NEWS ANALYSIS: Nearly 30,000 soldiers from 24 other NATO countries plus Sweden are in Norway this winter and spring, taking part in what the Norwegian defense department calls the largest Norwegian-led military exercises since the Cold War. Called “Cold Response,” the exercises are more important for Norway than ever, not least since its own defense forces need a major boost of their own.
Stories have been swirling in Norwegian media for weeks now about the poor state of Norway’s own defense. It’s been widely branded as woefully inadequate, despite all the decades of promises to correct the country’s utter lack of preparedness for World War II. Norway fell quickly to invading Nazi German forces on April 9, 1940. That’s never supposed to happen again.
That’s also why Norway was among the founding members of NATO in 1949 and has remained loyal ever since. Norway has long been viewed as NATO’s “eyes and ears” in its northernmost region, also where Norway shares a border to Russia. Norwegian government officials often claim that the goal is to maintain “low tensions in the high north.”
Now, after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war on Ukraine four weeks ago, Norwegian military experts, defense officials, top politicians and media commentators are all regretting how Norway’s own armed forces and military presence in the north were allowed to decline dramatically when the Cold War ended. Russia had become Norway’s friend, and local communities closest to the Russian border in Finnmark were especially keen to cooperate and boost trade with their neighbours to the east. They’d never forfotten that Northern Norway and the pre-Soviet Russia had traded with one another for centuries, or that it was Soviet troops who marched over the border in late 1944 to push out Norway’s Nazi German occupier, and then marched back home to the former Soviet Union again. The Soviets’ liberation of Finnmark continues to be honoured and marked year after year, also after tensions rose following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Meanwhile, major military installations in Northern Norway lost funding after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Defense spending didn’t seem so important anymore. Some large bases were all but closed and troops declined, while Norwegian defense forces went through seemingly endless reorganizations. Intelligence-gathering operations have been greatly boosted, though, thanks largely to US personnel and funding.
The US has also controversially won permission from Norway to set up its own rotating troop presence and installations, from Rygge in the south to Trondheim in the middle of the country and, most recently, at Evenes and in Tromsø in the north. That’s caused no small amount of rumbling in Norway over the past few years, especially since it was viewed by Russia and several left-wing parties in Parliament as defying Norway’s own policy of not allowing foreign military bases in its territory.
Much of that opposition seems to have been forgotten in the months since Putin first started sending his own troops to Russia’s border to Ukraine and then invaded Ukraine. What Putin insists is merely a “special military operation” has already led to all-out war, thousands of casualties, massive destruction and forced millions of Ukrainians to flee. Now even Norway’s Socialist Left Party (SV) is reconsidering its longstanding opposition to NATO membership, and the Reds Party is being harshly criticized for remaining skeptical.
NATO’s “Cold Response” troops are thus now warmly welcome as their various exercises play out in Troms, around Bodø, in Trøndelag and in southeastern Norway. Russian officers were even invited to observe them, as they had in earlier years. They declined the invitation shortly after Putin launched his war on Ukraine.
“I personally believe that those of us who have a mandate to exert violence on behalf of our countries should be open about what we do,” Lt Gen Yngve Odlo, chief of defense operations for Norway, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier this month. “I wish the Russians had taken the time to come and observe. We don’t have much to hide around this.”
The NATO exercises are by no means a reaction to Putin’s recent aggression. They take place regularly and Cold Response was planned long before Putin attacked Ukraine. Odlo acknowledges that they’ve taken on new meaning, though, since the war on Ukraine began: “It’s an important demonstration of allied cooperation and strength, and shows that Norway is part of an alliance and relevant for the alliance.”
Concerns continue that Norway’s own defense was reduced way too much in the 1990s and 2000s, and must be built up again quickly. “Now Norway has to wake up,” claimed former Defense Chief Harald Sunde this week. He’s harshly critical of how defense forces at home declined while Norway joined NATO allies abroad on missions in Afghanistan, for example, and to bomb Libya. Funding for defense presence, equipment and staffing was cut below necessary levels, he argues.
“Now there’s a big war in Europe,” Sunde raged in various media outlets this week. “It’s happening just hours away from us, we can see the horrors of war in all news channels.” Sunde claims Norway doesn’t have time for long bureaucratic process to set new military priorities: “We must have rapid and short processes to obtain the defense material we need.”
His calls for rearming have been echoed by fellow retired defense chiefs, the head of Norway’s civil defense and the head of Norway’s officers’ federation. “We have to fill up our warehouses again,” Torbjørn Bongo of the officers’ group told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) “A lot of the equipment we sent to Ukraine are things we had too little of ourselves.”
Norway has invested heavily in a new fleet of fighter jets, and in various other aircraft. It lost one of only five frigates, though, in an embarrassing collision more than three years ago, and NRK reported on Tuesday that the Navy now lacks enough trained personnel to crew the remaining frigates and other vessels. Naval experts think it’s positive that the state is finally boosting defense funding, after Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre stated in Parliament last week that there will be more money for more sailing, “but we don’t have enough people to sail all the vessels,” Ståle Ulriksen of the naval academy Sjøkrigsskolen told NRK.
There’s been a sudden and predictable burst of political willingness to invest more in defense since Putin launched his war. Støre’s government has already proposed at least NOK 3.5 billion (USD 400 million) in extra funding and has support for that in Parliament. Defense experts like Bongo, however, warn that it can take up to 10 years to rebuild Norway’s military forces. The support, he fears, is coming too late.
Meanwhile, Norway remains dependent on NATO to help if Putin were to invade the Nordic countries like he’s invaded Ukraine. Finland and Sweden are not members of NATO but have warmed up to NATO considerably this winter and Sweden is actively taking part in the Cold Response. Finland, which shares a much longer border with Russia than Norway, had planned to do the same, but withdrew when Putin invaded Ukraine. The risk of provoking him was, it seems, too great.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that if it was up to Norway’s defense forces themselves, they’d opt for immediate replenishment of weapons sent to Ukraine, more military training exercises, preparations for shorter defense reaction time and making sure that systems in place work as expected. Norway also needs more well-trained pilots for its new F35 fighter jets and enough funding to keep them ready to fly.
Others recall the “wish list” delivered by former Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen to the former Conservatives-led government in 2019. He called for a major build-up, only to be disappointed a few months later. New Prime Minister Støre of the Labour Party thinks it’s now “completely realistic that we must strengthen both capacity and endurance” within Norway’s armed forces.
Perhaps Bruun-Hanssen’s wishes may come true after all. When even the left-leaning Norwegian newspapers Klassekampen and Dagsavisen advocate sharp increases in defense and heightened preparedness for crises, there’s reason for optimism among current defense officials. Støre and his government colleagues are already allocating more money for weapons, ammunition, training exercises and personnel in their latest state budget proposals.
That will be welcome, especially after newspaper VG reported this week that several Russian naval vessels sailed out of their home ports on the Kola Peninsula to follow Cold Response action after all. That prompted the Norwegian Navy to boost its presence in the Barents Sea.
“They’ve dispatched both naval vessels and submarines, just like we expected,” Rear Admiral Rune Andersen, who heads the Norwegian Navy, told VG. “They’ve also warned us that they’ll carry out some shooting exercises at sea while allied exercises are carried out along the Norwegian coast. That was also expected. We’ll be closely following it all, to make sure the exercises continue without interruption.” And to help prevent more war from breaking out.