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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

NATO launches new ‘Nordic Response’

They’re part of the largest NATO military exercises since 1952, and the first with new Nordic members: More than 20,000 soldiers from 13 countries are taking part in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland alone, as hopes rise that ongoing military expansion in the region will also boost the hard-pressed local economy.

NATO forces like these from Germany will be highly visible over the next few weeks around Troms and Finnmark in Northern Norway. Military exercises are underway all over the northern Nordic region after Finland and Sweden joined NATO. PHOTO: Bundeswehr/Forsvaret/Carl Schulze

The recent expansion of NATO is bringing Finland and Sweden into the alliance that’s taken on new meaning since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. It’s become even more important to protect and defend NATO’s so-called Northern Flank and its new, much longer border to Russia.

The so-called “Nordic Response” exercises, running until March 14, are a new version of the “Cold Response” exercises that have taken place every other year. They’re also part of NATO’s record-large exercise this year called “Steadfast Defender” with another 70,000 participants training this winter in a so-called “belt” from Germany through Poland to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It all follows NATO exercises at sea that went on between Scotland, Norway and Iceland in February.

The massive training action in Norway itself will mostly be taking place from Bjerkvik and Inner Troms in the west to Alta and mid-Finnmark in the northeast. It will involve more than 100 fighter jets, transport flights, maritime surveillance flights and allied helicopters, with thousands of soldiers on the ground practicing to protect Nordic territory. There will also be lots of naval action in the Barents Sea off both Troms and Finnmark.

NATO allies are also training off the coast of Northern Norway, with both naval vessels and aircraft. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Kristian B Solerød

There’s a reason Troms and Finnmark are at the center of the action in Norway. They’ve always been considered a target for any formerly Soviet-, now Russian aggression, despite all the initial post-Cold War years of optimism around then-friendly Russian relations. Norway’s border to Russia in eastern Finnmark had opened, residents within a 30-kilometer area could cross without visas, and the actual border crossing at Storskog could boast as many as 350,000 crossings in 2012.

Now border crossings have all but collapsed, Norwegian-Russian cooperation in the area has frozen, and the Barents Secretariat set up to boost cooperation has been moved out of the foreign ministry, since there are no Russian relations to nurture in the area at present. Current issues are thus mostly domestic, involving controversial mining, wind turbines and power lines versus reindeer herding and environmental concerns. Population declines are also worrisome, in an area where it’s strategically important to maintain a strong civilian presence.

The Norwegian government has launched new initiatives to attract new residents, especially to Finnmark, in the form of tax breaks, free day care, cancellation of student loans and other incentives. That’s important from Berlevåg on the far northern coast, which is struggling with heavy local government debt, to Hammerfest farther to the west, which also is in debt despite income generated by the Melkøya gas processing plant.

Allied Special Operations Forces have already begun a training infiltration to remote locations of Northern Scandinavia. Allied nations taking part in the current Nordic Response exercises include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US. PHOTO: NATO/Melanie Aqiqi

Defense, meanwhile, has taken over once again as the top priority, with bases being beefed up and hopes rising that the military will buy more goods locally and contribute to the local economy. Norwegian defense spending was the winner in last year’s state budget and military build-up is underway, with more US presence on bases and in Norwegian ports as well. They’ll all need supplies, housing and other resources that local communities are keen to provide.

Newspaper Klassekampen recently reported, for example, how a bakery in Lakselv, just north of the large and restored Porsangmoen military base, wants to sell bread to the base. At present its bread is flown from a bakery in Drammen, far to the south. Local farmers also want to sell more of their products directly to local military installations. In another case, a local firm in Karasjok that produced wool socks and inner soles for boots had to lay off workers when the army opted to buy such items from a company in southern Norway that imports wool socks from Mongolia instead. The Karasjok company couldn’t offer as low a price.

That angered a former defense chief, Harald Sunde, who thinks it’s important that local suppliers are favoured over cheaper importers. He stresses how that’s supposed to be part of the so-called “Total Defense” project that covers both the military and civil defense and calls for more integration of local business and the defense build-up, which can in turn boost crisis preparedness.

Actual defense operations remain the priority, rising in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing threats. There’s already been what newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last week called an “explosive” increase in the GPS jamming that affects air transportation in eastern Finnmark. When pilots fly over Finnmark they register alarming disturbance of their navigation systems that’s been coming from Russia for years, but recently has spiked. DN reported incidents of GPS jamming on 294 days last year, compared to 122 days in 2022 and 18 days in 2021.

Norwegian and Canadian members of Special Operations Forces are shown here training over northern Finland. PHOTO: NATO/Melanie Aqiqi

The NATO exercises getting underway this week, meanwhile, are built up around a much broader range of threats. The goal is to be able to respond swiftly if one or more NATO member countries are attacked and NATO’s Article 5 (“all for one and one for all”) is triggered. Defense would involve the Nordic countries’ large fighter jet fleet, naval vessels and aircraft patrolling the coast to secure supply lines, army forces on the ground in the northern areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland (also known as Nordkalotten) plus amphibious landing forces along the coast of Northern Troms and West Finnmark in Norway, along with both the US and Canada sending troops, weapons and equipment across the Atlantic.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Monday that a new report prepared for the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI raises questions about whether this can all happen. Both the US and UK have fewer armed forces available for use in Northern Europe, France also has military obligations elsewhere and Germany may not be able to send reinforcements to the Nordic region quickly enough.

Political leaders respond that defense is now a high priority and that willingness to expand the military is also high. NATO members’ leaders now include the new president of new NATO member Finland, Alexander Stubb, who can already boast a strong military and years of experience with a long border to Russia. He has claimed that he sees few if any limitiations to Finland’s participation in NATO, and he’ll even allow transport of nuclear weapons over Finnish territory, if not permanent storage.

“We face a new era,” Stubb said after he formally took over the presidency last week. “Through our military attachment to NATO and membership in the alliance we’ve taken the final steps into the western fellowship and its values, where our republic has belonged since our independence.” Norway’s Crown Prince Regent Haakon was among those sending Stubb congratulations and Norway’s best wishes, as government leaders issued a warm welcome to NATO’s armed forces in a more united Nordic region.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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