NEWS ANALYSIS/UPDATED: New security controls at Oslo’s City Hall, armed police on the 17th of May, planned installation of upgraded radar defense and the world’s largest warship anchored off Oslo just before NATO gathers its foreign ministers in Oslo: It all shows how Norway, often accused of being naive, is waking up after decades of post-Cold War peace and prosperity to the threats it’s now constantly being warned about.
“Much of what’s been taken for granted over the past 30 years is undergoing fundamental change,” wrote commentator Sverre Strandhagen in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) earlier this spring. He was noting how a government commission set up to examine Norway’s own defense systems has warned that Norway’s overall “crisis understanding” must rise both within the government and the population in general.
Many think Norwegians simply “aren’t scared enough” as they plan for summer holidays and carry on as usual. The sight of the huge USS Gerald R Ford cruising up the Oslo Fjord last week, however, made more think about why the vessel was making such an unusual port call. “It’s a reminder that the world is a scary place in 2023,” wrote commentator Jo Moen Bredeveien in newspaper Dagsavisen.
Both Norwegian and US officials described the visit as good news, stressing how it was meant to symbolize support from US defense forces and other NATO allies and that Norway with just 5.5 million inhabitants isn’t alone in defending itself. Bredeveien thinks the aircraft carrier’s visit also confirms “that our special relationship to Russia is over.” Norway and Russia have always been neighbours, sharing a border in the far north and mostly getting along in areas of trade, search and rescue, and fishing regulations. The former Soviet Union’s Red Army will forever be remembered for liberating Norway’s northern region of Finnmark from Nazi German occupiers in late 1944, and cooperation continued even during the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and his war that’s still dragging on, ruined further cooperation. Now the situation is so tense that even one of the biggest employers in the Finnmark city of Kirkenes, only a few kilometers away from the Russian border, faced being shut down, throwing around 80 people out of work.
Kirkenes’ Kimek shipyard has long specialized in repairing and maintaining Russian fishing vessels along with others in the area. Kimek had initially received dispensation from sanctions against Russian firms, but Norway’s Foreign Ministry changed its mind: On May 12 the ministry announced that all work on Russian vessels was now prohibited, apart from emergency repairs. Kimek later won yet another reprieve, to finish work on two Russian vessels already in for repairs, but even union leaders said it would only buy more time for the shipyard. “We have to restructure and find other legs to stand on,” one union leader to local newspaper iTroms og Finnmark.
(See The Barents Observer’s story here, external link)
The sudden moves mark how Kirkenes and the shipyard are falling victim to sanctions against Russia, and some apparent violations that the ministry had to report to Norway’s police intelligence agency PST. Kimek’s management told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that they can only assume their dispensation will end, and that they’ve been among the 20 cases of possible violations.
It’s a huge blow to Kirkenes and the entire surrounding area, which arguably is suffering the consequences of Putin’s invasion more than any other area of Norway. Government officials, especially from the Labour Party that’s long supported Kirkenes and keen to keep it populated, don’t want to see Kimek shut down.
Meanwhile, much farther south in Oslo, new security systems were set up around the Oslo City Hall, site of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony every December. It’s also a popular tourist attraction, because of its murals and other artwork, and people have always been allowed to freely enter. Not any more: As of last Monday, visitors will need to go through the same sorts of security as they do at airports.
“The decision (to screen all visitors) is based on recommendations from a risk- and vulnerability analysis,” Marit Jansen of the City Hall’s management, told Dagsavisen. She noted that some security controls have earlier been set up during the summer tourist months, “and they uncovered some items that are not in line with a visit to City Hall.” The controls were never permanent, though.
The new security system was set up more than a week before the foreign ministers of all NATO member countries arrive in Oslo for a meeting that will be held inside the City Hall. Security is always high around such events, with this one also cordoning off vast areas of the waterfront City Hall Plaza (Rådhusplassen) that extends from Aker Brygge to the Akershus Fortress and Castle. The meeting that will attract 250 delegates will also close several streets, divert trams that usually run over the plaza and result in lots of police and security officers in the area.
Norway’s usually unarmed police have also been carrying weapons much more often lately. They were also armed nationwide on the country’s otherwise festive national day celebrations on the 17th of May, prompting assurances to the public that there had been no change in the overall threat situation.
“We simply see the advantage of rapid response on a day when so many people gather,” Tone Vangen, in charge of preparedness at the state police directorate, told news bureau NTB. “The police want it to be a fun festive day when folks can gather as they always do.” Spectators and local officials didn’t seem to mind, especially when police in Bergen who escorted the major parades there also decorated their motorcycles with ribbons and birch leaves.
“It’s not problematic,” Eva Lockertsen Stenvold of the 17th of May Committee in Tromsø told NTB. She thinks Norwegians now understand the new need for police to carry arms in Norway.
New radar systems are also being set up around Norway, including one specializing in quickly separating birds from drones and one on a hilltop in the forest of Krokskogen, a popular recreation area northwest of Oslo. Improved anti-aircraft systems are also planned around the Oslo area itself.
It’s all signs that authorities seem to be taking security threats more seriously, not least after the head of Norway’s national security agency NSM was the latest to point out serious flaws and weaknesses earlier this month. “A crisis can hit us tomorrow,” Sofie Nystrøm warned when presenting NSM’s advice to the government. She’s especially concerned about potential sabotage, terror and espionage directed at Norway.
“Those of us living here must learn more about technology and national security,” Nystrøm said. China and Russia were once again singled out as posing the biggest threats, as Russia is believed to be actively recruiting spies in Norway and China is reportedly developing cyber weapons that can take control of satellites. NSM specifically pointed to a lack of charting and securing critical infrastructure in Norway, along with inadequate abiity to reveal and address major cyber threats.
Newspaper Aftenposten equated NSM’s report to a call for national mobilization of community- and cyber security. NSM thinks Norwegians need to better understand and digest the threat potential. “We must wake up,” Nystrøm told NRK. “Our own personal preparedness is more than stocking up on water and canned food, it’s also on the digital platform. We have lived in such a safe country that I think very many people lean on an idea that ‘the authorities will take care of us.’ That’s both very nice, but also dangerous.”
Nystrøm stressed how quickly things have changed just in the past year: “Drones, allegations of spying, possible sabotage offshore and the war in Ukraine all mark the fundamental change. We can’t just plan for an incident, we must plan for the worst-case scenario.” She also stressed how countries like China and Russia want a different world order that’s at odds with Norwegian values.
NSM is calling for, among other things, a more unified security strategy, making more classified information available to the public, establishment of a civilian and military situation center, better protection of important infrastructure including communication and power sources.
Bergens Tidende reports that Norway’s miitary intelligence agency (E-tjenesten) has already received permission from Parliament to subject almost all data traffic in Norway to surveillance and storage. That has unnerved critics, including press organizations who fear it will be harder to protect sources and regulators who think it’s too pervasive. Parliament, however, claims rights to a private life will be upheld.
Commentator Bredeveien in Dagsavisen wrote that he didn’t fully share the public enthusiasm over the presence of the US aircraft carrier in Oslo this week. Norway’s membership in NATO “gives us some security in our unstable world,” but the warship’s visit made him “first and foremost, worried, maybe even scared.”
According to Nystrøm, that may be a good thing.