America’s longtime military alliance with Norway is now a source of tension with Russia.
Cold War frictions heated up as some 330 U.S. Marines arrived in Norway last month to prepare for training exercises. They are preparing to participate in an annual military exercise conducted between Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. The exercise, set for April, will take place in a coastal region of Norway above the Arctic Circle.
The U.S. has dispatched an Army brigade to central Europe in response to tensions with the Russian Federation over Ukraine.
The initial deployment of the Marines is set to last six months, but may continue far longer. The move has been criticized by the Russian government since it was announced in 2015. Frants Klintsevitsj, the deputy chairman of the defense and security committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said his nation might add Norway to “the list of targets for our strategic weapons.”
The arrival of the U.S. Marines is just one part of an increased Norwegian effort to build up its defense capacity. In October, Norway increased its annual defense budget by $230 million – to roughly $6 billion – and re-committed itself to the purchase of 50 advanced F-35 warplanes from Lockheed Martin.
Speaking to a group of reporters at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Foreign Minister Børge Brende acknowledged that Russia posed an “asymmetric” security challenge, and he raised concerns about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Norway is also concerned about Russian troop deployments closer to home. Russian paratroopers have conducted practice drops on the Norwegian-controlled island of Svalbard. The island, which is governed by Norway under the terms of an international treaty, is also home to a small Russian colony. The island is supposed to be de-militarized but Russian Federation forces have conducted some high-profile maneuvers there in recent months. In April, a group of Chechen special forces conducted a paratroop drop on Svalbard.
“The Arctic is key strategic terrain," said Secretary of Defense James Mattis in a written statement submitted to Congress as part of his confirmation hearings. "Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritize the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic.”
The U.S.-Norwegian military alliance dates to World War II. During the War, the United States supported Norway and even created the 99th Infantry Battalion, a unit of largely Norwegian-American soldiers. Norway became the only country on the Scandinavian peninsula to join NATO in 1949. Since 2001, Norwegians forces have fought alongside American forces in conflicts including those in Afghanistan and Libya.
The arrival of the U.S. Marine contingent has been welcomed across the Norwegian political spectrum but there are some critics. “Bringing in the Marines is ridiculous now that the Cold War is over,” said Emille Sommervold, who is a resident of the area where the Marines will be deployed. “Due to the election of Donald Trump, who is hostile to NATO, I think the U.S. has lost credibility as an ally. The U.S. is looking to cooperate with new partners like Russia and so should Norway.”
But Norwegian officials are much more concerned about Vladimir Putin than Donald Trump. “We are certainly worried about Russia’s recent behavior in the Arctic,” a Norwegian official who insisted on anonymity told AMI. “Until recently we deployed the bulk of our military assets away from the Arctic and our border with Russia. Recently, we have shifted our policy; sometimes deference can be interpreted as a provocation.”