Vladimir Putin has clearly focused on expanding Russian influence in the areas of strategic interest to Russia such as the region that stretches from the Baltics to the Nordics.
Proof? They have generated major military exercises designed to influence behavior, such as last year’s Zapad 2018. They have issued nuclear threats against the Danes and the Norwegians at various times over the past few years, saying that if they modernized their defenses the Nordic region they would face nuclear annihilation.
Last year, the Russians simulated military strikes against Norwegian territory and very recently sent a large naval task force from the Kola peninsula without notification. These actions are clearly designed to intimate and to isolate. Of course, the Russians have hoped that European conflicts with the Trump Administration (and disagreements within NATO) would help further isolate the Nordics.
Meanwhile, the United States has diffused its efforts with an over-emphasis on stability operations and counter-insurgency in the Middle East. For example, the Russians are expanding their Arctic capabilities, while both Canada and the United States have essentially ignored the Russian Arctic force modernization effort.
Russia’s threats have not cowed the Nordic states. Instead, they have strengthened their relationship with Washington, with each other through enhanced cooperation and plan focused to mobilize their entire societies to deal with the Russian efforts to intimidate.
The Norwegians, in particular, have focused on mobilization and crisis response. This year’s Trident Juncture 2018 exercise — which NATO bills as a major NATO exercise — is from the Norwegian point of view more than that. It is about testing and enhancement of their Total Defense Concept. For Norway, the Total Defense Concept focuses on the ability of the civilian side of society to support military operations. For example, the Norwegians do not have a specialized military medical service. Civilians are mobilized to support both Norwegian and allied medical needs in times of conflict. This will be tested during Trident Juncture 2018.
In my recent visit to Norway, I discussed the Norwegian preparation for Trident Juncture 2018 with one of the organizers of the exercise, Col. Lars Lervik: “We need to be able to support NATO allies when they come into Norway. I think we’re making real progress with regard to civil society’s ability to support the Norwegian and allied militaries.
“For example, when the US Marines arrive in Undredal, Norway (in the middle of Norway), it could be a civilian bus driver on a civilian bus who will transport them onward to their next location. They might pick up fuel from a local civilian Norwegian logistics company. It is about the resilience as well with regard to civilian society to support military operations. We need to understand and to enhance how the modern society is able to function in a time of crises and war.”
The US Marines are in the midst of a major transformation process and with that effort, allies view them as key partners in shaping an effective crisis management process to deal with peer competitors. Both the Australians and the Norwegians have formalized working relationships with the Marine Corps to broaden their crisis management capabilities.
Notably, the Norwegian government announced on June 13 that they were enhancing their working realitonship with the USMC: “The Norwegian government has decided to welcome continued USMC rotational training and exercises in Norway, with a volume of up to a total of 700 marines, initially for a period of up to five years, says Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen.”
And how did the Russians respond? Predictably with intimidation and threats. “In a statement on its Facebook page, the Russian Embassy said it made the Scandinavian country “less predictable”, while warning it “could cause growing tensions, triggering an arms race and destabilising the situation in northern Europe.” It added: “We see it as clearly unfriendly, and it will not remain free of consequence.”
The Russians used their embassy in country to threaten the Norwegians much like they did with the Danes in 2015. This is part of their approach to information warfare as well whereby they use local tools as well as national tools to shape perceptions within other countries.
But the Norwegians are not the only ones mobilizing their societies to deal with the Russian coercion efforts. And if one compares this to the period of the 1930s where the Nordics simply did not respond to the growing threat from Germany, this time around, the Nordics are seeing a threat, mobilizing and working together.
Conscription has been an important part of Finnish defense, but there is an increasing emphasis on enhanced readiness as well as part of a mobilization strategy. This means shifting emphasis from training conscripts to getting as well better combat readiness out of the mobilization force.
In my discussion with Janne Kuusela, director general of the Finnish Ministry of Defense‘s defense policy department, during a February visit, he argued that one advantage of the conscription process is that the Finnish government is in a position to identify candidates for the professional military, especially the “tech savvy” candidates needed to serve in a 21st century force.
“It is a two-way street with the population,” Kuusela says. “The reservists bring back a lot of current information about technology and society which can then be tapped by the professional military as well as the professional military providing up to date information on the evolution of military systems. I think this is a key capability as new equipment is more technologically sophisticated.”
For its part, Sweden held its largest military exercise in more than 20 years last year. Exercise Aurora 17 involved the forces of several other nations, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Norway, Lithuania, and the United States. The close cooperation between Finland and Sweden in this exercise was especially notable, as it was the only non-NATO states involved. Along with that new exercise came a new Swedish policy about conscription.
As far as the Trump Administration goes, the Finns and Swedes signed a new trilateral agreement with the United States this past May.
In other words, the response to the Russians illegally seizing Crimea and inserting their forces into the Middle East, have gotten the attention of the Nordics. And their response has been national, regional and working with core allies, including the United States to strengthen crisis management capabilities as well as deterrence.
As one senior Norweigan defense analyst put it during my visit, the Nordics are cooperating more effectively with one another in part through their regional organization, NORDEFCO, which includes Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. “I think the discussions among ministers have been taken to an unprecedented level. We also discuss crisis management,” this analyst told me. “We have to prepare ourselves for handing a situation without the Swedes and the Finns, because they are not members of NATO. But we think that it is more and more likely that they would be fully involved in such a situation.
“I think our western partners realize this, so the American footprint in Norway could also be used to reinforce the Baltic states. Having access to Norwegians territory, and perhaps for a door in Sweden and Finland makes a big difference.”