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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Winds of war blow over Norway

NEWS ANALYSIS: Questions are flying in Norway over an issue that seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago: Whether Norway is, or should be, prepared for war on its own home turf. Most agree Norway needs to rapidly rebuild its own defense, which lost stature and funding when politicians in charge thought the Cold War was over.

Winter military exercises like here in Northern Norway have taken on new meaning since Russia invaded Ukraine. Now Norway is under pressure to rebuild its own defense after years of cutbacks. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Helene Sofie Thorkildsen

Russian President Vladimir Putin literally shot down hopes for good relations with neighbours like Norway when he ordered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Now war is also raging in Gaza, tensions keep rising with Iran and Yemen, and warnings have again been issued about China. Just a week after Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide met with Chinese officials in Beijing, Norway’s domestic intelligence agency PST warns that both Russia and China pose the biggest threats to Norwegian security.

PST even told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it suspects China of using civilian vessels as spy ships in Norwegian waters, and engaging in espionage on the Norwegian mainland. China’s embassy in Oslo has since denied the allegations, claiming that Norwegian intelligence officials are stirring up “unnecessary” conflicts and “stigmatizing normal cooperation and exchanges between China and Norway.”

There’s no doubt the biggest threat remains Putin, his ongoing war on Ukraine and whether it will expand. “A third world war may already have started,” read one of many ominous headlines in Norwegian newspapers over the past few weeks, that one in the country’s so-called “newspaper of record,” Aftenposten. It referred to General Patrick Sanders, chief of the British Army, who recently noted that the world must not forget the history of how World Wars I and II began, particularly Hitler’s annexations followed by invasions of European countries.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Ukraine in November 2014, after Russia’s contested annexation of Crimea. Sanctions and condemnation, however, weren’t enough to stop Putin from later launching his full-scale invasion in 2022. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian politics and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014 preceded his invasion, too. That’s brought up painful reminders of how Norway was woefully unprepared for Hitler’s invasion in April 1940, and concerns that perhaps Norway didn’t react strongly enough to Putin in 2014 and now may be vulnerable again, despite its membership in NATO.

Aftenposten commentator Frank Rossavik also notes other current parallels to how the world wars began: “The West” and not least Norway itself are supporting Ukraine, while China is supporting Russia’s economy and Russia is getting supplies and other support from Iran and North Korea.

It was neighbouring Sweden’s defense chief, however, who made the biggest impression on Norwegians and their politicians when he told his fellow Swedes last month that “we must understand how serious the situation really is (after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and that we, down to the individual level, must mentally prepare ourselves.” He urged Swedes to prepare for “real military danger,” and to stock up on adequate household supplies. “Look at the news coming from Ukraine,” Swedish defense chief Micael Bydén said, “and ask yourself, ‘if that happens here, do I have everything I need?'”

Norwegian officials in charge of national preparedness have earlier urged much the same, but that was based more on threats posed by the pandemic or even extreme weather. Now the message is, according to Sweden’s head of civil defense Carl-Oskar Bohlin, that “there can be war in Europe.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Sweden to finally seek membership in NATO itself, after a history of neutrality.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (center) has been more outspoken about the prospects for war in the Nordic region than Norwegian leaders have. He’s shown here during a meeting in Oslo in December with other Nordic prime ministers, from left: Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Kristersson, Finland’s president at the time Sauli Niinistö and Norway’s Jonas Gahr Støre. PHOTO: Heiko Junge/NTB/Statsministerens kontor

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has also sounded an alarm. “My impression is that we aren’t used to thinking that this is genuinely bloody serious,” Kristersson said last month during a defense conference in Sälen, just across Norway’s eastern border to Sweden and coincidentally where Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha fled with her royal children in April 1940 when Nazi Germany invaded Norway. Newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that Kristersson thinks Swedes’ willingness to defend themselves is high, and even stronger after Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, he thinks, the time has come “to speak out loud” about what will be expected of them all in the event of war.

All this, coming not long after sightings of Russian spy satellites in the skies over Northern Norway and Svalbard during the Christmas holidays, has sparked new debate in Norway over the state of national defense preparedness for possible war. Important weapons, air defense systems and other military hardware meant to protect Norwegian cities and replace those donated to Ukraine still hadn’t been ordered by the end of last year.

NASAMS being fired during a NATO exercise in Norway earlier this year. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Martin Mellquist

Several of Norway’s well-regarded NASAMS surface-to-air missile systems were sent to Ukraine along with tanks, ammunition and other equipment that also hasn’t been replaced. Questions rose over whether Norway has given away too much, and weakened its own defense capability at the same time.

“Yes,” assistant professor Lars Peder Haga at Norway’s military college Luftkrigsskolen told Aftenposten, “we have weakened our own preparedness” by taking “a calculated risk that may last a few years.” He quickly noted, however, that “it’s worth it, because Ukraine needs all the support it can get against Russian aggression.” Especially now, when its military supplies are running low and US officials keep quarreling over whether to fund more support for Ukraine or bolster their own border to Mexico instead.

Norway’s own defense chief, General Eirik Kristoffersen, confirms that Norway took the chance of “a bit less defense preparedness” at home in return for giving as much ammunition as possible to Ukraine. Kristoffersen has said he thinks it will take a few more years before Russia would be in a position to invade other neighbours, with newspaper Klassekampen reporting “therefore we dared to give away so much of our ammunition.”

Lots more has since been almost ceremoniously ordered from Norwegian company Nammo by the Norwegian government, with both Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram inviting reporters along when they personally paid a visit to Nammo in Raufoss and announced large new orders. Production of artillery for Ukraine will also increase five-fold.

Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram (left) and Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre invited reporters along when they visited arms producer Nammo in Raufoss last month. They finally cleared the way for a major boost in artillery production. Gram, meanwhile, has acknowledged that “we must take more responsibility for our own security.” PHOTO: Forsvaret

Norwegians have noted how Germany’s defense minister Boris Pistorius, meanwhile, has also urged Europe to prepare for a “full conflict” with Russian “towards the end of the decade.” He warns that Putin hasn’t only invaded Ukraine but also threatened Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, even though all are members of NATO. Moldova and Georgia have also been mentioned as possible Putin targets. Norway, in a show of support for Moldova, announced last week that it was opening a new embassy office in Moldova’s capital.

Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, head of the intelligence-gathering college Etterretningsskolen, is among those stressing, though, that helping Ukraine “isn’t enough to take care of our own security.” She recently wrote in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “such clear communication” from the Swedish defense officials is unusual and thus noteworthy in the Nordic region. “Even though our Finnish neighbours have a higher degree of preparedeness and mentality for defense than many of us others, it’s not normal for moderate Nordic politicians to talk about war in our peaceful region,” Bruusgaard wrote.

Several opposition party leaders in Parliament think Prime Minister Støre should also start doing so. Leading the pack against those criticizing Støre for declining to speak openly about the prospects for war on Norwegian territory has been Guri Melby, leader of the non-socialist Liberal Party (Venstre) that previously shared government party with Norway’s Conservatives.

“I wish Jonas Gahr Støre would take a clear role in this like we see Sweden’s prime minister has done,” Melby told Aftenposten. She acknowledged a “delicate balance” between unnecessarily frightening people and making sure they’re prepared for war, “but I think it’s possible. I think lots of Norwegians want a clear message about what they should do to be best prepared.”

Liberal Party leader Guri Melby, shown here greeting Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky along with other Members of Parliament during his visit to Norway in December, wants more “clear” communication from the government regarding the threat of war in Norway. PHOTO: Stortinget/Linda Næsfeldt

Melby was later joined by Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the conservative Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet). She is now harshly criticizing Støre for not clearly addressing the issue or speaking openly about the possibility of a new war in Norway. Listhaug, a former justice minister, thinks it’s worth tapping into Norway’s Oil Fund (its huge sovereign wealth fund fueled by oil revenues over the years) to help rebuild Norwegian defense at home, and finally bring Norway’s annual defense budget up to the level agree by NATO countries more than a decade ago: 2 percent of gross national product. The government predicts it will meet that in 2026, if not before.

“There’s all reason to fear a new major war,” Listhaug told state broadcaster NRK last week. She worries how “authoritarian regimes” are spreading, calls Putin a “despot” and compares him to both Hitler and Stalin. “He’s sending thousands of his own people to their deaths,” Listhaug said, adding that she and her party support aid to Ukraine “wholeheartedly,” claiming it’s important for Norway’s security, too.

Støre agrees with that, but claims such talk about possible war in Norway is “irresponsible.” He criticized Melby, Listhaug and other critics, claiming on NRK’s morning radio talk show Politisk kvarter last week that “they talk about war like it’s just around the corner,” and adding that their choice of language “must be in proportion” to the actual threat that he does not believe is imminent. He worries that the consequences of such language can be that Norwegians become “unnecessarily scared.”

Asked whether he thinks the Finnish and Swedish leaders are being “irresponsible” in their warnings of war, Støre relented a bit and said “no, but we do have quite different approaches” in their way of speaking.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is a strong supporter of Ukraine and hosted its president Volodomyr Zelensky in Oslo earlier this winter. Støre is under fire, though, for his reluctance to “clearly” address prospects for war on his home turf. PHOTO: Annika Byrde / NTB / Statsministerens kontor

Støre has until recently downplayed talk of actual war in Norway or elsewhere in the Nordic region, referring earlier questions to defense ministry officials, until confronted with a microphone last week. “We are strengthening our cooperation with NATO, we can receive allied troop reinforcements,” he told NRK. He still doesn’t think, however, that Russia is “especially keen on a war with NATO now” and further claims Norway’s own defense “has been strengthened to the highest possible level.”

In his New Year’s speech last month he stressed that Norway itself “poses no threat to Russia.” He later added, during his visit to Nammo in January, that “we must emphasize that do not see a military, targeted, specific threat against Norway from Russia.”

Russia should therefore have no reason for storming over the border of Finnmark, in Støre’s view, but many disagree: “In today’s situation it is not possible to rule out anything, not that Norway can be pulled into war either,” wrote political commentator Hanne Skartveit in newspaper VG last weekend. She even noted how Støre’s Labour Party also held government power in 1940 “when Norway was completely unprepared for the Germans coming here,” adding that the Norwegian Labour government at that time had thought a defense build-up was unnecessary.

Støre backs a defense build-up now, however late it may be getting underway. He and Skartveit agree that the goal of defense is that it never be necessary to implement. Støre also claimed, however, that those making historical references to how World War I and World War II began (as Skartveit and others have) “should be very careful with such historic examples. We have a high awareness about the situation around us now.” He also flatly rejected Listhaug’s proposal to use more Oil Fund money on more defense spending.

Støre can’t dispute Skartveit’s reminders, however, of how a string of studies have concluded that Norway’s current defense apparatus is full of deficiencies. “We don’t have air defense to protect ourselves, not even in our biggest cities,” she wrote. “All branches of the military need more weapons, more ammunition and more people.” She also noted that Norway is the only NATO member sharing a border with Russia that has not met its 2 percent defense spending goal.

“There’s reason to wonder whether our leaders (including Støre’s predecessor as prime minister, Erna Solberg) take what’s happening seriously enough,” Skartveit wrote, “and whether they have the ability to communicate the seriousness with us.”

It isn’t just a traditional invasion that’s at stake but also forms of so-called “hybrid warfare,” which Russia is already blamed for in various incidents of cyber attacks on Norwegian companies and the public sector. Given the suspected espionage going on, there’s also the threat of sabotage directed at critical infrastructure like energy installations, or Norway’s offshore oil and gas industry. It’s already been under special protection and military patrols since the sabotage that ruptured a Russian gas pipeline in the Baltic.

Norway’s defense chief, General Eirik Kristoffersen, welcomed recommendations this week from the country’s defense research institute FFI, that Norway must invest more in being able to defend itself at home. FFI urges investment in more surface-to-air missiles, more long-range weapons, better anti-submarine defense, more ammunition, more secure communications systems and more people. FFI also stressed that Norway’s support for Ukraine will continue to put pressure on defense resources at home. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Other military experts predict Putin may be ready for a new war within three to five years, after intentionally dragging out his war on Ukraine. He’s reportedly using fully 40 percent of Russia’s state budget on defense spending and producing seven times as much ammunition as Western nations, according to Aftenposten. “Russia has militarized its society and economy in order to handle a lengthy war in Ukraine and a lengthy conflict with the West,” Tom Røseth of the military college Forsvars høgskole in Oslo told Aftenposten.

Karsten Friis, a researcher at Norway’s foreign policy institute NUPI, thinks it’s wrong to send signals that Russia does not pose a threat to Norway and other European countries. “They’re more of a threat than ever before,” he said, a reference to how Norway and Russia, also during its Soviet Union period, have historically been good neighbours with a tradition of “people-to-people” contact around the border in the far north. Now that’s been spoiled, not least after Norway joined sanctions against Russia.

It all boils down to the question of whether Norwegians “are scared enough” and how they perhaps should be more scared even at a time when Putin can be accused of using scare tactics. Based on a series of random interviews conducted by NRK on an Oslo street this week, more Norwegians do fear another war and stress the need for preparedness at all levels. The vast majority, however, continue to live life as usual, restaurants are full, many will be flying off on winter holidays next week or the week after (when schools are closed) or heading to the mountains for skiing vacations.

There’s also good news amidst all the war talk: Finland and Sweden are warmly welcome in NATO and their membership, defense experts claim, will dramatically improve defense in the entire Nordic region. Nordic countries as a whole have a lot to learn from Finland, which has always maintained a strong military and has years of experience of sharing a long border with Russia.

Support for Ukraine among Norwegians in general remains extremely high, according to various public opinion polls. Recent brash comments about NATO made by US presidential candidate Donald Trump have been widely and firmly bashed by European leaders and Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg made another trip to Washington DC earlier this month during which he stressed how aid to Ukraine “is not charity,” but an investment in democracy. This week he’s hosting NATO leaders in Brussels before most all of them head for the annual Munich Security Conerence. His message is clear: NATO stands united as never before, no matter what Trump might claim.

US defense forces, meanwhile, have already boosted their presence both in Norway’s Arctic waters and, more recently, at eight new Norwegian military bases around the country. That was once controversial but no longer: US and Norwegian troops train together in both countries and share expertise, especially in Norway’s harsh winter conditions. The largest NATO exercises ever have already begun, with more than 90,000 soldiers taking part until the end of May.

Norwegian and American soldiers are already training together in multiple exercises both in Norway and the US. This one took just took place at Sessvolmoen, to train medics for treating the wounded in cold winter weather. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

A new proposal in Norway for a year of mandatory public service among 19-year-olds, as an alternative to military service, is also gaining steam along with lots of public debate. The idea, though, is to make young Norwegians more aware of public duty, especially in times of crisis.

There’s even been a revival of an old law from 1951 that allows the military in Norway to take over Norwegians’ private vehicles, boats or tractors if they’re needed in a war effort. Norway’s TV2 reported that thousands of Norwegians recently received a surprise message from the defense department that they should be prepared for possible requisition if needed to help transport troops or defense material.

And defense budgets are expanding. Defense was the big winner after last year’s state budget negotiations and Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram announced recently that Norway has also now ordered new NASAMS air defense systems from Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg at a cost of NOK 1.4 billion. The goal, Gram said, “is to secure the country” and highlight the successful role NASAMS have played in Ukraine, shooting down the vast majority of Russian missiles airmed at Ukrainian towns and cities.

Defense chief Kristoffersen, meanwhile, fully agrees with his Swedish counterpart that Norwegians must prepare for war, not least mentally. He stresses that Norway has just a few years left to reverse the defense decline that characterized the 1990s and 2000s, to better meet an aggressive Russia. The new defense build-up is underway, with the intention that it will be a deterrent and hopefully will never be used. It’s still “very important that we support Ukraine with what Ukraine needs,” Kristoffersen added, “right now.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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