” said Søreide, who recently had a lengthy video-meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov.
Søreide, meanwhile, was happy to greet Blinken in person after having “a long and good conversation” earlier this month. She told Norwegian reporters in Brussels that she thinks NATO’s enthusiastic and warm reception for Blinken is tied to how “the Americans are now so strongly emphasizing trans-Atlantic cooperation. And they want to strengthen NATO.”
Søreide always tried to put the best possible spin on US relations during the Trump years, often saying it was more important to distinguish Trump’s tweets on social media from what his administration actually did. She also continued to consistently call the US “our most important ally” and gloss over difficulties.
Now she’s more candid: “After four years of unpredictability and uncertainty,” she told the Norwegian reporters, Blinken’s reassurances “are what the alliance needed to hear.”