Part 2 | Scandinavia’s ‘big bad bully’: Russia & Scandinavia

Silje Undlien is a Norwegian first-year War Studies student at King’s College London.

Dmitry Medvedev

At a time when few Nordic governments are willing to concede Russia as an immediate military threat, Russian relations with the Scandinavian three – Sweden, Norway and Denmark – continue to grow cold. When it comes to being the ‘big bad bully’ of Europe, Russia has met little competition from its neighbouring countries. Thus far we have seen Russian aggression escalate profoundly in terms of espionage targeting Scandinavian countries – as both Norway and Sweden has identified their northern neighbour as their leading threat vis-à-vis intelligence operations, and Denmark is no exception from Russia’s extensive surveillance. [1] The apparent reluctance of Russia to leave Scandinavian airspace and territorial waters alone does little to improve their strained relations. Its vested interests in Arctic areas ought to arouse some reaction from the conflicting Nordic governments, as indeed it has. Yet for the countries in question, Russia is a rival of much greater military capacity and ought not to be further provoked if possibly avoided. To Scandinavians – Russia is currently highly unstable due to Putin’s leadership. Thus, according to the Norwegian Minister of Defence, Ine Eriksen Søreide, it is critical to avoid miscalculations, and, although the threat is not considered imminent, military reforms may prove vital to the security and defence of the countries on the Scandinavian Peninsula. [2]

In the Norwegian Intelligence Service’s 2016 threat assessment, Russia’s blatant will to pursue regional ambitions in the Arctic and the High North is identified as a substantial threat to Norwegian interests. [3] As the only Scandinavian country sharing a border with Russia – a border extending 196 kilometres – Norway is familiar with the possibility that Russian strategic interests in Norwegian vicinities could end in military conflict. Yet, the military capacity of the areas in Finnmark is exceptionally inferior to that of Western Russia. As of today, Norway would hardly be able to restrain an invading force for more than a maximum of two days. [4] The plan has, nonetheless, always been to hold back the enemy in blind hope of triggering NATO’s Article 5. Yet, it has been questioned whether Norway would in fact go to war against Russia in a situation where East-Finnmark is occupied by enemy forces, and, as Russia is assumed unlikely to advance West of the Tana River to avoid further conflict; would NATO be willing to trigger a Third World War in defence of East-Finnmark, only a small part of Norway? Such thinking can be traced back to declassified defence documents from the 1980s, in which the primary defence lines of Norway were identified and the sacrifice of Finnmark was suggested. [5] The Norwegian Armed Forces deny that such actions would be made in today’s situation. Earlier this April, however, the strategic plan of defence, unofficially named ‘Operation Glory Death’ was revealed: In order to secure a quick response from NATO, Norwegian soldiers have been commissioned to die ‘as sensationally as possible’. [6] But to what end? It might take several months until NATO is mobilised and ready to act on Norway’s behalf, by which time Finnmark would have long since fallen.

Yet for Norway, there appears to be a greater potential for conflict on Svalbard. Leading Norwegian experts on Military Defence believe that a future military confrontation would develop on the archipelago in the Arctic Ocean due to its strategic position. [7] The Russian threat continues to increase with Russia’s rising military sphere of influence in the nearby areas; the planned launch of a second Arctic brigade and the attempted establishment of an airbase on Franz Josef Land are particularly construed as aggressive actions. Although any foreign military activity in Svalbard would be a violation of the Svalbard Treaty and would undermine Norwegian Sovereignty, the archipelago’s demilitarised state would make it easy to secure. [8] As the threat is progressively perceived more relevant, the Norwegian Armed Forces appear incapable of defending Norwegian soil. In a scenario like this, in fact, the Norwegian Royal Navy would be no match for the modernised Northern Fleet.

Also Denmark, with overlapping claims to the North Pole, has experienced territorial tensions with Russia. The need for engagement in areas of common interest was made clear by the massive border exploration we witnessed in the Arctic – ‘Ali Baba’s cave’. When it in 2015 was revealed that Denmark was to establish an Arctic TF, a Danish process of Arctic militarisation and preparation for a future war against Russia was assumed. The Danish Defence, however, discarded this allegation. [9] For their part, the reforms were intended to reinforce and create a more flexible Danish Defence for general purposes.  It is reasonable, however, to assume that such actions may be a response to increased Russian aggression. As a response to NATO’s Missile Defence, for one, Russian Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, made Russia’s plan of action, if Denmark was to participate in the system, explicit. In an article published in Jyllands-Posten in 2015 he wrote that Danish warships could, if his warning proved ineffective, become potential targets of nuclear missiles. [10] It has been popularly assumed in 2016, however, that the threat towards Denmark is in decline due to the decreased Russian activity in Danish airspace. The intelligence agencies of the Scandinavian countries have nonetheless dismissed such thinking by placing neighbouring aggression on the top of their security agendas. It is fundamental, too, to note that the decreased activity may be due to Russia’s role in the Syrian Civil War.

It is not surprising, moreover, to see the reported increase in Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea region. Although she does not recognise Russia as an imminent military threat, Sweden has also chosen to reinforce and invest in her military defence capabilities. The trouble is, however, issues of Swedish military recruitment. Like that of her Scandinavian neighbour Norway, the Swedish Armed Forces could not scare off a determined enemy if necessary. As of today, it would need to recruit another 100,000 soldiers to credibly be able to defend its country. [11] But despite the Swedish tendency to be favourably disposed to armed forces, their previous abolition of conscription has led to a decline in their ability to recruit soldiers – the Swedes, seemingly, do not want to join the Swedish Armed Forces. Many now believe that the reinstatement of mandatory military service is the only way to defend Sweden against a potential military attack in the future. Yet for such a development to happen, the Russian threat will probably have to increase even further.

As NATO members, as opposed to the non-aligned Sweden, Denmark and Norway are successfully displaying a clearly defined military policy. It is worth noting, as well, that while the current Secretary General is Norwegian the former was Danish, making both countries’ political character and commitment to NATO and the West evident to Russia. Although she is a non-member, Sweden’s great endeavour to remain a neutral country has to some extent failed: While not being entitled to military assistance from NATO by remaining non-aligned, Sweden’s close ties to the alliance still makes her a great threat to Russia.  For this reason, many appear to believe that a Swedish membership in NATO is an inevitable forthcoming development. Yet, the Prime Ministers of Sweden and Finland stated in early 2016 that the current situation serves them both well. [12]

Although Russian relations with the Scandinavian three continue to grow cold, Russia has not always been a ‘bully’ in the eyes of the Scandinavians. Au contraire – both Denmark and Norway have traditionally kept close bilateral ties with Russia. Fundamental to the preservation of Russian-Norwegian relations is the Norwegian Barents Secretariat. Daily cultural cooperation, the Secretariat believes, could rebuild the once good relations. With such opinions circulating, Scandinavian media has been accused of painting an overly negative picture of Russia. The great worry is that this vilification of Russia will create an excessively frightened and alienated public, and, ultimately, lead to the decline of all Scandinavian cooperation policies. In stark contrast – authorities have expressed concerns over a select few individuals in Finnmark, worrying that their close ties to Russia might make them loyal to the Russian government. [13] It has also come up that individuals of North-Norway deem the Southern perception of the Russian threat exaggerated. The residents of Northern Norway do, of course, have unique ties to the culture and language of their Russian neighbours. They are, furthermore, often deemed to have emotional connections to their 1944 liberators. Yet, the accusation of disloyalty is unreasonable: Residents of South-Norway will naturally have conflicting perceptions of the Russian threat from those of North-Norway.

Yet, militarily, the threat ought not to be ignored.  With dozens of spies on Swedish soil, military expansion in the Arctic, continual visits in Scandinavian airspace and territorial waters, and, excessive espionage – the Russian threat is obviously considered a great security challenge in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Furthermore, it led to the increased cooperation of the Nordic countries. Yet, the continued defence of the Scandinavian countries would, without assistance from NATO, be virtually impossible if they were to be attacked. Thus, seeing Russia is considered highly unpredictable, the threat is perceived even greater. If one is to believe the media’s narrative of Russia and its leadership – the Scandinavian three ought to seek immediate cover. Although many appear to believe that previous relations could be restored, Russia may already have reached the point of no return. Lest Russia alters its course, Russian relations with the countries on the Scandinavian Peninsula might be beyond repair.


[1] The Swedish Security Service, ‘Ryska olagliga underrättelseoperationer,’ Säkerhetspolisen  

[2] Mick Krever, ‘Norway: We are faced with a different Russia,’ BBC, February 26, 2015

[3] The Norwegian Intelligence Service, ‘Fokus 2016: Etterretningstjenestens vurdering av aktuelle sikkerhetsutfordringer,’ Forsvaret, March 21, 2016

[4] Kjetil Stormark, ‘Hæren holder bare ut noen dager,’ Aldrimer, April 05, 2016

[5] Kjetil Stormark, ‘Finnmark skal ofres,’ Aldrimer, April 08, 2016

[6] Kjetil Stormark, ‘Operasjon: Heltemodig Død,’ Aldrimer, April 05, 2016

[7] Kjetil Stormark, ‘Brennpunkt Svalbard,’ Aldrimer, April 08, 2016

[8] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Svalbardtraktaten,’ Lovdata

[9] Værnfælles Forsvarskommando, ‘Kommentar til Jyllands-Posten,’ Forsvaret, March 13, 2015

[10] Lars From, ‘Ruslands ambassadør: Danske skibe kan blive mål for russisk atomangrep,’ Jyllands-Posten, March 20, 2015

[11] Elisabeth Braw, ‘Sweden, Short-Handed,’ Foreign Affairs, April 13, 2016

[12] Juha Sipilä & Stefan Löfven, ‘Vår alliansefrihet bidrar till stabilitet i norra Europa,’ DN, January 10, 2016

[13] The Norwegian Barents Secretariat, ‘Samarbeidet med Russland er en villet politikk,’ Barents, March 02, 2016

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