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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Pessimism hovers behind Norway’s ‘historic’ support for Ukraine

NEWS ANALYSIS: Amidst all the outpouring of Norwegian support for Ukraine, and a personal “thank you” from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, there’s been little optimism to find among Members of Parliament or top military officials. Most don’t think Russia will give up its remaining occupied areas and fear the war will grind on indefinitely.

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joining them via video link, the leaders of nine parties in Parliament gave full support last week to the government’s “historic” support package for Ukraine. Called the “Nansen Program” after Norwegian explorer and human rights champion Fridtjof Nansen, it will send NOK 75 billion worth of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine over the next five years. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his own dubious outlook and version of events from Moscow this week, a recent survey of Norwegian MPs on the Parliament’s foreign affairs- and defense committee was sobering indeed. Hardly any think Putin will pull out his troops and few think the Russian forces can be defeated militarily, according to MP responses to questions posed by news bureau NTB.

“Quite unrealistic,” said Marit Arnstad of the Center Party, a veteran in Parliament and a former government minister. Her committee colleague from the Labour Party (Center’s partner in the current government), Åsmund Aukrust, reluctantly agreed but thinks it “will depend on several factors, not least the support Ukraine gets from abroad.”

Support keeps pouring in, a year after Putin invaded Ukraine and threw the entire world into defense-, energy- and economic upheaval. Norway’s Parliament confirmed support last week for the government’s NOK 75 billion aid package to Ukraine over the next five years, the equivalent of an entire year’s defense budget at home. Nine of the 10 parties in Parliament (including the one MP from the special-interest Pasientfokus party) approved the historically huge package, to be split equally between military and civilian aid.

Support was so broad that it will survive any change of government after the next election in 2025. Only the far-left Reds Party bowed out because of reluctance to send weapons, but has been invited to join in if the party changes its mind at its annual national meeting in April. Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized that the extraordinary agreement portrayed “Norwegian politics at its best,” especially since the support will be coordinated with Ukrainian authorities and international partners to be sure it’s put to the best use.

Ukrainian President Volodymur Zelensky called Norway’s aid package “historic” as he took part in the meeting via video link from Kyiv. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Zelensky expressed his appreciation with another “live via video link” appearance at the decisive meeting of the government and party leaders. He called the aid package “historic,” too, and claimed it “will make both of our countries stronger.” He noted that there’s much more mutual confidence between countries like Norway and Ukraine now, “because we are confident that the free world won’t forsake the principles of freedom. We have confidence that Ukraine won’t be standing alone in a meeting with such an enemy … that Europe won’t relinquish any of its territory to the enemy.”

He also specifically noted that Norway has contributed anti-aircraft defense systems to protect Ukrainian cities “from Russian terror, helped us with weapons and artillery.” Norway is also sending eight of its Leopard tanks but hasn’t responded to Ukraine’s request for fighter jets from NATO allies. Ukraine especially wants F16s, and Norway still has some inoperative retired models, but debate continues over how long it would take before Ukrainians could put them back into use, and whether they’d help. Norwegian Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen told Aftenposten last week that he’s “uncertain whether they’d make a big difference.” NATO has earlier turned down Ukraine’s requests for fighter jets, to “avoid World War III.”

Kristoffersen himself stirred controversy over the weekend after he told newspaper Klassekampen that he doesn’t think anyone will win the war in Ukraine. Even as both sides gear up for an offensive, Krisoffersen said he doesn’t think “there’s any military solution to this conflict. At the very least it will take a very long time for one side to win over the other, and it will have terrible consequences for people.”

His remarks stirred more debate in Norway. Former prime minister and current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg believes Ukraine can win the war. MPs like Guri Melby of the Liberal Party note that the goal of all the weapons support is for Ukraine to win. Lt Col Palle Ydstebø at Norway defense college recently told newspaper VG that he thinks Ukraine can win by taking back more areas occupied by Russia, even as it seems to turn its war into an endurance contest.

Called the “Nansen Program,” the Norwegian government’s proposed aid package for Ukraine was signed by the leaders of all parties in Parliament except the Reds, which still objects to sending weapons abroad. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

The mood in the Norwegian Parliament remains cautious, even pessimistic, despite its approval of more aid. “It’s unfortunately improbable that Moscow will go along with Ukraine’s completely legitimate demand that Russia pull out of all of Ukraine, including the illegally annexed areas (Crimea),” MP Ine Eriksen Søreide, a former defense- and foreign minister for the Conservatives, told NTB. Most of the others questioned by NTB said the same, although most refuse to rule out a full Ukrainian victory. As MP Ingrid Fiskaa of the Socialist Left Party (SV) said, “what’s ‘realistic’ (or, presumably, ‘improbable’) can change over time.”

Another recent survey of Norwegians in general indicated that 64 percent think living conditions all over the world will worsen 30 years from now, also in their wealthy homeland. They point to the war, other conflicts and climate change in the survey conducted by research firm Norstat for Norway’s foreign aid and development agency Norad. Only 33 percent think they and their closest family will be better off in 2050 than they are today.

The pessimism caught many by surprise, as did that over the war in Ukraine. Others try to remain optimistic, like Oleksandra Deineko, a sociologist and researcher at Oslo Met and a Ukrainian refugee. Deineko, writing in Aftenposten during the Christmas holidays, cited the sudden and heartfelt support among Ukrainians for their leaders, how nothing unites people like a common enemy, how Ukrainians have supported and cared for one another, and how the war has spawned new unity and solidarity not only within Ukraine but also within NATO, the EU and among democracies around the world.

Commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim, political editor at Aftenposten, followed up: “Putin achieved the exact opposite of what he wanted” from his invasion a year ago that failed to seize Zelensky, the Ukrainian capital or other regions at the outset. “The US and Europe are more coordinated than they have been in years,” he added, while the EU has “surprised itself and others” with its constant energy and ability to  help Ukraine and punish Russia. NATO is also more unified than ever. Norway, meanwhile, has managed to settle record numbers of Ukrainian refugees.

Alstadheim noted that there are bright spots after the past year of war. Landmarks all over Norway will also be lit up in Ukrainian colours on Friday, to mark the first full year of Putin’s war. Most hope there won’t be a second one. Berglund



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