A 'No' From NATO: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, has said the alliance has no plans to extend its presence in the Nordic High North. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, right, said that decision would not hinder his country's plans to reinforce defenses there. (Agence France-Presse)
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HELSINKI — Norway’s ambition of persuading NATO to establish a strong direct military presence in the Arctic High North — and as a strategic counterweight to Russia’s intensifying rearming programs in the region — suffered a setback after the leader of NATO said the alliance has no plans to expand its role there.
Russia’s multibillion-dollar rearming of its northern and eastern naval, air and land combat capabilities has raised the ire of its Nordic neighbors in recent weeks.
On March 30, Russian fighter jets and bombers staged a large-scale, Cold War-type simulated bomb-run attack on military and industrial targets on the Swedish mainland. That produced a highly critical riposte in political quarters in Sweden after it emerged that the Swedish Air Force (SAF) had no capacity on that night to scramble JAS Gripen fighter jets to deal with the simulated threat.
Much to Sweden’s embarrassment, the immediate threat was handled by Danish F-16s operating from NATO’s Baltic air policing station at Siauliai in Lithuania.
Although NATO is aware of increasing concerns among Nordic and Baltic nations about Russia’s military rebuilding programs, there will be no major change in the alliance’s strategic position in the High North, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
“At this present time, NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North,” he said.
Tensions in the region, and the potential for disputes over sovereign rights to the region’s estimated vast oil and natural gas resources, could be best handled through dialogue, the NATO chief said.
“The Arctic is a harsh environment. It rewards cooperation, not confrontation,” Rasmussen said. “I trust we’ll continue to see cooperation.”
Norway, he added, has a legitimate expectation like all other member nations to enjoy the benefits of the alliance’s collective defense, which extends to the High North.
The lack of a strengthened NATO presence in the High North will not hinder Norway’s plans to modernize and reinforce its High North defenses and maintain a strong level of spending to upgrade its military capabilities, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.
“We have made the High North a top defense priority, and we will continue to encourage NATO and the European Union to play a higher role in its security,” he said. “The Arctic’s untapped mineral resources will bring it more into focus in future years. Dialogue is essential among the Arctic Council nations, including Russia, which we are working to form a better relationship with.”
Norway has urged NATO to work more closely with the country’s military to improve the alliance’s level of knowledge and situational awareness in the High North. Norway also would like to expand geographic expertise within NATO, proposing that the alliance improve connections between the national units within NATO’s command structure.
“Such a link between national structures and NATO would be a cost-effective way to better utilize the resources we already have,” Norway Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen said.
“Collective defense is the backbone of NATO,” she said. “We must ensure that we can operate well even after the operation in Afghanistan has ended. We must ensure that the alliance can act quickly, should a situation arise that makes this necessary.”
All of the Nordic states would like to see a greater NATO military presence in the High North, said Paul Hessler, a Brussels-based political analyst.
“Norway has been to the fore in modernizing its High North defense capabilities,” he said. “By contrast, recent Swedish administrations have cut real spending, arguing that the region’s main superpower, Russia, poses no tangible immediate threat to Swedish sovereignty.”
NATO’s reluctance to increase its military presence in the Arctic, even though alliance states such as the US and Canada plan to raise spending, may result in Norway developing a stronger line on High North defense within the framework of Nordic defense cooperation, Hessler said.
Controversy in Sweden
Swedish Premier Fredrik Reinfeldt on May 13 moved to downplay political and public concerns regarding the potential threat posed by Russia.
“I don’t think Russia is preparing to attack Sweden. Their security threats lie elsewhere. In any case, its military buildup is occurring from such a low level that the Russian military has neither the will nor the capacity to attack Swedish territory,” Reinfeldt said at a news conference.
The political spotlight fell heavily on the SAF following the simulated attack on Sweden on March 30. Just weeks earlier, defense chief Gen. Sverker Göransson had warned that low spending on defense had left the Swedish military stripped of the capability to defend the country for longer than a week.
This lack of preparedness was evident when two Tu-22M3 Backfire heavy bombers, escorted by four Su-27 Flanker fighters, flew close to Swedish airspace, skirting the island of Gotland, to conduct simulated attacks on Sweden.
Swedish radars tracked the fast-approaching Russian aircraft, but the SAF was unable to scramble a quick reaction alert (QRA) response due to a lack of standby JAS Gripens.
Sweden’s spending on defense has been largely stagnant since 2008, with all areas of the military forced into capability-limiting cost-savings programs. The country’s defense budget for 2013 will run to US $6.1 billion, almost $1.1 billion less than Norway.
Sweden’s decision to downsize its Air Force, from 20 squadrons and 400 aircraft to four divisions with fewer than 140 front-line fighters, also has weakened the SAF’s QRA capability.
Unlike Sweden, Norway has adopted a twin-track approach with Russia, to improve relations and reduce potential security and political tensions, Hessler said.
“Norway is busily bridge-building the relationship between NATO and Russia in the hope that Moscow will agree to a higher direct NATO presence in the High North,” he said.
“Norway is also developing closer cross-border military relationships, like the joint naval exercises that ended May 16,” he said. “Sweden has yet to go down this dual-purpose route.”