NEWS ANALYSIS: Former Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg unleashed a torrent of criticism against Russian President Vladimir Putin during her Conservative Party’s national meeting over the weekend. In doing so, she’s joined many other top Norwegian leaders who’ve been feeling dismayed and betrayed after Putin and other top Russian officials have openly lied about their plans and intentions.
Solberg, who has met Putin on several occasions, made it clear that neither the Norwegian government nor any other should ever trust Putin again. His invasion of Ukraine is just the latest, if arguably the most dramatic, example of how he’s shown himself to be a brutal dictator. Solberg led Norway’s government from 2013 until last fall, and now sees a pattern of how he’s said one thing and done another.
“Russia has broken so many international agreements,” Solberg claimed, “and openly committed war crimes on several occasions, most recently in Ukraine. That means we cannot trust promises made by Putin.”
She further warned against thinking that Russia’s northern areas that border on Norway are anything other than “Putin’s Russia,” or that it’s possible any longer for Norway to achieve something more on its own with Russia than together with its allies. The two countries’ “special relationship” no longer exists.
“All contact with Russia must be based on the premise that it’s Putin’s Russia,” she told her party faithful from the podium during their weekend gathering, “and that’s a Russia on which we cannot rely.”
Soul-searching and missing the signs
Solberg, who won government power away from Labour’s Jens Stoltenberg (now secretary general of NATO), mused that both her coalition and those before her’s should have also paid more attention to how Putin had left Chechnya and its capital of Grozny in ruins and under the control of another brutal leader, or when he (Putin) bombed cities in Georgia.
“We should have seen what would come when Putin (allegedly) killed his political opponents at home, and then he began to also (allegedly) kill people who had fled abroad,” Solberg said. “Then he broke disarmament agreements. We (referring to her own government) should have understood (Putin’s real intentions) when he invaded and annexed Crimea, and then he invaded Luhansk and Donetsk, and destroyed Aleppo (in partnership with Syria’s won regime).” All those things occurred during her own two terms at prime minister, even just months after she attended his lavish Winter Olympics in Sochi, and met him once again.
“When we look back,” Solberg said, “we have been much too preoccupied with what we often call ‘moving forward.’ Again and again. We all kept hoping for more positive developments, but that hope has now been crushed.”
Her public soul-searching comes just after Norway’s current foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, has publicly claimed that “Putin has lied to us,” and after Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre vented his own frustration directly at Putin during a telephone conversation last week. When Huitfeldt called Russia’s ambassador to Norway in on the carpet right after Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, she stressed how Russia had earlier claimed it had no intention of invading Ukraine. “I told him (Russia’s ambassador) how that showed itself to be a lie. This meaningless attack is not in the Russia people’s interests.”
She did not expel Russia’s ambassador but a offered him no chance to respond: “There was no conversation. I just passed on Norway’s demand that they withdraw (from Ukraine) and then I left the room. He got the message, but there was no point in continuing a conversation with him.”
It’s not only Putin who’s lost the respect of Norwegian leaders. Støre, Huitfeldt, Solberg and her former foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, are all painfully disappointed in the longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov. Huitfeldt had met him just last fall and Lavrov even made a point of visiting Støre in Oslo shortly after his government took over in October. All of them thought they had a good relations with Lavrov, who visited Norway fairly often. Newspaper Aftenposten wrote last weekend that Lavrov was viewed as “a man of principle” whom could be trusted. Now Lavrov has gone so far as to claim that Russia has not invaded Ukraine.
“It’s so sad,” Støre said recently on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s debate program Debatten. “He has tied himself to something Putin is taking him along on, and it won’t end well.” Støre said he had “professional confidence” in Lavrov, noting how the two had good relations during successful negotiations to finally set border between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea. Both Putin, his deputy Dmitry Medvedev and Lavrov were also happy that Støre’s boss at the time, former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, was eventually named chief of NATO.
Now, Støre said, “it’s another regime with the same people that we’re seeing now. Putin’s grip on power has pulled the regime in that direction. He (Lavrov) is a loyal servant.”
Aftenposten commentator Halvor Hegtun, noting how Putin and Lavrov have “lifted fake news to a new level,” wrote recently that their lies about the war in Ukraine have just become greater and greater. “What has happened with these Russian leaders?” Hegtun wondered. Probably that the 72-year-old Lavrov is indeed simply a servant “who says and does what he’s told to.” There’s good reason for Lavrov and other members of Putin’s staff to be afraid of their boss, a KGB veteran.
‘No direct threat’ to Norway
Another former Norwegian prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, has said that Putin has changed from being “pragmatic and Western-oriented” in the early 2000s, to being authoritarian today. He was never democratically oriented, though, nor a defender of the rule of law, Hegtun noted. That’s what Solberg, Støre and other political leaders all over the world have now realized.
Solberg doesn’t think, though, that Russia will invade Norway over the two countries’ shared border in the north. “We’re not so militarily vulnerable at the moment,” Solberg told NRK after her weekend speech. “There’s no direct threat against us given the situation now, but, in the long term, we must remember that our coast and our harbours give Russia access to the Atlantic. That why Norway’s defense abilities are especially important.”
Most politicians agree that Norway’s membership in NATO’s defense alliance is more important than ever. That’s also been the reason Russia and the former Soviet Union have always treated Norway better and with more respect than other bordering nations, Solberg thinks. Norway’s security lies in NATO’s agreement that an attack on one country is an attack on all. Norway can no longer trust Putin or Lavrov, but can still rely on NATO.