Fear of Invasion? Norway and Russia’s Rocky Relationship
“Occupied” premiered on Norwegian TV in October of 2015, envisioning a near-future where Russia invades Norway in response to an environmentalist prime minister shutting down oil and gas production. The series caused a stir in international politics: the Russian ambassador to Norway complained that the series ignored how the Soviet Union helped liberate Norway at the end of World War II. Instead, they claimed, the show trafficked in fearmongering. The plot may sound as though derived entirely from headlines about Russian expansionism; however, creator Jo Nesbo developed the show’s eerily realistic premise before Russia annexed Crimea in March of 2014.
Norwegian fears of a Russian invasion have become newly relevant since then-nominee Donald Trump suggested the United States might not honor its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) agreements. Trump’s reasoning was that the US pays more (in both direct and indirect spending) for the alliance. In the show, the United States has completely withdrawn from NATO after becoming energy independent. Now that President Trump has taken office, NATO countries, including Norway and many of the Baltic states, will wait to see if Russia will be emboldened by a US withdrawal from the agreement.
In 2007, Russian strategic bombers began entering international airspace again on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. The number of interceptions increased fivefold that year alone. Russia and Norway share a border inside the Arctic Circle, so Russian buildup in the Arctic has put the Norwegian military on high alert. Russia does not regularly invade Norwegian airspace proper as it does with the Baltic States but continues to get close. Some of their incursions are particularly troubling—a 2014 photograph of a warplane shows a cruise missile in launch position. While the Norwegian military makes it clear that the Russian threat is far less severe than during the Cold War, they nonetheless have prioritized defense of their northern border.
When the world was paying attention to Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin announced a new military doctrine: they would defend Russia’s interests inside the Arctic Circle, where it shares a border with Norway and Finland. This directive led to reopened, refurbished Arctic bases and two new brigades dedicated to the region. Norway has responded in kind, rounding up fighter jets in response to Russian air activity and attempting to meet NATO’s requirements by spending more on defense.
Relations between the countries further soured after Norway’s new government took power in 2013. From 2005 to 2013 the country was governed by a red-green coalition led by the Labour Party, which had friendlier relations with Russia. This timeframe was marked by cooperation between the two nations. In 2010, the two signed a treaty resolving contested borders in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean; they recently followed up with an agreement on how to explore the area for oil and gas resources. The Labour Party has had a historically friendlier relationship with Russia, as many high-ranking members of the party speak Russian and maintain cross-border relationships. The new, conservative government is more attuned to the Cold War politics that gave rise to NATO in the first place.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg urged President Trump in December to honor NATO commitments and articulate a formal policy on Russia for the security of NATO nations. On January 16, during the last days of President Obama’s term, 300 U.S. Marines landed in Norway for a six-month deployment. Norway’s NATO treaty, signed during the Cold War, promises that Norway will not allow allies to station foreign combat troops on their territory as long as Norway is neither attacked nor threatened with attack. The purpose of the agreement was to allay Russian fears, but it was later amended to allow foreign troops for the purpose of conducting manoeuvres—like the deployment of these U.S. Marines. The Russian government questioned the need for such a deployment when they received the suggestion last fall, but a Norwegian military spokesperson emphasized that the deployment was for the purpose of teaching the Marines how to fight in winter weather and had nothing to do with a perceived threat from Russia.
Two weeks ago, high-ranking Norwegian politicians were denied visas—and therefore admission—to Russia for a series of meetings. Russian authorities said that the refusal was in retaliation for Norway’s support of the European Union’s restrictive measures, like sanctions, against Russia. The same week, the Norwegian security service announced that the foreign and defense ministries, as well as the Labor Party, had been hacked by the same Russia-linked group accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee during the U.S. election. The latest threat assessment released by the Norwegian Intelligence Service warned of growing Russian power.
Norwegian policy so far has been to bolster military defenses without appearing intimidated. Military representatives make it clear that while Baltic countries feel threatened, Norway itself is not worried about an imminent Russian invasion. Instead, they insist they are “concerned.” Time will tell whether President Donald Trump is committed to maintaining NATO and whether Norway should be more than just concerned.