Just as NATO’s Norwegian Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that “we’re in the most dangerous situation since World War II” because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, came news that Norway’s queen had spent her summer holiday paddling along Norway’s border to Russia. Mixed signals perhaps, but both sent important messages.
Stoltenberg was back home in Norway again this week, to address his Norwegian Labour Party’s youth group AUF, as they gathered on the island of Utøya west of Oslo. Such summer gatherings have continued also after the island became the target of a right-wing extremist’s attack on AUF on July 22, 2011, killing 69 people and wounding scores more.
Stoltenberg began by saying that everything he’s learned about politics and leadership began on Utøya, site of AUF’s annual summer camps. He recalled how he’d been strongly opposed to Norway’s membership in NATO in the 1970s, but how he and AUF changed their minds to favour NATO membership in the 1980s.
Now, Stoltenberg told young AUF members, the “brutal reality” is that NATO is more important than ever, “so brutal,” he emphasized, “that we maybe can’t quite comprehend it.” The world changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin resorted to “a massive attack” not just against Russia’s neighour Ukraine but also against what Stoltenberg called “an entire world order.” Principles of freedom and democracy are also under attack, he claimed.
“It’s a long way from Utøya to Ukraine,” he said, but when under attack “we have to stand up together for freedom.”
NATO thus has two main goals: to support Ukraine and to hinder “a full-scale war” between NATO and Russia. “I don’t want to scare you, but we are in the most dangerous situation in Europe since World War II,” Stoltenberg told his young Labour Party audience.
He stressed how he’s spent time every summer since 1974 on the island of Utøya, and how AUF’s acceptance of NATO in 1986 acknowledged how it was better to work from within the alliance than outside of it. And how NATO’s mission is not to provoke war but to prevent it and preserve peace.
That’s not easy after Putin “has attacked an entire innocent country and people, with military force, to achieve his political goals,” Stoltenberg said. “What he’s really doing is challenging the world order we believe in, where all countries large and small can choose their own path. He does not accept the sovereignty of other countries.”
‘Moral responsibility’ to support Ukraine
Stoltenberg claimed the war was triggered by Putin’s demand for Russian control over Ukraine, and his demand that NATO should not be further enlarged. “He does not respect Urkaine’s desire to become part of our community,” Stoltenberg said, “or other country’s sovereign decisions to apply for NATO membership.”
NATO thus has the “two tasks” of supporting Ukraine and warding off an even bigger war that would affect every citizen of all countries involved. While NATO has a “moral responsibility” to support Ukraine, it’s also in NATO member countries’ own interests, Stoltenberg said. “If Putin wins this war, he will have confirmation that violence works,” Stoltenberg said. “Then other neighbouring countries may be next.” That could include Norway.
“We pay a price for our support for Ukraine, for our military, humanitarian and financial support,” he added, while stressing that while that’s mostly now in terms of money, “the price Ukraine pays is measured in human lives, hundreds killed or wounded every day.”
NATO is not entering Ukraine with troops but showing “that any attack on a NATO country will trigger a response from all of NATO.” That’s why NATO is increasing its presence in the east, with around 40,000 troops under NATO command now in place along the Russian border.
Meanwhile, Norway’s Queen Sonja has been in the border area this week on summer vacation. She met reporters in Norway’s northernmost region of Finnmark on Wednesday to talk about her private summer holiday in the area that shares a border with Russia. The monarchy isn’t supposed to meddle in poiitics, but the queen made it known she chose to spend time in an area that many cruiseship- and other tour operators have avoided this summer.
After sharing more good memories from her trip that began in Lakselv and ended in the border area of Pasvik, she revealed that she’d even paddled in the Pasvik River, through which the border to Russia runs. Her paddling adventure ran from Nyrud in the southeast to Noatun.
“The nature and the history of Pasvik is fascinating,” the now-85-year-old Queen Sonja told reporters. “It’s been a great experience for me to be here.”
She certainly wasn’t scared off by the Russian aggression in another of its neighbouring countries far to the south (Ukraine) and wasn’t about to let it deter her. Asked whether she had any reflections about how she paddled in a river that forms Norway’s border to Russia, she said “the river is a tie you must have, and that we have had in time immemorial.” She wasn’t worried about drifting into the wrong side of the Norwegian-Russian border.
Finnmark, which had benefited by years of cooperation between Russia and Norway, especially after the Soviet Union collaspsed, has suffered recently during both the Corona crisis and then the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last winter. Tourism has withered as has the cross-border cooperation built up during the past 30 years. The queen clearly wanted to show her support for and interest in the area.
“You get a bit closer to your soul in Finnmark,” she said. “it’s very exciting to see how people live here.” She spent much of her time cycling, fishing and picking multer (cloudberries growing in northern marshlands). Local officials were glad she came.
“It’s a fine way of marking how she spent time in the Pasvik Valley,” former mayor of the area, Rune Rafaelsen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He called Russia a “complicated neighbour,” but feels strongly that Finnmark and its eastern region of Sør-Varanger are “the most interesting in Norway.” He’s glad the entire royal family often spends time in the area.
The queen traveled on the royal yacht Norge, and visited the Porsanger Fjord, Tana, Polmak, Smalfjorden, Bugøynes, Vardø and Hamningberg in addition to Pasvik.