HELSINKI — Norway's landmark pledge to contribute to NATO's missile defense system will further complicate confidence-building relations with Russia.
Not only has Norway confirmed its participation in the NATO system, but it also agreed to elevate its annual spending on defense from its current 1.43 percent of gross domestic product to the NATO target of 2 percent.
"Norway is a committed member of NATO and it is necessary for us to participate in, and commit to, this part of the strategy. We now need to examine what our contribution and participation will be," said Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
It remains to be seen if this "commitment-review" will result in Norway providing ballistic missile sites to NATO, including warship platforms, or if participation will be limited to capital funding contributions.
The government's commitment to the NATO missile defense system was made to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former socialist prime minister of Norway, during three days of talks with senior ministers and defense officials in Oslo that ended on June 6.
NATO, said Stoltenberg, wants Norway to bolster its contributions to the Western alliance and enhance its presence and role in the High North.
NATO has not specified the precise nature of Norway's participation and contribution.
Stoltenberg said he has discussed various options with the Norwegian government.
"There are many ways to contribute to such a missile defense system," the NATO chief said.
Despite the Norwegian government's policy of improving trade and political cooperation with Russia, relations between the two countries cooled in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Norway responded to the annexation, and Moscow's involvement in Ukraine, by suspending all concrete forms of military cooperation with Russia. Moscow has advised the Nordic state against joining the NATO-missile defense system.
Russia is not viewed as a threat to Norway or its national sovereignty, asserts Norway's Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. This perspective was reiterated by Stoltenberg in Oslo.
The chilly atmosphere has frustrated Norwegian efforts to establish and maintain "normal relations" with Russia in all core aspects of the High North, including trade, the environment, security and defense.
Oslo's bridge-building with Moscow has closely followed the NATO line on the missile defense system, with Norway insisting it is designed to intercept missiles from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. However, Russia regards the NATO system as being primarily directed at its military forces.
Joining the NATO missile defense system will further complicate Norway's relationship with Moscow, said Paul Martens, a Brussels-based political analyst.
"There has been a steady stream of Cold War-era style rhetoric out of Moscow since January that has been aimed at both Norway and Denmark. The common thread is NATO's missile defense program, which is viewed as a US project. Moscow doesn't want either Denmark or Norway anywhere near it," Martens said.
The first verbal missile came in January when Dmitry Rogozin, a senior political adviser to President Vladimir Putin and the deputy prime minister with responsibility for Russia's defense and space industry, warned Norway, Poland and Denmark against joining the NATO system.
"Politicians in Poland and Scandinavia should think very carefully about the decisions they make regarding NATO's Washington-directed missile defense weapons' project. Irresponsible decisions will inevitably cause an escalation in military threats in Europe that Russia would be required to respond to in a military way," Rogozin said.
Rogozin was recently appointed by Putin to chair Russia's new Governmental Commission for the Arctic.
In March, Russia's ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, warned the Danish government that any warships contributed by Denmark to carry weapons, missile interceptors or radar systems connected to the NATO program "could become targets for nuclear strikes" by Russia.
Radar equipment and missile interceptors for the NATO system have so far been deployed in Poland, Spain, Romania, the Czech Republic and Turkey.
Russia is less concerned over the prospect that Norway will boost its spending closer to the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP, Martens said.
"The Norwegian government has told NATO it will move in this direction, but to do so would require a significant increase in the annual defense budget. Norway could tap into its oil-based US $916 billion National Pension Fund, but this would require a change of policy as Norwegian governments tend to prefer to align public spending to actual tax revenue performance," Martens said.
Calculations conducted by Norway's Defense Research Institute in the first half of 2015 estimate that in order to reach the required 2 percent NATO spending target Norway would need to increase its annual defense budget by almost $2.2 billion a year.
Norway has allocated $5.2 billion to its core defense budget in 2015.
The institute's appraisal estimates that Norway would need to expand its defense budget by 4.4 percent a year up to 2025 to achieve the 2 percent target.
Solberg said reaching the 2 percent target is a "huge challenge," indicating that the surge in capital investment in the military required to meet this target may be beyond the country's ability.
Norway is not alone among NATO's 28 members to fall short of the 2 percent target. Only the US, Poland, Estonia, Greece and Britain spend 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense. The US level is the highest at 3.5 per cent of GDP. Reaching the 2 percent target is less critical than ensuring that Norway's armed forces offer a modern, credible deterrent to threats in the region, said Øyvind Halleraker, deputy chairman of the Norwegian Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FA-DC).
"It is far more important that our military is strong, modern and credible. We should not be obsessed with passing some mathematical line," said Halleraker, an MP in the conservative Høyre Party.
Norway is not far off NATO's 2 percent target if oil revenues are excluded from the national GDP equation, said Svein Roald Hansen, a Labor Party MP in the FA-DC.
"Oil revenues tend to distort the true picture by inflating Norway's national income. If oil revenues are excluded, our spending on defense is closer to 1.8 percent than the 1.43 percent where it stands now. The future costs attached to the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft and submarines will bring Norway closer to the NATO target," Hansen said.
Norway does meet the second strand in NATO's spending target for members, which requires states to invest at least 20 percent of their total defense budgets on equipment procurement and capital-based projects.