Our Friends in the North? A Profile of Russo-Norwegian Relations

Russia’s actions in the Crimea and Ukraine, modernization of its home armed forces, and presence in Syria are not only causing tension between Moscow and Washington, but also anxiety in the High North. Defense experts question whether the High North will be the flashpoint of a new Cold War. One of the Scandinavian countries experiencing anxiety is Norway.

The small, oil-rich nation that was one of the founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), shares both a 197-kilometer border and long history with the Russia. With a border that not only represents the NATO border, but that also that of the EU Schengen Area, Norway is caught between East and West.

For the past 1,000 years, relations between Norway and Russia have been without war or any other major conflict. Although neutral but strategically important to both sides, the value of Norway’s natural resources and geographic location was recognized during the Second World War. Through the German invasion of Norway from 9 April to 10 June 1940, Hitler aimed to gain control of ports such as Narvik for exports, such as large quantities of Swedish ore that Germany depended on, and for use as Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe bases. The Nazis desired Norway’s production of heavy water (deuterium oxide) for the German nuclear energy product, although members of the Norwegian resistance sabotaged the hydroelectric plant. On the Allied side, the British needed Norway for two reasons. The first was Allied control of Norwegian ports prevented holes from appearing in the blockade of Germany. The second was for use of the Norwegian Merchant Navy to run supplies to Great Britain during conflicts such as the Battle of Britain.

The town of Kirkenes in Finnmark County, a mere 1,200 kilometers from Moscow, reflects the extent of Russo-Norwegian relations forged during the Second World War. The Red Army took over Kirkenes, which had been a German Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe base, on 25 October 1944, helping the citizens rebuild the town destroyed by a combination of Soviet bombing raids and the burning of buildings as the Nazis retreated. Close to the town is the Russemonumentet (Russiam Soldier Monument) dedicated to the Red Army troops that “liberated” the citizens. Given the proximity to the Russian border, Kirkenes upholds the November 2010 agreement between Norway’s and Russia’s Foreign Ministers allowing the region’s 9,000 Norwegians and 45,000 Russians to cross the border. In Kirkenes, Russians cross the border to sell goods at the market whereas Norwegians cross into Russia to shop.

“We have always had a relationship with Russia that has been built on firmness and predictability,” says Norwegian Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Søreide. “Anything else, would be, in my opinion, as a relatively small country and small neighbor, irresponsible. Russia has always been a part of how we planned our armed forces and we have managed to combine pragmatism and practical cooperation where we have a mutual interest. At the same time. We are very clear on keeping up on normal activity in the High North.”

Emphasized in Norwegian policy is the need for security, linking with British and Americans in the greater NATO alliance, and deterrence of Russian aggression along the border. In autumn, the Norwegian Parliament discussed a long-term defense plan that proposed increased spending on the Norwegian Armed Forces in 2017-2018. Currently, Norwegian pilots are undergoing training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona with Norway’s new F-35 fighter aircraft.

Although Norway’s joining of NATO in 1949 (influenced by the relationship formed with United States and Great Britain through Allied use of the Norwegian Merchant Navy) and the Cold War militarization of Russia along the border both affected Russo-Norwegian relations, a recent announcement by the Norwegian government may provide yet another blow.

In October, Norway announced that 300 United States Marines were to be stationed on rotation at Værnes airport, close to Trondheim, around 1,000 kilometers from the Russian border. Although the United States military already stores military equipment in Norwegian caves, this announcement represents a departure from Norway’s peacetime policy, which prohibits foreign troops to be based on Norwegian soil without a declaration of war or call of imminent threat.

File photo of US Marines arriving at Værnes in 2012. Photo: Johannes Roaldsen Fürst/FLO, http://www.thelocal.no/20161026/russia-criticizes-us-troop-plans-in-norway

Russia criticized the announcement, stating that there is an absence of threat from Russia to Norway and it would have been better for Norway to reinforce its own defenses. Frants Klintsevitsj, deputy chairman of Russia’s defence and security committee, stated that Russia viewed the agreement to have 330 United States Marines as a direct military threat that demands an appropriate reaction and it was a part of the United States’ greater buildup to a “global blitz”. He stated that that Norway may now be added to “the list of targets for our strategic weapons”. 

“This is very dangerous for Norway and Norwegians,” Klintsevitsj said. “How should we react to this? We have never before had Norway on the list of targets for our strategic weapons. But if this develops, Norway’s population will suffer.”

 Ine Eriksen Søreide  rejected those criticisms and insisted that the deployment is only an evaluated test run.

“There is no objective reason for the Russians to react to this. But the Russians are reacting at the moment in the same way toward almost everything the NATO countries are doing,” Søreide said.

The argument over this announcement is only one of many mounting tensions between Scandinavia and Russia. In October, a flotilla of Russian ships sailed past Norway en route to Syria. Recently, Finland also strengthened military ties with the United States by signing a cooperative defense pact after a Russian SU-27 was detected over the Gulf of Finland. In March 2015, the Russian Ambassador to Denmark stated that Danish ships would become Russian targets if Denmark joined NATO’s missile defense system. Also in relation to NATO, Russia implied that there would be “consequences” if Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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