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The Big Chill: Norway and Russia’s Icy Rift

Longstanding friendly relations between the two countries have become frosty over the past few years. To understand why, we spoke to two experts at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington.

Written by Randall Hyman Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
U.S. marines train with the Norwegian army cold weather and mountain training instructors in Blåtind, Norway in 2016 to improve their ability to operate in mountainous and extreme cold weather environments.U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Michelle Reif

Curving northeastward over Sweden and Finland, Norway shares a short Arctic land border with Russia as well as the world’s only Arctic maritime border, besides America’s. For centuries, with the dramatic exceptions of World War II and the Cold War, Norway and Russia enjoyed open and friendly land and maritime borders, but in the past two years relations have grown suddenly icy. Increased Russian military actions in the Arctic and recent U.S moves regarding NATO and the Paris Agreement may have caught Norway out in the cold.

In the past two years, Moscow has brought military equipment and personnel through Norway’s non-militarized Svalbard archipelago in apparent violation of a treaty, fired ominous missiles from Arctic Ocean submarines after warning Sweden not to pursue full NATO membership, increased military flights along Norway’s coast and, this past January, banned two of Oslo’s top members of parliament from a scheduled state visit. That same month, the United States deployed several hundred marines in Norway, but snap Russian war games have demonstrated that Moscow can launch overwhelming force across the entire Arctic overnight.

To understand the chill between both countries, we spoke with two experts at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington. Erik Bøe, assistant defense and naval attaché, is a submariner by trade and former superintendent of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. With 35 years in the armed forces, he also served at NATO maritime headquarters in Britain. Leif Trana, minister counselor for economic and Arctic affairs, has a portfolio that includes climate, energy, research and security. With 21 years in Norway’s foreign service, he is serving his second tour in Washington.

Arctic Deeply: How has Russian military activity in the Arctic increased in the last decade?

Erik Bøe: We have seen a huge change the last years, but it’s quite a long way to get back to how it was during the Cold War. They [the Russians] are now operating more frequently in the North Atlantic, in the Norwegian Sea and in the Barents Sea. But I think one difference between other countries and Norway is that we don’t see the kind of harassment they do elsewhere.

Arctic Deeply: Why would that be?

Bøe: I would probably say that we have had a long relationship, and a pretty good relationship, with the Soviet Union and Russia for hundreds of years. We have never been to war with them. They have changed their posture now, and for the time being we don’t have any military-to-military relationship with them. That has been suspended because of Crimea. But at the same time we are kind of unique because in other areas we actually cooperate with the Russians in search and rescue, fisheries, border guards and anti-pollution [oil spills].

Leif Trana: Fisheries is the key area. There are growing fish stocks between Russia and Norway where the quotas are set after scientific research and joint negotiation. That quota is divided between Russia and Norway and third parties such as E.U. fishermen.

Arctic Deeply: You mentioned border guards. Was the sudden refugee flood that poured into Norway from Russia last year retaliation for Norway joining E.U. sanctions over the annexation of Crimea?

Trana: It does seem like there were some private actors on the Russian side promising people who had lived in Russia a long time that if you go up and cross the border into Norway there will be a better economic future. The Russians have never admitted they were explicitly complicit in this, but we did have negotiations. Norwegian rules are clear: You can’t claim asylum if you already have safe harbor in another country. Five to six thousand came across and several hundred were sent back.

Arctic Deeply: Has the Norwegian military posture on the border changed at all?

Bøe: Not dramatically. The people-to-people relationship is still pretty good, but there are businesses in Kirkenes that suffer. They [Russians] still cross the border to do shopping and fill their cars, and it also goes the other way around. But it’s not the way it used to be back three or four years. Then it was harmony all the way, and it was excellent actually. The people in Oslo in the south, they worry in a different way than people up north. People up north worry not because of the military threat or anything else, they worry because of lack of business or lack of border-crossing opportunities.

Arctic Deeply: After the Cold War, Norway dismantled many of its land and sea defenses. What has happened since?

Bøe: We had mine fields and we had a lot of coastal artilleries. It was all part of homeland defense during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union dissolved we made it all nonoperational, and now it’s all gone. I have to say, it hurts my submariner’s heart, but we sold the submarine base, which was just outside Tromsø [Norway’s biggest Arctic city], to a civilian company and they are leasing different piers to some Russians. So you will find, in between, a Russian ship actually secured there.

Arctic Deeply: Is there any ramping up of Norwegian military in the Barents Sea?

Bøe: One thing that has been openly discussed is that we need to be present more now than we have been before. Norway has not changed its posture, but we are more present. When it comes to the Russians, they are also more present because they are exercising more. They are sailing and flying more because they would like to be better than they used to be.

Arctic Deeply: Is this a threat to Norway’s Arctic interests?

Bøe: One thing I stress is that if you look at the map and the Kola Peninsula with all the military – army, navy and air force – if they [Russians] want to exercise, there’s only one way out: and that’s a little bit to the north and then to the west, because further north it’s ice and further east it’s even more ice. So the only place they can exercise is actually very close to our area. The one thing that has changed is the warning time they give us now. They don’t break the rules; they more like bend them. In general terms, if they want to exercise they will exercise close to the Norwegian border.

Arctic Deeply: When NATO had war games in the Baltics in 2015, Russia deployed 80,000 troops across the Arctic and elsewhere overnight. Did they give you warning – and what would be a normal warning?

Bøe: Normally we are talking about weeks or months in advance. What we have seen lately is we talk more about days.

Arctic Deeply: The new U.S. administration has sent mixed signals about NATO. Where does that leave Norway, especially being the northernmost bulwark of the NATO alliance in the Arctic?

Trana: Recently our minister of defense met with Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis, and our foreign affairs secretary met with Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson [this week in Washington]. They offered strong and unequivocal assurances that the U.S. stands by its NATO commitment. At the same time, they are very clear that all NATO nations, Norway included, need to have specific plans to fulfill their 2 percent of GDP commitment that everyone agreed to in Wales [2014 summit]. Some of the questions during the [presidential] campaign have dissipated with statements from everyone from the president himself to Mrs. Merkel to the vice president and Secretary Mattis in Europe. We feel reassured that the U.S. stands by their allies.

Arctic Deeply: Earlier this year, U.S. Marines arrived in mid Norway for a year-long deployment. Is this a break from Norwegian policy regarding stationing foreign troops on your soil?

Bøe: They [the Marines] will not be there permanently; they will move on and they might come back or some others might come back. We have had things [military equipment] in our mountains for years and now we have a few hundred troops there who exercise and learn how to ski. It’s very peaceful. They are not running around shooting. It’s basic winter training, and we have done that with NATO countries for decades up in the north.

Arctic Deeply: Russia fired a supersonic, radar-evading missile from a submarine in the Arctic last April, one day after warning Sweden not to pursue full NATO membership. What does Norway see as the prudent way forward in the Arctic?

Bøe: Geography never lies. Meaning that we are where we are and we have a big neighbor. And we are a NATO member and we are focusing on our neighbor. We have been doing that since the Cold War. We have a pretty good knowledge of what’s going on, and that knowledge, you can’t buy it – you need to learn it. I think that is one of the foundations for us when it comes to the relationship with NATO and then certainly with the United States.

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