During her recent conversation with the United States Vice President Kamala Harris, Prime Minister Erna Solberg expressed her desire for the United States to have more military exercises in Norway. A more assertive United States, on the world stage, current political and economic issues in Norway along with recent domestic troubles in Russia will see the need for Norway to have an increased American presence. Geographically isolated at the northern edge of Europe, Northern Norway has now become very much at the center of geopolitical strategy. With the Arctic region renowned worldwide for its sub-zero temperatures, the ongoing tensions between NATO and Russia have turned the heat up.
America has re-emerged onto the world stage
The election of Joe Biden, as U.S President, has signaled a “return to normalcy” for US foreign policy. The Biden Administration, although recently elected, has very quickly set a new, assertive role in international relations, turning its back on the “America First” isolationist philosophy of the previous administration.
Re-emerging onto the world stage, it has reached out to engage again with allies, organizations, and institutions which were sidelined, ignored, or even withdrawn from. Coupled with this is a more hardline stance towards countries, and authoritarian regimes, which the previous administration had been conciliatory towards, first among them: Russia.
One of the first people to speak with the President, after his inauguration, was NATO General Secretary (and former Prime Minister of Norway), Jens Stoltenberg. One of the key topics of the discussion was how the organization, of which the United States is a major part, would deal with a more assertive Russia. The Biden Administration wants to see a more assertive US foreign policy and is seeking to re-engage with multilateral institutions. Norway is a key strategic member of NATO due to its northern border, in the Arctic region, with Russia and the hope is that the Biden Administration will work closely with NATO, and Norway, to curb Russia’s influence in the region.
Troop withdrawals created the need for increased military exercises
The repercussions of the previous administration’s reduced military spending have had direct consequences in Norway. Some 700 US marines who were based, on a rational basis, in the Arctic region of Norway were pulled out of the country last year. These Marines were shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, as the US military has pivoted towards curbing Chinese influence. The US Marine presence in Norway is now reliant only on joint military exercises.
This changing nature of the US Marine presence, in Norway, had mixed reactions. It was widely praised by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov, who had called Norwegian military collaboration, in an interview with Interfax with NATO members, like the United States, “openly anti-Russian in nature”. Titov felt that the increased military presence of NATO members helped to “undermine the existing peace, stability, and atmosphere of interaction in the (Arctic) region.”
The Norwegian government made it clear, through Deputy Defense Minister Tone Skogen, in an interview with Aftenposten, that the US was not “abandoning” Norway and the troop withdrawal was part of a “changed organization of training in Norway.”
Rising recent tension in the Arctic
Rising tension in the Arctic region is a key concern for Norway. Both NATO and Russia have been ramping up military exercises recently. Last year NATO countries held significant military maneuvers in the Barents Sea, which saw nuclear submarines docking in Tromsø. This led, weeks later, to Russian military exercises which, according to the Russian news agency Krasnaya Zvezda, mobilized some 30 military vessels including nuclear submarines. The US then deployed B1-B Lancer bombers, along with 200 soldiers, at Ørland airport from early February of this year. The Russian Defense Ministry publicized the latest military operations, last week, which saw the Russian Northern Fleet marines conduct mountain training classes near Murmansk.
A more permanent military presence, by both NATO and Russia, in the Arctic is well underway. In Vardø, some 50 kilometers from the Russian border, a new radar station is being built by NATO as part of ongoing structural modernization. There is also an ongoing presence of British and Dutch Marines (along with the Americans) as part of NATO forces in the region. In a recent article published by the U.S Naval Institute, General David Berger suggested the use of U.S mobile bases, in the region, to counter the influence of Russian submarines.
As part of its military modernization, the Russian North Fleet received a second nuclear submarine in June last year. This will bolster the strategic presence of the Russian armed forces near Murmansk.
Domestic politics and finances are an influence
As 2021 is an election year, the Norwegian government will be keen to stress its view of responsibly managing the economy (and expenditure) during the past year. Furthermore, Prime Minister Solberg will have calculated that a tough stance against Russia plays well domestically and internationally. The need for further US military exercises will be of benefit to not only NATO but to Norway too.
The impact of COVID-19 has affected government finances the world over. Although Norway has fared better than most countries, with its economy relatively unscathed, recent accounts have shown that the Gross Domestic Product of the country dropped some 2.5% in 2020. This represents the biggest decline in GDP since the Second World War. There is a record NOK 58 billion black hole in the government coffers due to COVID19.
Government expenditure on social spending (in the form of small business support, furlough schemes, and unemployment benefits) has skyrocketed whilst a global downturn in trade has seen sluggish local economic activity and a sharp rise in unemployment.
Military expenditure already planned until 2028
In a recent speech at the College of Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted that countries, like Norway, which share a border with Russia, are often protected by bigger spending non-EU allies, namely the United States. There was a need for European nations, and NATO members, like Norway, to spend more on defense for increased European security.
However, with changing nature of the US marine presence, in Northern Norway, there is a feeling that increased expenditure on defense is not possible in the current economic conditions.
One of the Trump Administration’s main problems with multilateral organizations, like NATO, was that the United States was disproportionately taking on the majority of financial burdens. For NATO, he wanted all members to spend over 2.0% of their GDP on defense. Norway was, as of 2019, spending only 1.65% of its GDP on defense.
The government, last April, released a long-term plan to increase this spending by 2028. This would see the Army receive new battle tanks, submarines and Navy vessels undergo required upgrades and the purchase of new maritime patrol aircraft. However, given the state of the economy, any further increased military expenditure is highly unlikely, making a stronger US military presence a national security interest.
Response needed quickly due to the instability of Russian politics
Given the recent nationwide demonstrations and protests in Russia due to the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, timing is of the essence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin now faces serious domestic strife for the first time in his two-decade rule. What can not be allowed to happen, on NATO’s watch, is for any Russian military “adventures” to ease domestic pressure by whipping up patriotic support, much like the Russian incursion into the Crimea did. A stronger US military presence in Norway would prevent any possible Russian “adventures” in the Arctic region from occurring.
An election year brings political uncertainty to even the most stable of democracies like Norway. Those in power in both Norway and the US believe that the best way to counter any growing Russian influence, or interference, in the region, is to increase the US military presence (in the form of increased exercises) in Norway.
As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in his recent speech, “I believe in North America and Europe together. In NATO. In strategic solidarity. Whatever challenges we face, we are stronger together.”
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.
Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayNews
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