- Norwegian authorities must decide which way they want to go. That is the clear message from Russia’s new Ambassador to Norway, Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishvili. In this interview, the first one he has given following the striking press statement last week, he states that increased NATO activity near Russia’s borders will definitely not increase North European security.
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Russia's Ambassador to Norway is clear: Norway has, initially, nothing to fear from Russia, however, Norwegian authorities should not be naïve. Norwegian participation in NATO's missile shield will endanger the country's boundaries.
- If Norway sees it as just an act meant to secure its boundaries, and brings NATO in – and reshuffles system of bases – and participates in a missile shield… If Norway claims that these are just initiatives to secure its boundaries, then that is not true. That is not something we will believe, Ramishvili says.
- The devil is in the details
It is early afternoon in Frogner, Oslo, and a young Russian woman has just let High North News in through the gate to Russia's embassy. We are in the official representation residence, together with Ambassador Ramishvili and the Embassy's Senior Advisor Andrey Leonidovitch Kolesnikov.
This is the first interview the new Russian Ambassador to Norway has given after two Norwegian Members of Parliament recently were denied visa to Russia. Last week, Russia’s embassy in Oslo published a press statement where they in no uncertain terms questioned the Norwegian policy towards Russia. In the statement, the embassy clearly expresses its view that Norway’s current cooperation with Russia is not sustainable.
Kolesnikov has just provided us with a detailed overview over the joint military exercises that the Norwegian defense forces and NATO's member and partner countries held in Central Norway and adjacent sea areas in 2015 and 2016. We have also been given a compendium, which uses both time stamps and themed chapters to provide us with a thorough understanding of Russian authorities' view on the relationship to the trans-Atlantic defense alliance.
- The devil is in the details, the Ambassador says.
- Use whatever you want.
Two good neighbors?
High North News has verified the information, which the Russian embassy presents in its overview with a NATO source. The source wishes to remain anonymous, though it confirms that all exercises listed have actually taken place.
- Is this list complete?
- We do not wish to comment on that. A few numbers here and there are incorrect in the Russians' overview, though we will not go into details on that. Otherwise, this is information taken from open sources, the source says to High North News.
- Norway has absolutely no reason to fear Russia, neither in the north nor in the south, Ambassador Ramishvili says during our conversation, before he continues:
- Nothing in the Russian strategic 'reading' has changed in its consideration of Norway. However, today we see some activities of the kind that never took place in the past. Norway has been a NATO member for years and will remain so, but earlier we managed to find formats for our relationship that reduced the need for military maneuvers and preparations.
The political climate between Norway and Russia has gone from cold to freezing since Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Now, the Russians are tired of Norway condemning this action at nearly every possible opportunity, according to Ambassador Ramishvili. The relationship between Norway and its eastern neighbor suffered another blow when Russia denied visas to a couple of Norwegian Members of Parliament a few weeks ago.
In here, underneath the chandeliers of the Ambassador's residence, however, the tone is different. The Ambassador is not a man of few words, and he is friendly and easy-going. He appears engaged and jovial, though leaves no doubt behind that the message he conveys is most serious.
During the past few months, the question of a potential Norwegian participation in NATO's missile shield has been brought up again, and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense has, according to NTB, stated that it considers the missile shield 'a purely defensive capacity' which 'increases the Alliance's ability to provide a collective defense'.
When the Norwegian Police Security Services (PST) earlier this month presented its annual threat evaluation, PST Managing Director Benedicte Bjørnland warned that Russia uses its Secret Services to weaken the Norwegian support to the sanctions against Russia, and to counteract NATO's missile shield.
The Russian Ambassador argues that the debate is necessary:
- Not all NATO countries are planning to place elements of BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence System, editorial note) on their territory. We need these discussions both in the press and between experts, about missile shield and Norway's participation. The last point, sadly, does not bring any positive symbols into our relationship. Neighbors should have a special relationship, and there should be exceptions related to military participation, he argues.
The Ambassador is clear about how Russia will view a potential Norwegian participation in NATO’s missile shield:
- It will be a part of strengthening NATO's participation on our border. And, well, it is up to Norway to decide this and choose which way the country should go. Will you endanger your borders through creating difficulties for Russia, and through that worsening the situation, or does Norway wish to reduce this danger? Reducing the danger is synonym to reducing NATO's participation at our border. Russia would, if so, immediately respond positively and even help Norway to get rid of the worries that the country might have. I can assure you of that, the Ambassador says.
Will respond to potential participation
Should Russia have to take measures to respond to Norway's activities on behalf of NATO, the Ambassador says, it would be very difficult to return to a 'zero point' like the one that existed a few years ago, prior to the sanctions and the counter-sanctions:
- If the same were to happen in the future, it would definitely have irrevocable consequences. It would then be placed into a context regarding strategic decisions for Russia, especially as it is about a missile shield. The missile shield is a system, which, from our point of view is not just a local decision on Norway's part. Norway may want to be a 'local part' of NATO's missile shield, but the Russian response will not be the same, he assures us.
- However, this is a very technical topic, and I do not wish to expand further. It will be for the military to decide, he says, before adding that this brings up yet another challenge in the wake of the absent dialogue.
- We no longer have a format for negotiations between Norway and Russia's military, as Norwegian authorities decided to freeze that contact, even on expert level.
The Ambassador is very clear that Russia, should Norwegian participation in NATO's missile shield become a reality, 'will take measures according to such an attitude'.
Norway and NATO provoke
'NATO's military preparations in the border areas towards Russia, including in Norway, to which Russia has never represented nor represents a threat, provokes tension and undermines the existing balance of power in Europe' is the argument in one of the many documents that High North News has received from the embassy.
The documents also bring up the Norwegian surveillance ship 'Marjata', based in Kirkenes. The same goes for the South Varanger Battalion, where there are plans of setting up an intelligence unit, allegedly consisting of 150 persons. Nor is Russia much pleased with 330 American Marines being placed in Værnes, near Trondheim, Norway, on a rotating basis, or with the fact that a new radar will be built in Vardø by 2020, a radar 'which according to experts will be capable of conducting tasks in favor of the American missile shield'.
- That fact that 330 marines are placed rather far away from Russian territory does not quite calm us, the Ambassador says.
Ramishvili refers to the fact that the American marines can exercise all over Norway, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, including in the North.
The problem, the Russians argue, is that Norway and NATO hide behind misleading information when they claim that the American forces are in Norway on 'rotation'.
- The soldiers will be on rotation, sure, but their presence will be permanent, Ramishvili argues.
Under the US whip
- It appears to us that the Norwegian government's decision is another step in a long line of military preparations initiated and led by the USA. And this step is obviously not one that contributes to increased stability and security in the European North.
The ongoing US deployment of heavy arms and extra force on rotational basis in East Europe and the Baltics too, contribute to provocation and tension.
- Exercising activities on own territory, military exercises included, lies within the supreme rights of Norway. We, on the other hand, cannot remain ignorant when there is increased NATO activity on our borders, the Ambassador says.
Repeated attempts at making NATO focus extra attention on the Arctic cannot be ignored, the Ambassador argues. Nor can Russia ignore increased intelligence activity, modernization of objects that may potentially be used in a missile defense and maneuvering near key military facilities in Russia.
- The best conditions for security can only be achieved through developing of partnership and strengthening of centuries of good neighborly relations, the Ambassador ascertains.
- No radical increase
Reports of increased Russian military activity has repeatedly appeared in Norwegian and international media. One example was last fall, when some of Russia's largest and most modern war ships sailed along the Norwegian coast. There has also been media reports of Russian fighter planes coming a bit too close to Norwegian fighter planes in international air space.
- What is your comment on this? Has there been a build-up of Russian military activity off the Norwegian coast?
- There is not radical increase of military activities from the Russian side, compared with how it was during the Cold War, the Ambassador says, reffering to the chart below from the Norwegian Joint Headquarters.
The overview specifies how many times Norwegian fighter planes have cleared or identified Russian fighter planes outside Norwegian air space in the period from 1984 to 2015. The data show that the number of clearings was lower in 2015 compared to 2014.
- God bless the Arctic
We ask the Ambassador what he thinks of the general security political climate in the Arctic. Will the Arctic remain a peaceful arena, or is there a risk that tensions between NATO and Russia from other regions in the world may spill into the Arctic region?
Ramishvili says the Russian efforts currently taken in the High North, among others with renewing airports, updating navigation systems and deployment of radars, is all about the country having had a need to modernize its infrastructure in the north.
- We do not do this to threaten our neighbors. This has to do with the necessity of increasing security related to the economic and industrial developing of the Russian part of the Arctic.
As it is today, he says, Russia sometimes experiences the international climate of cooperation in the Arctic to be more positive than current state of bilateral relations with Norway.
- God bless this area, which, in addition to the fisheries, is one of the most positive areas of our relationship, he adds.
- No one makes judgmental decisions here. The exploration and developing of the Arctic is peaceful. Hopefully, it will remain so.
If conflicts elsewhere in the world were to potentially spill over into the Arctic, it would complicate the common goal of securing the Arctic region as a territory of dialogue and cooperation, the Ambassador argues:
- Russia is, just like Norway, interested in a sustainable development of the Arctic. We do not want the Arctic to be a conflict zone. There are no unsolvable opposites or themes in the region that indicate the necessity of presence of military blocks.
Read also: Does not want the Russian conflict to enter the Arctic (article in Norwegian)
Read also: Russia does not want the Ukrainian crisis spilling into the Arctic (article in Norwegian)
Read also: - We are Doomed to Cooperate, Russian Ambassador Says
Tomorrow you can read more about how the Russians regard the rest of the climate of cooperation with Norway, and how the sanctions have hit both countries, and their economic cooperation.