American military presence near the Norwegian-Russian border area does not necessarily increase Norway’s security, argues Professor at the Norwegian Defense University College, Lieutenant Colonel Tormod Heier.
Even though much of the great power rivalry between the USA and Russia takes place in the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea without Norwegian participation, much of the American activity is also taking place out from Norway, among others aircraft- and submarine activities. This is an advantage for Norway and the USA’s situational awareness in the area. However, the disadvantage is that Norway comes higher up on the Russian list of potential targets that are to be taken out in case of a crisis or conflict.
This is the argument of Professor, Lieutenant Colonel and Research Leader at the Norwegian Defense University College Staff School Tormod Heier in an interview with High North News.
“Norway is becoming more exposed. At the same time, it is fully dependent on American assistance in case of a crisis situation. Norway thus has a balancing act and there is no single answer as to how to manage this. It requires delicate statesmanship and it is important to continually discuss this and anchor decisions within a broad segment of the people, Heier explains.
A strategic front
In his new book “En randstat på avveie? Norges vei inn I den nye kalde krigen, 2014-2021” [A Limitrophe State Gone AWOL? Norway’s Way into the New Cold War 2014-2021], Heier goes more in-depth on the topical dilemma about how much security Norway manages to get from the USA without simultaneously provoking Russian counter-reactions and, through that, creating an escalating spiral in Norway’s immediate neighborhood.
American military exercise activity in Norway and Norway’s neighborhood, both on land, bombers in the air, and military voyages increasingly further north in the Barents Sea, have increased over the past few years. Both the previous and the current Norwegian government welcome the USA in the High North and want increased American and allied exercise activity.
“The USA is the only country that can provide Norway with a credible security guarantee in case of a crisis or conflict with Russia. Norway must try and have the American support arrangements as concrete and tangible as possible while also avoiding making the Russians nervous”, he expounds.
Because Russia does not fear Norway, Heier points out, but a Norway becoming the starting point for American operations northwards, towards the Kola Peninsula. There are located some of the most-feared threats against the USA; namely the nuclear missiles on the Russian submarines.
“These are some of the most advanced and dangerous threats the USA is facing. Therefore, Norway has once again – just like during the second half of the Cold War – become a strategic front in the defense of the USA, the very security guarantor in NATO.”
Are there too few critical voices in Norway regarding these issues?
“Yes. I believe Norwegian security politics and defense strategy would benefit from a richer and more diverse debate if there was broader participation in the debate. The greatest advantage would be for society to have more transparency in a policy area characterized by too many one-sided presentations and a lot of self-censorship. Through this, the authorities would get a better opportunity of anchoring its High North strategy with its own population. And perhaps we’d all be wiser. In that case, the parliament (Stortinget) would be come an even more important sparring partner for the government”, Heier responds.
The fleet is too small to manage the increased activity on the Russian and American sides.
“The USA considers Russia a strategic competitor. Norway does not consider Russia a strategic competitor, but rather as a legitimate and natural cooperation partner in the same area in which the Americans want to deter Russia. This means that Norwegian and American interests don’t always coincide. This argument was seriously under-communicated during the previous Solberg government”, Heier says.
He points out an example from the fall of 2020, when the Norwegian government chose to send a Norwegian frigate on exercise along with American and British vessels into the Russian economic zone in the Barents Sea.
“Allied maneuvers deep inside the Russian economic zone did not contribute to the deterrence the USA wanted, only to provoking. It was a genuine retaliation against the Russian provocations off the coast of Møre [Northwestern Norway] during the Trident Junction exercise in 2018. Thus, it appears that Norway’s closest allies contribute to militarizing Norway’s most important strategic immediate area. That is a paradox, as we are at the same time completely dependent on American reinforcements”, he says and continues:
“It might thus be important for Norwegian authorities to exert pressure on the USA to have a better understanding of local security dynamics in the Norwegian-Russian border areas.”
Heier argues that it is particularly important that Norwegian forces, not American ones, are most visible in the border areas.
“That is less provoking to Russia, which in turn might make it easier for the Norwegian MFA to increase security margins in this neighborly relation. It may reduce the risk of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, in particular for incidents that could easily risk spinning out of control, and through that escalating to a crisis that was actually avoidable.”
Are the Norwegian Armed Forces capable today of conducting the tasks you describe?
“No, and that is a problem. Although the Norwegian authorities have increased defense spending steadily since 2014, the Armed Forces still do not hold the capacity to control its own immediate areas. We govern enormous ocean areas, but our fleet is too small to keep up with increased activity on the Russian and American sides. Thus, there is a vacuum, and this vacuum is filled by the USA and Russia. The USA in particular cannot allow the Norwegian-Russian border areas to become a black hole if a sudden crisis were to emerge, for instance because something goes on in the Baltic Sea or in the Black Sea, off the Crimean coast.
What is missing?
“Norway simply needs more vessels, planes and crew. It is particularly important to strengthen endurance, so that Norway can demonstrate consistent visibility and presence with Norwegian rather than American forces. Visibility is in and of itself deterring, but in a more defensive way than sharp-shod Americans who are part of the USA missile shield.”
In an interview with Norwegian daily VG this week, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt (Labor) says that it is in Norway’s interest to maintain these areas on its own, using the Norwegian armed forces.
“It is important for Norway to be militarily present in our immediate areas. However, we believe we do it best self, with Norwegian planes and Norwegian frigates, in the areas closest to the Russian border. For us, that is basic”, Anniken Huitfeldt says to VG.
Norway’s new Defense Minister Odd Roger Enoksen (Center Party) recently pointed out to Forsvarets forum that Norway welcomes more exercise activity, however also better coordination of allied activity, in the High North. That is important for de-escalation, he said.
There is no contradiction in terms between being a good ally of the USA while also having a good relationship with Russia.
In his recent book, Heier expounds on how Norway has navigated in the relationship to the USA as well as Russia following the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
The researcher says his findings demonstrate that the Solberg government took a less pragmatic and more principal stance towards Russia.
“What we have seen is that the strategy that kneeled the low-tension policy and Norway’s traditional bridge-building role was by and large abandoned by the Solberg government. This happened in the wake of the annexation of the Crimea.”
“Instead, the strategy was more hard-lined and actively supporting the USA and NATO in their rather stark criticism of Russia. I do not criticize neither one nor the other, however, this strategy makes it harder to continue the bridge-building role the government previously had, when Norway was both a good ally to the West and a good neighbor to the East”, he adds.
The defense researcher argues that the newly appointed Støre government has signaled a desire to expand the Norwegian action space and try and have more dialogue and cooperation.
“We see a shift back towards what in many ways has been the Norwegian tradition, namely a better balance in being principal and pragmatic at the same time; finding constructive and good arenas in which Norwegian and Russian authorities from the political and military side can have dialogue and cooperation in order to increase security margins in the High North while simultaneously, there is increased tension between the great powers.
In its foundational Hurdal Platform, the newly appointed government coalition, consisting of Labor and the agrarian Center Party, states that it will strive to achieve low tension in Norway’s immediate areas through maintaining Norwegian presence and through acting clearly, predictably, and reassuringly. The government also wants to strenghten the foreign and security policy dialogue in the High North and to establish joint meeting places in order to discuss security policy challenges.
“There is no contradiction in terms between being a good ally to the USA and at the same time having a good relationship with Russia. These can be combined, however, that combination was probably not as clear in the strategy developed following the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Thus, Norway rather became a much more important and clear player in the great power rivalry between the USA and Russia, and an important point of departure for American forces wanting to operate out from Norway to obtain better control in the Norwegian and the Barents Seas”, Heier says in closing.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.