Andrew Higgins, New York Times
2 April 2015
BODO, Norway – From his command post burrowed deep into a mountain of quartz and slate north of the Arctic Circle, the 54-year-old commander of the Norwegian military’s operations headquarters watches time flowing backward, pushed into reverse by surging Russian military activity redolent of East-West sparring during the Cold War.
“I am what you could call a seasoned Cold Warrior,” the commander, Lt. Gen. Morten Haga Lunde, said, speaking in an underground complex built to withstand a nuclear blast. As a result, he added, he is not too alarmed by increased Russian military activity along NATO’s northern flank.
“It is more or less the same as when I started,” said General Lunde, who began his career tracking Soviet warplanes as a Norwegian Air Force navigator in the early 1980s.
After a long hiatus following the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Moscow grounded its strategic bombers for lack of fuel, spare parts and will to project power, President Vladimir V. Putin’snewly assertive Russia “is back to normal behavior,” General Lunde said.
Last year, Norway intercepted 74 Russian warplanes off its coast, 27 percent more than in 2013, scrambling F-16 fighters from a military air base in Bodo to monitor and photograph them. This is far fewer than the hundreds of Soviet planes Norway tracked off its coast at the height of the Cold War. However, last year’s total was a drastic increase from the 11 Russian warplanes Norway spotted 10 years earlier.
In Norway, a country that takes pride in championing peace – witnessed in its brokering of pacts between Israelis and Palestinians and its awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize – what General Lunde called the “new old normal” has come as a jolt. It has set off debate over military spending and highlighted how quickly Mr. Putin has shredded the certainties of the post-Cold War era.
“Russia has created uncertainty about its intentions, so there is, of course, unpredictability,” Norway’s defense minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide, said in an interview in Oslo, adding that the military was being restructured to deal better with new risks, particularly in the Arctic.
Nobody expects Russia to invade. So far, its warplanes have taken care not to stray into Norwegian airspace, unlike in the Baltics, where they regularly violate borders.
But the spike in Russian military activity along Norway’s coast has added an unexpected measure of verisimilitude to a new television thriller called “Occupied,” which, based on an idea by Norway’s pre-eminent crime writer, Jo Nesbo, explores how the country would respond to conquest by Russia. The multipart series is scheduled to air in September. When Mr. Nesbo first proposed the idea years ago, he was told it was much too far-fetched.
Russia has itself fed the scaremongering with bursts of belligerent language, like the recent comment by Moscow’s ambassador to Copenhagen that Danish warships “will be targets for Russia’s nuclear weapons” if Denmark contributes radar to a Europe-based missile defense system planned by NATO. Denmark’s foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, dismissed the threat as “unacceptable.”
Russia’s muscle-flexing is due in part simply to the fact that the country is spending more on its military and has re-established abilities eroded during the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s. When Mr. Putin first became president in 2000, Russia spent $9.2 billion on its military, but this has since risen 10 times and will increase again this year despite a slumping economy, hammered by a collapse in the price of oil and also by Western sanctions.
“The signal they are sending is that the situation in the 1990s was an exception,” General Lunde said.
Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who became NATO’s secretary general late last year, said that Russia’s new assertiveness was not just a result of increased funding and revived ability. He said it was also “part of a broader picture where we see that Russia is willing to use force,” most notably in Georgia in 2008 and, more recently, in Ukraine.
“It is this total picture that gives us reason for concern,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Ukraine, he added, is very different from Norway, which is a member of NATO. Ukraine is outside the alliance and has no prospect of joining any time soon. However, Mr. Stoltenberg said, Norway and other NATO countries that share a border with Russia also have to deal with Russian efforts to “intimidate its neighbors,” no matter what their status.
Russian air activity along the borders of NATO, the northern parts of which are patrolled by fighters based in Bodo, increased 50 percent from 2013 to last year, according to the alliance. At the same time, Russia sharply increased so-called snap military exercises, training maneuvers that, in violation of established procedure, were either announced at the last minute or kept secret.
One such exercise was used to cover Russia’s furtive seizure of Crimea in March 2014, but most seem aimed simply at showing NATO that Russia is back as a serious power. Among those was an exercise held last month across from Norway’s northern border with Russia – just a week after Norwegian forces held their own, much smaller exercise, Joint Viking, which was announced two years in advance.
Katarzyna Zysk, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Defense Studies, said Mr. Putin had emphasized strengthening Russia’s military presence in the Arctic; equipping the Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk, with new nuclear submarines; setting up a string of bases along the vast northern coast; and reopening abandoned Soviet-era military facilities like the base at Alakurtti, close to Finland.
Norway, she said, “does not count for Russia as Norway, but only as a member of NATO.”
“For them, it is the door to NATO,” she continued.
This link, she said, has made Russia particularly suspicious of Svalbard, a demilitarized cluster of Norwegian-controlled islands in the high Arctic that Moscow believes serves as a platform for eavesdropping and other covert activities by NATO.
While neither Russia nor Norway officially views the other as a direct threat, “the potential for inadvertent escalation is very serious,” Ms. Zysk said.
On at least one occasion, a Russian warplane has come dangerously close to hitting a Norwegian aircraft in what some see as a pattern of reckless flying. In January, two Russian Tu-95 bombers flew down the Norwegian coast and then, their transponders turned off, crossed into the English Channel, playing havoc with civilian air traffic and prompting the Royal Air Force to scramble.
If anything, however, Russia’s behavior has undermined its one clear and constant long-term objective: the weakening of NATO, which the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, Dmitry K. Kiselyov, described last year as a “cancerous tumor” that must be removed.
Norway, along with all but three other European members of NATO, still spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its military, the target that all 28 members of the alliance are supposed to meet.
But Ms. Soreide, the defense minister, said Norway had stopped cutting and would increase military spending this year by 3.3 percent, despite economic troubles caused by the collapse in the price of oil, Norway’s principal export.
Russia is “not viewed as a military threat,” she said, but it has changed the rules of the game by creating so much uncertainty about its intentions. “Until a threat arrives at your doorstep, you don’t know what will happen,” she added.
Finland, traditionally nonaligned and outside the alliance, has grown so concerned by Russia’s new approach that it has in recent months floated the idea of joining NATO, previously a taboo topic. Prime Minister Alexander Stubb has said he would like Finland to join the alliance one day, and this has growing, but still minority, support from a once deeply hostile public, according to opinion polls.
Russia’s assertiveness has also prodded NATO to strengthen its presence in the Baltics, where new alliance members like Estonia have no air force of their own but now host regular rotations of warplanes from other members, including Poland and Britain, to patrol the skies.
NATO’s tightening bonds are on display daily at the Bodo air base, where Norwegian fighter pilots, idled for years by the absence of Russian planes to follow, once again have a sense of purpose. A busy NATO outpost during the Cold War, Bodo served as a hub for U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union. Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot imprisoned in Moscow in 1960, was on his way to Bodo when his plane was shot down.
But once the Soviet Union unraveled, Bodo fell into the doldrums, leaving Norwegian fighter pilots with nothing much to do.
“After the Berlin Wall came down, everything was very quiet,” said the veteran commander of the 331st Air Squadron, whose F-16 fighters are on round-the-clock alert as part of NATO’s air defense network. “Now it is a lot more interesting.”
Linked by secure telephone to the Combined Air Operations Center of NATO in Uedem, Germany, his squadron gets a call whenever Russian planes appear off the Norwegian coast and then has only 15 minutes to get airborne.
“It is like doing extreme sports,” the commander said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of military rules. He described a special thrill in being able to get close to and photograph new Russian aircraft, adding that he had been the first to take a picture of Russia’s Su-34, a new fighter bomber. “That was very exciting,” he said.
“We are now getting back to the normal way of thinking,” the squadron commander added.
But he questioned whether public opinion had caught up with the fact that a predictable post-Cold War era of East-West comity was now over. “The problem in Norway is that we are so rich, fat and happy that we are not worried enough,” he said.