HELSINKI — Russia's decision to conduct unscheduled large-scale maneuvers in response to the Norway-led Arctic Challenge exercises in the High North has added fuel to geo-political tensions in the region.
Arctic Challenge participants from within NATO and the non-aligned Nordic countries view the Kremlin's response as a demonstration of Russia's military strength in the region and its unease over the deepening defense partnerships between NATO and neutral Finland and Sweden.
The changing geo-political landscape was highlighted in a joint statement issued by defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland in April, promising a new era of deeper defense cooperation.
"The Russian military are acting in a challenging way along our borders," the ministers said. "We must be prepared to face possible crises or incidents."
Rising tensions and distrust of Russia are behind the steady rise in Swedish public support for NATO membership, said Ulf Bjereld, a political analyst at Sweden's University of Gothenburg.
"The increase comes from the combination of the perceived Russian threat, and the ongoing debate over the Swedish Armed Forces' perceived inability to fully carry out their tasks," Bjereld said. "Together, this is driving more Swedes to support Swedish membership of NATO."
According to Bjereld, decreasing Swedish opposition to NATO is certain to "change the landscape of the Sweden-NATO debate."
It was the degree of the robust Russian response that surprised Nordic and NATO military chiefs. Russia's Northern and Western commands mobilized about 12,000 troops and 250 aircraft, including the new Arctic Brigade in Kola.
The size of the mobilization compares with the 115 aircraft and about 4,000 troops from nine countries taking part in Arctic Challenge, which runs May 25-June 5. Russia's maneuvers will be conducted at the same time.
In a bid to cool tensions, Nordic governments reminded Russia that Arctic Challenge is not an exercise directed at a potential Russian threat, but a biennial event held under the auspices of Nordic military cooperation between non-aligned Sweden and Finland and NATO member Norway.
Dialogue with Russia is the best means for Nordic and European nations to soothe tensions that have elevated due to the Kremlin's militarization policies, its actions in Ukraine and its desire to expand its reach in the Arctic, said Krister Bringéus, Sweden's ambassador to the Arctic Council.
"For one, Sweden is closely monitoring whether the Russian build-up in the Arctic has to do with Arctic in itself, or if it is more about Russia's global ambitions," Bringéus said. "Russia's military activities, as far as I can see, are always aimed at causing concern, and it is very important that we monitor events closely. This is what we are doing."
The changing geo-political landscape for Nordic and Baltic states has mirrored the reinforcement of Russia's military capacity in the High North and to a lesser extent the Baltic Sea.
With Finland and Sweden moving closer to NATO, and with the long-term prospect that one or both countries will join the Western alliance, Russia's muscle flexing has increased, leading to regular incidents, violations and suspected intrusions by Russian aircraft and submarines in Nordic territory.
On May 22, Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven noted that the increasing incidence of Russian aircraft flying close to its national airspace was probably intended to test the country's defenses and gather intelligence on Swedish military response times.
"This is a sign of the times, and we are seeing an increase in Russia's exercise activities as it seeks to build its military capacities. We need to be quick to react to possible threats and violations against our territories," Löfven said.
The Kremlin's response to Arctic Challenge is predictable, said Julie Wilhelmsen, a Russia specialist with Norway's foreign policy institute NUPI, noting that Russia is a superpower that has been lying impaired for almost 20 years.
"The way Russia sees it, after building up and modernizing its military over a long period, it is now getting closer to a sort of normalcy in relation to its superpower status," Wilhelmsen said.
Arctic Challenge includes aircraft and troops from the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. The exercises are taking place in the High North, with operations divided between Bodø in Norway, Rovaniemi in Finland and Kallax in Sweden.
The hub points for the Russian maneuvers, which the Defense Ministry in Moscow described as "a massive surprise combat-readiness inspection" of forces, are concentrated in the High North, the Urals and Komi in northern Russia. Exercises will include simulated cruise missile strikes on practice targets.
Arctic Challenge training scenarios will include strike delivery against ground and airborne targets, simulated anti-air artillery combat, low-level flying and midair refueling.
Aircraft will include Norwegian F-16s, F-18s, Hawk T1s, Tornado GR4s, Mirage 2000s, Eurofighter Typhoons and Swedish JAS 39 Gripens. The exercise will also feature NATO AWACS jets, transport aircraft, tankers, and DA-20 Falcon jets in support roles.
Arctic Challenge is designed to better prepare Swedish, Finnish and NATO air forces for "future challenges and missions," said Col. Carl-Johan Edström, commander of the Swedish Air Force's F21-Norrbotten Air Force Wing.
"We create our security together with others and that means we need to train," Edström said.
The Arctic Challenge exercises reveal a strong degree of solidarity among participating nations and forces, and "especially nearest neighbors," said Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson of the Swedish Armed Forces. "These kind of activities send a security policy signal that demonstrate that we can carry out advanced operations. It gives us an opportunity to exercise with different aircraft types from large composite air forces, using tactics and procedures that can be practiced in a realistic threat environment."
The Norway-led exercises are to a large part intended to build national and allied capability to lead air operations, said Brig. Gen. Jan Ove Rygg, the head of the Royal Norwegian Air Force's National Air Operations Center, and the director of the Arctic Challenge exercise.
"The aim is to exercise and train units in the orchestration and conduct of complex air operations in close combination with NATO partners," Rygg said. "The unique cross-border airspace makes [Arctic Challenge] a one-of-a-kind training ground for increasing interoperability and skills in all parts of the chain."