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  • Writer's picturePerri Grace

War in the North: Norwegian Front

Russia borders fourteen countries and throughout its history has invaded all its neighbours except one - Norway. The Soviet military briefly entered Norwegian soil to liberate Finland but then exited, unlike in much of eastern Europe.

Two Norwegian soldiers patrol with skis on the border with Russia near Korpfjell's observation post tower in Kirkenes. Credit: Annika Byrde/NTB/AFP

This is a story Norwegians like to tell to claim a spot at the Scandinavian ‘bear-tamer’ table, but Russians also like to frame this story as a tale for goodwill, for political gain and leverage.

Today, there is a split; Russia’s shadow casts over the North while the south is separated by Finland and Sweden. With the war in Ukraine, Europe’s northern countries are as wary as ever with Sweden and Finland looking poised to join NATO. Can neighbouring Norway, a good-standing member of NATO, provide a geopolitical example?

The Soviet Shadow in the North

There has always been a historically pragmatic relationship between Norway and Russia. Internally, there is a big divide between southern and northern Norway; in the north, the border means a day-to-day reality with Russia, while there is more of a disconnect in the south where Russia feels further away and more in the headlines. However, the shadow of the past still looms.

"There has always been a historically pragmatic relationship between Norway and Russia."

Since World War II, Norway's relations with Russia are strongly influenced by the fact that Norway is a small state with membership in NATO, while Russia is the world's largest country in area and a major power in international politics. Whilst the political facade shows cooperation in nuclear safety, energy, fisheries, environment, and defence, the relationship is much more complicated under the surface. Since the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea, the relationship has been characterised by intelligence and cyber operations, increased tensions, and military rearmament on the Russo-Norge border.

Wary eyes on both sides

Russia has remained sceptical of its neighbour when it comes to NATO and is willing to push the envelope; Russia conducts exercises close to the Norwegian border and during the Zapad exercises, they simulated attacks on attacks on the Globus-II radar with Russian bombers as well as other Norwegian military installations. This directly led to a security spiral with increased military build-up on both sides of the border. As described by Katarzyna Zysk, a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, “Russia has traditionally been more concerned with having direct contact with single countries, than through organizations such as the EU or NATO. There is simply a greater chance of gaining a foothold for their interests when a small country like Norway stands alone.”

Zysk goes on to assert that “there are also problems when it comes to values and worldviews that clash between Russia and the West. They have a basic view that small nations such as Norway or Ukraine cannot be considered completely sovereign. This is completely unacceptable for western countries. In this sense, it is very unfavourable for Russia that Norway is not alone when there are many common interests in the High North.”

The Svalbard stalemate

Below the depths of the North Pole, in between the Norweigan mainland, lies Svalbard, a remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundras. Although the archipelago is Norway’s territory, following the signing of the Svalbard treaty which promotes the demilitarisation of the area, 43 countries have an equal right to run commercial activities. However, today only Russia exercises the Svalbard right. Russia takes advantage of the treaty to carry out economic activity, including coal mining, but Russia is losing money for the strategic settlement due to the heavy subsidies the coal mining receives from the Kremlin. The decline in monetary gain from the area has pushed Russia to look into tourism in Barentsburg, a settlement consisting of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Much to Norway’s disapproval and dismissal, Moscow has used the treaty to attempt to search for oil and gas. Norway sees the implementation of the treaty solely mandating the islands themselves, not the sea area, something Russia disagrees with.

The Norwegian ship Polarsyssel aids in the search for a Russian helicopter that crashed into the sea off Barentsburg, a town on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, in 2017. Credit: AFP

However, the Svalbard stronghold is deep-rooted in establishing a foothold to make sure the archipelago is not used by NATO and the United States. Svalbard sits strategically close to the bases on the Kola Peninsula, which is of great operational importance for the Russian Northern Fleet, despite NATO not having plans to use the area. Zysk notes “there is a possible perception from the Russian side that Svalbard can be used to influence the strategic situation in the area and in the worst case be used in an attack on Russia.”

Is Norway pushing the boundaries of demilitarisation?

Svalbard has become a point of contention in Norway, with many arguing the treaty is ludicrously outdated and translations from countries differ. Russia's interpretation of the treaty, namely that the area should be demilitarised, is something Norway clearly disagrees with, signified through Oslo’s constant coast guard monitoring in an attempt to demonstrate Norwegian sovereignty over the area. The frequent visits of Norwegian naval vessels, patrol aircraft and military personnel in theory do not violate the treaty but have prompted dissatisfaction from Russia. But despite the criticism and occasional tension based on access to fishing resources in the waters around Svalbard, Russia has in practice respected Norway. A stabilising factor is that both states are interested in keeping the status quo; Russia will not challenge the archipelago's legal regime as they would like to maintain the somewhat "privileged" position they have on Svalbard. Russia has accused Norway of increasing militarisation of the high north but as Russia continues to look at an Arctic and multipolar military expansion with support hubs near coasts it seems they may have to cooperate.

" A stabilising factor is that both states are interested in keeping the status quo..."
U.S. Marines offload amphibious assault vehicles from a landing craft in Alvund, Norway, during Trident Juncture 18, an exercise to train Alliance forces to defend a member state after an act of aggression. Credit: US Navy

Oslo is set to approve a US military cooperation agreement giving a green light for the building and maintaining of military infrastructure in four different facilities; Rygge, Sola, Evenes, and Ramsund. The deal means the US can bring personnel and set up shop in Norway, a deal that has gone rather unnoticed by Norwegians until it began to draw controversy from the country's Red and Socialist Left parties. The Norwegian military base policy states that foreign powers cannot have a permanent standing force. The US will now be able to circumvent the Norwegian legislature in certain areas, drawing some opponents to label the deal unconstitutional.

Russia has condemned the agreement, with Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova stating calling it “new evidence that Oslo is gradually abandoning its self-imposed restrictions” in a press briefing last May. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also stated that Norway is effectively amending their laws and that it will be raised by Russia in their interactions with the Norwegian Government.

It remains to be seen if the delicate status quo will hold or if this latest development will push matters into more open confrontation.


Written by Perri Grace, in collaboration with Vergard Halkjelsvik, a Norwegian political expert who has previously worked for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Edited by Wade McCagh


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