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In early September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter traveled to Norway to discuss with Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide the deployment of some 330 U.S. Marines to that country. A few weeks later, on October 24, Soreide announced that Oslo and Washington had agreed to post the troops to Vaernes Air Station in central Norway. Under the agreement, the Marines will arrive in January 2017 as part of the Black Sea Rotational Force, a program that temporarily bases U.S. troops with NATO partners in order to improve joint interoperability and boost the alliance’s ability to respond quickly to crises. Over a one-year trial period, the Marines will train on their own, with Norwegian troops, and with the forces of other NATO allies, making use of the area’s arctic climate to carry out cold-weather exercises.
The United States has kept tanks, armored vehicles, and other defense equipment in Norway since the 1970s, and the plan to base the Marines at Vaernes builds on the renewal of a 2005 agreement between Oslo and Washington called the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program–Norway. But Norwegian critics on the far left and on the populist right have decried the impending U.S. military presence at Vaernes as especially provocative. The deployment of U.S. troops, they argue, could endanger Norway’s precarious but stable relationship with Russia, with which it shares a 122-mile border.
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As a founding member of NATO, Norway considers the United States its principal ally. Since 1949, Oslo has carried out annual military exercises with NATO; in 2018, it will host NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, in which some 25,000 soldiers will participate. Norway has several dozen soldiers in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s mission in that country and is a member of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Soreide is one of only a handful NATO defense ministers who have called for European NATO allies to spend more on defense while acknowledging that enhanced burden sharing is critical to preserving global peace and stability.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg has argued that the U.S. military’s impending presence in Norway is consistent with Oslo’s long-standing policy of training with NATO allies. But opponents critical of Norway’s NATO membership—many of them on the far left—have set off an avalanche of criticism against the proposed policy in the Norwegian media, wrongfully accusing the government of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in the country that would subject Oslo to undue American influence and put Norway’s relations with Russia on a dangerous footing. A U.S. military presence in Norway, they argue, would violate the country’s base declaration of 1949, which stipulates that no allied forces can be stationed on Norway’s territory during peacetime. Others have even argued that the provocative nature of the U.S. Marines could jeopardize the 2010 demarcation agreement between Norway and Russia, suggesting that it violates the spirit of that treaty, which seeks to strengthen neighborly relations with Russia and enhance predictability and stability in the area. The deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and Washington’s accusation that Russia has meddled in the U.S. presidential election have added fuel to this fire: Norwegian populists argue that Norway cannot put itself at risk by hosting U.S. troops.
A deputy chairman of the Defense and Security Committee in the Russian Duma told a Norwegian television outlet that “Norway will suffer” if Oslo and Washington carry out their plans at Vaernes.
The mounting media scrutiny inevitably led to Norwegian outlets asking Russian officials for input on the matter. On October 31, Frants Klintsevich, a deputy chairman of the Defense and Security Committee in the Russian Duma, told the Norwegian television outlet TV2 that “Norway will suffer” if Oslo and Washington carry out their plans at Vaernes. “We have never before had Norway on the list of targets for our strategic weapons,” he said, suggesting that Norway was putting itself at risk of nuclear attack.
Russia’s embassy in Norway has not yet commented on the matter, but the Russian Foreign Ministry did release a statement that apparently sought to reduce immediate tensions. Moscow, however, has a well-established playbook for how to take advantage of divisions in public opinion in NATO countries: it was only last year that the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, threatened that country with nuclear war if it joined NATO’s missile defense program. In recent years, the Norwegian-Russian relationship has been stable, but Klintsevich’s recent remarks suggest that further provocations could be in store if his scare tactics manage to turn more Norwegians against the U.S. troop deployment.
One plausible scenario would entail a spike in Russian fighter jets encroaching on—if not outright violating—Norwegian airspace over a short period of time in order to test Oslo’s response while seeking to capitalize on populist anxiety by stoking a media controversy. Another scenario would involve a large-scale Russian military exercise near the Norwegian border. It should be noted, however, that a rotational U.S. military presence in Norway is by itself unlikely to trigger either scenario. Either course of action would be opportunity driven: Moscow would have to use the deployment as a convenient pretext to respond to some other dramatic shift in the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship.
The populist criticism of the Norwegian government’s defense policies has not been limited to the planned deployment of the U.S. Marines. It has also focused on Oslo’s plans to reorganize and upgrade all of Norway’s armed forces, as outlined in a Ministry of Defense white paper, The Long Term Plan, which was released in June. According to the document, which details Norway’s defense priorities from 2017 to 2020, the government intends to modernize the military—for example, by participating in the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter Program and eventually replacing all of its submarines—and step up its intelligence cooperation with NATO allies, especially the United States. Critics on Norway’s far left, including from the Socialist Party, who have long been ambivalent about NATO and U.S. hegemony, argue that the Long Term Plan is too costly and are particularly opposed to Norway’s participation in the Joint Strike Fighter Program.
But they are not the only ones who have criticized the plan: several retired high-ranking members of the Norwegian Armed Forces, including retired General Sverre Diesen, a former chief of defense of Norway, have claimed that it could ultimately compromise Norway’s security by making the country too dependent on its allies, including the United States. Under the plan, 11 military installations across the country will be closed down as part of an ambitious restructuring program, which will leave Norway’s coastline particularly vulnerable, as another critic has noted. Expressing similar sentiments, retired Lieutenant Lieutenant General Kjell Grandhagen, the former head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service, argues that the plan does not provide adequate resources for the army.
The debate over the Long Term Plan set the stage for the outrage over the proposal to base U.S. Marines at Vaernes.
The debate over the Long Term Plan set the stage for the outrage over the proposal to base U.S. Marines at Vaernes. In fact, there has been a good deal of public confusion over both subjects, and critics have occasionally conflated the two, suggesting that the government’s decision to temporarily host the Marines is an extension of the Long Term Plan that promises a dangerous cumulative effect: Norway will become overly reliant on U.S. military technology while compromising its peaceful relationship with Russia. In the process, the critics have accused the government of abrogating Norway’s long-standing defense policy as it pertains to its base declaration by alleging that it is doing Washington’s bidding against Russia as part of a broader strategic game.
There is little doubt that the temporary U.S. deployment to Vaernes is consistent with Washington’s policy to reassure its anxious European allies over Moscow’s policies toward NATO and the Baltic states in particular. For Norway, which enjoys one of the highest living standards in the world, the long-standing U.S. security guarantee under NATO has enabled an ascent out of poverty. These factors, together with the extraordinary political uncertainty around the world, explain why the impending U.S. military presence is vital for Norway’s security, even if the government describes the deployment as routine or temporary.
Fortunately for the Solberg government, it is largely on the fringes of Norwegian politics that defense policy has become a political football. Solberg enjoys support for the Long Term Plan in parliament from most members of the governing conservative bloc and the opposition Labor Party. That also holds true with respect to the plan to temporarily host the U.S. Marines at Vaernes. What is worrisome, however, is that a prominent member of the conservative parliamentary bloc who is a member of the populist Progress Party has opposed the plan to host the U.S. Marines by suggesting that it is unclear whether Oslo and Washington share common interests on Russia policy. That suggests a potential rift over defense policy within the Progress Party, which is already facing internal turmoil over how to respond to increased immigration.
These dynamics, coupled with the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship, could set the stage for Russia to direct more bellicose rhetoric at Norway with the aim of galvanizing the anti-NATO constituencies on Norway’s left and making inroads among right-wing populists.