The Russians and the Nordics: Intimidation Deflected by Mobilization


By Robbin Laird

Putin has clearly focused on expanding Russian influence in the areas of strategic interest to Russia.

While the United States has diffused its efforts with an over emphasis on stability operations and counter-insurgency in the Middle East, the Russians have focused on their core interests and how best to reshape the strategic environment to their benefit.

A key area of strategic interest is clearly the Northern region where they have the most concentrated military force on earth operating from the Kola peninsula.

The Russians are building out their arctic capabilities, while both Canada and the United States have essentially ignored the Russian Arctic force modernization effort

And for the Russians the area from the Baltics to the Nordics is a key zone of influence.  They have generated major military exercises designed to influence behavior, such as last year’s Zapad 2018.  They have used the nuclear threat against the Danes and the Norwegians at various times over the past few years, indicating that defense modernization in the Nordic region would subject these states to nuclear annihilation.

Last year, the Russians simulated military strikes against Norwegian territory and very recently have sent a large naval task force from the Kola peninsula without notificationThese actions are clearly designed to intimate and to isolate.

And certainly, the Russians have hoped that European conflicts with the Trump Administration would further isolate the Nordics as well.

The Nordic response has been very different than the Russian script would wish to write. 

The Nordics have strengthened their relationship with Washington, with each other through enhanced cooperation and have focused on the mobilization of their societies to deal with the Russian efforts to intimidate.

The Norwegians have notably focused on mobilization and crisis response.  This year’s Trident Juncture 2018 exercise which NATO balls as a major NATO exercise is from the Norwegian point of view more than that. It is about the testing out and enhancement of their Total Defense Concept. For Norway, the total defense concept is a focus 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. The civilian side is mobilized to support both Norwegian and allied medical needs in times of conflict.  This will be exercised 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.

The Colonel emphasized that “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 USMC is in the midst of a major transformation process and with that effort, key 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 USMC to broaden their crisis management capabilities.

Notably, the Norwegian government announced on June 13, 2018 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 Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen.”

Norwegian Minister of Defense Visits U.S. Marines from on Vimeo.

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, Defense Policy Department of the Finnish Ministry of Defence, during a February visit to Finland, he argued that one advantage of the conscription process is that the Finnish government was in a position to identify candidates for the professional military and with the increased “tech savy” required to man a 21st century force, this also allowed for exposure to some of the best candidates to serve in the military to provide for the relevant expertise for a 21st century force.

According to Kuusela: “It is a two-way street with the population. 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.”

Exercise Aurora 2017 from on Vimeo.

And Sweden last year held its largest military exercise in more than 20 years. Exercise Aurora 17 involved s the forces of several other nations, including  Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Norway, Lithuania, and the United States. Notable, was the close cooperation between Finland and Sweden in this exercise, as the only non-NATO states involved in the exercise. And along with new exercise comes a new Swedish policy about conscription.

And as far as the Trump Administration goes, the Finns and Swedes have 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.

According to this analyst: “I think the discussions among ministers have been taken to an unprecedented level. We also discuss crisis management. 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.”

A version of this article was first published by Breaking Defense on July 3, 2018.

The featured photo shows Norway’s first three F-35As being escorted by a RNAF F-16 fighter jet when entering the country’s airspace

(Credit: Heige Hopen/Norwegian Armed Forces)

The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) on Nov. 3 formally took delivery of its first three F-35A fighter jets. The three aircraft, the first to be delivered to Norway, took off from Fort Worth, Texas at 06.35 AM Norwegian time November 3rd and landed at 03.57 PM the same day at Ørland Air Base, the country’s Ministry of Defence said on its website