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Russian aggression against Ukraine has also influenced the security of Norway – Oslo has decided to increase short-term defence spending and boost rapid reaction capabilities, particularly in the High North. However, Norway does not report any increase to the Russian Northern Fleet, and so a long-term spending increase is rather unlikely.

Political-security alignments on the Scandinavian Peninsula are quite complex – all three states located in this area (Norway, Sweden, Finland) are close partners and friends. Since 1949 Norway has been a member state of NATO but is not in the European Union (it decided to stay outside in two referendums in 1972 and 1994). At the same time both Finland and Sweden are in the European Union (they both joined in 1995), but they remain outside NATO, though both recently applied to join. All three states belong to the EU’s Schengen zone, while Norway is associated with the EU through its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Regional cooperation is one of Norway’s strategic priorities. “Nordic cooperation is more important and stronger than ever” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said this June. Aside from bilateral ties, Nordic countries are also party to various intergovernmental fora as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Arctic Council. There is also the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO), which includes:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Sweden

It was established in 2009 and got a boost after the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Its official goal is to “strengthen the participants’ national defence, explore common synergies and facilitate efficient common solutions.” In late-May 2022, Nordic defence ministers reiterated in a joint statement that this organisation is still considered relevant: “These regions constitute a single area of operations and coordinated or joint operational planning among the Nordic countries is therefore key”.

“Norwegian defence policy is based on three pillars” – Håkon Lunde Saxi (Associate Professor at the Norwegian Defence University College) explained during his interview with ESD – “these are: national capabilities, collective defence within NATO and bilateral relationships with key allies – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The Nordic states are not explicitly mentioned, but they are extremely important as well.” Another interviewed expert, Paul Sigurd Hilde (Associate Professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies), added that “Norwegian defence spending as a percentage of GDP will go down this year and perhaps also next year. This is not a result of budgetary cuts, but rather due to a rapid growth of a Norwegian GDP. This is again much a result of higher prices of oil and gas.” During the last quarter of 2021 Norwegian oil and gas exports amounted to approximately €10Bn per month. This was three times more than during the same period in 2020.

Norway versus Russia

All interviewed experts agree that Russia is Norway’s greatest threat and challenge. Norway is one of five NATO members that now shares a land border with Russia. It is relatively short one (196 km), compared to Finland’s 1,340-km frontier. It also has a maritime border in the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea. Norway faces the Kola Peninsula, which houses the Russian Northern Fleet. It is equipped with various warships, including ICBM-armed nuclear submarines, and some Russian naval drills have been conducted partly in the Norwegian exclusive economic zone.

“A direct military threat from Russia has not increased, at least for now”, Per Erik Solli (Senior Defence Analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs) explained during an interview with ESD – “there is no change in their behaviour comparing to [the] pre-February 2022 period. We do not see an increased number of activities. Moreover, a lot of resources from the region [have] been deployed to Ukraine.” At least three landing ships from the Northern Fleet were deployed to the Black Sea. They transported troops from the 80th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade in Alakurtti and the 200th independent Motorised Rifle Brigade in Pechenga. From a Norwegian point of view, it is crucial, that units belonging to the Northern Fleet have reportedly suffered heavy losses.

“In the 1990s many NATO member states lost any interest in Russia and did not see any challenges coming from this direction” – Saxi adds – “but even then, Norway had a different perception. Because we shared a border and Russia’s Kola Peninsula remained heavily militarised, Oslo was concerned and did not significantly change its defence policy until the early 2000s. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s invasion defence was abandoned, largely due financial reasons, and there was a brief period in which ‘out-of-area’ operations became central. In this period, the thinking was that the risk of a Russian invasion was very low, although we did not rule out some limited security crisis involving Russia. That period ended around 2007. Norway then began to ask other NATO member states to focus more on the core tasks of the Alliance (collective defence). Since 2014, Norway has focused mainly on territorial and alliance collective defence.”

The first wake-up call, which led to the deterioration of bilateral relations and Oslo’s re-recognition of Russia as a significant threat, was Moscow’s aggression against Georgia in 2008. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its seizure of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 further affected the Norwegian-Russian bilateral relations. Military cooperation was halted. In 2015, the Norwegian Chief of Defence explicitly recognised Russia as the main security challenge and advised to significantly increase defence spending. The final momentum that silenced any pro-Russian voices in Norway was the Kremlin’s full aggression against Ukraine in early-2022. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said that this event “represents a turning point for Norwegian and European security” and as a result Norway has to boost its defence capabilities. €310m were devoted to increase military preparedness, particularly in the High North. “Any significant increase of spending is highly unlikely” – Hilde believes – “in Norway there is no general sense of any imminent threat to national security.”

Norway maintains diplomatic relations with Russia, but bilateral cooperation was limited to selected areas, such as fisheries, border control or Search & Rescue (SAR). Also, there is still a direct hotline between the Joint Operations Headquarters in Norway and Russia’s Northern Fleet. Foreign Minister Huitfeldt explained that Norway is keen to keep cooperation through the Arctic Council and via bilateral channels in order to “avoid misunderstandings in a tense situation” and to “maintain low tensions in the High North”.

The High North

Norway, one of the members of the Arctic Five (alongside Canada, Denmark, Russia, the United States), puts a special emphasis on the High North, while other regions, such as the Baltic Sea, are of less importance (although it became more relevant after 2014 – Norway is involved in NATO’s deterrence operation in Lithuania, three times participated in the Baltic Air Policing and regularly deploys vessels and personnel to NATO’s standing minesweeper forces).

The High North is crucial for several reasons, not only from security and political angle, but also – or even foremostly – economic. Norway’s fishery zones and major energy fields are located there. “50 per cent of our export is oil and gas” – Saxi explained. Every year Oslo makes new oil and gas discoveries, which means the Norwegians expect to keep high production until at least 2030. Oslo plans to start drilling more in the north in less developed parts of the shelf, including in the Barents Sea and especially in the Wisting field, where 500 million barrels of oil equivalent were discovered. The Plan for Development and Operation (PDO) is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022.

Numerous articles were published in recent years about emerging threats inevitably impacting regional stability. Some voices have been alarming about Russia’s militarisation of the Arctic, while others highlighted climate change and new maritime routes, which would trigger armed rivalry and competition for resources. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine potentially makes the High North even less secure, since – as put by now former Defence Minister Odd Roger Enoksen – “Russia has considerable security interests in the North and that affects Norway and NATO.”

However, Hilde argues that this alarming narrative is mainly a result of a media hype and does not reflect actual developments. “This includes the US emphasis on countering China” – he said. Solli believes that “there are some speculations about Beijing’s ambitions in the Arctic, but so far, we do not see any Chinese military activities in the region. Also, we are not even certain that they can operate in such rough weather conditions.” This toned-down approach is shared by Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen (Professor of the University of Tromsø), who was quoted by ‘High North News’ in March this year. He does not believe that “what is currently going on in Ukraine will necessarily have a strong direct effect on the border relationship between Norway and Russia. Moscow wants to keep the High North and the Arctic separate from the conflict with the West in Ukraine and the Black Sea region.” Most experts believe, however, that the High North could become an area of hostilities as a result of earlier escalation between Russia and NATO.

To counteract possible negative scenarios, Norway’s Porsangermoen garrison will be reportedly boosted with artillery and an infrastructure upgrade, and another of their northern bases, Sør-Varanger, has now being equipped with FGM-148 JAVELIN ATGMs. In 2018 a new ranger company was established at Sør-Varanger, and is expected to become fully operational in 2025. The government will also assess how Norway could strengthen national capabilities such as drones, satellite-based services and other civil-military cooperation areas, and will assess suitable locations for this, including Andøya. The authors of a governmental paper, submitted to the parliament (Storting) in April this year have argued that Norway needs to boost its capabilities in the High North much further.

Two air bases – Bodø and Andøya – were slated for a closure. “Both will still be closed in the sense that everyday Norwegian Air Force operation will cease” – Hilde explains – “however, Andøya – which will remain operational as long as the P-3C are still in service – will now be kept as a reserve base specially designated to receive allied aircraft during exercises, crises and war. The closure of Bodø (which is now basically complete, with the [Quick Reaction Alert] (QRA) [squadrons] having moved to Evenes) seems much less likely to be reversed, albeit as far as I know, there is still hope to keep some of the hardened shelters there”. Bodø, Norway’s main air base above Arctic Circle previously hosting F-16s, halted operations in January this year. A small detachment of SAR helicopters will remain at the base, and civilian operations will continue at Bodø Airport. Chief of the Norwegian Air Force General Rolf Folland also wants to keep Bodø, which was planned to be given to the civilian authorities.

Norway and NATO

Norway is a valuable member of NATO for at least three main reasons. First of all, Norway is an excellent destination for military training in harsh weather conditions. Secondly, Norway constitutes NATO’s forward outpost in the Far North, also known as NATO’s Northern Flank, and is crucial in monitoring Russian activities in the region. For instance, in October 2019, Norway detected ten Russian submarines heading to the Atlantic Ocean through the GIUK Gap (an area between Greenland and the United Kingdom). It was the largest Russian group of this type since the second half of the 1980s. In case of war Norway would have a vital role in securing northern transit lines between the United States and Europe. “Defence of Norway is also a defence of the Atlantic Ocean” – Hilde believes – “if any opponent seized Norway, it would be then able to operate its warships and aircraft from Norwegian bases. That could disrupt NATO’s supply lines.”

Thirdly, since 1981 Norway has been hosting stockpiles of US Marines’ (USMC) weapons, ammunition, and other equipment. In this context it is worth mentioning that despite being one of NATO’s founding nations in 1949, Oslo has a very strict policy of not allowing permanent deployment of foreign troops on its soil during peacetime. This is a piece of Cold War legacy, when Oslo was the only NATO member to share a land border with the Soviet Union. This policy, however, does not mean that temporary deployments are also banned. Norway docks US nuclear submarines and hosts US B-1B strategic bombers. A few years ago, it accepted roughly 330 US Marines at Værnes, near Trondheim (though such moves have been objected to by the Kremlin and some Norwegian politicians).

Norway’s Strategic Position

In April 2021, the Supplementary Defence Cooperation Agreement (SDCA) was signed between Norway and the United States. It was ratified by the Norwegian parliament just before summer. Hilde explained that contrary to some media reports, “the agreement does not really open for the establishment of US bases in Norway but [gives] the Americans a green light to build facilities within Norwegian bases and have special rights connected to these areas and infrastructure. There will be no permanent stationing of combat troops or aircraft (including the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft), though smaller detachments of logistics, communications or other support personnel might be stationed, more or less permanently”.

The US forces are expected to erect some facilities in four Norwegian bases:

  • Sola
  • Rygge
  • Evenes
  • Ramsund

“The air bases will function both as forward bases for P-8s, fighters and other aircraft (Andøya and Evenes), fighters (Rygge) and primarily air-to-air refueling aircraft (Sola) during exercises and peacetime deployments, and as reinforcement bases in crisis and war” – Hilde continues – “none of these represent something completely new. Andøya has long been used by [the] US Navy’s P-8s and before that by P-3Cs. Similarly, the USAF’s use of Sola is long standing. So basically, the new agreement is really a new, legal framework for long standing bilateral US-Norwegian cooperation”.

NATO Expansion

Norway fully supports the Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO. They all already cooperate closely, which is no wonder given they share the same threat perception and strategic interests. In 2020 defence minsters of these three states met in Porsangmoen (Norway) to sign a trilateral agreement regarding enhanced coordination of military operations in crisis and conflict. In 2021 Norway, Sweden and Denmark signed a further, similar agreement, which mentioned “areas of common concern” (Kattegat, Skagerrak, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Danish straits, and other surrounding areas).

The Swedish and Finnish forces took part in the Norwegian-led “Cold Response” exercises, which were held in northern Norway between early March and early April 2022. It involved roughly 35,000 soldiers from 28 states. Sweden participated with around 1,600 soldiers, while Finland contributed 700 soldiers. During the exercise, the Swedish and Finnish land forces trained as one joint brigade under the command of the Norwegian Army. Earlier, in 2019, during the Swedish “Northern Wind” exercises, Norway sent 4,500 troops to Sweden.
Another example of cooperation is the Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE), which the Nordic countries hold every two years. It has been hinted that joint air operations might be developed further into a joint airspace picture. Norway, Finland, and Sweden have now been working on allowing aircraft to land at each other’s bases if needed in an emergency. “The more we stand together, the less likely it is that anyone will want to challenge any of our nations, regardless of whether they are members of NATO or not” – Norway’s Chief of Defence Eirik Kristoffersen said.

Oslo hopes that their full membership will create a very effective platform for enhanced security dialogue and defence cooperation, which is already relatively mature between Sweden and Finland. “This is a massive game-changer for Norway” – Solli believes – “previously we are unable to cooperate on war plans. Now we will be able to do so. This means we could use their facilities, including railways. Moreover, any NATO reinforcement will now have more flexibility. If a situation is too risky in one place, they could now be deployed elsewhere.”

“It will eliminate any strategic ambiguity” – Hilde adds – “as soon as they join, we will be able to assume that NATO and the United States would help them if they were attacked and that at the same time both Finland and Sweden would also contribute to a collective defence.” Hilde predicts that “Norway’s strategic position will significantly change. Moreover, there are some important questions that must be addressed. For instance, which command they are going to choose? NATO has joint forces commands in Naples, Brunssum and Norfolk [Virginia]. Due to ongoing changes, they will have more geographical focus. Due to its maritime orientation, Norway openly expressed its wish to be attached to Norfolk. If Finland and Sweden choose a different command, then cooperation might be a little bit difficult.”

NORDEFCO will remain functional regardless of whether Finland and Sweden join NATO or not. Already in 2018, during the Norwegian chairmanship, NORDEFCO members agreed to cooperate not only in peacetime, but also during crisis or even conflict. In late-May the Nordic defence ministers announced that defence cooperation among those states is to be further strengthened through joint exercises, training, and visits. Moreover, Norway has pledged to assist Finland and Sweden with all necessary means if they were to be exposed to aggression prior to achieving NATO membership.