For the first time since World War II, three hundred U.S. Marines landed in Norway on Monday. Although these troops arrived just days after more than 3500 American service personnel landed in Poland in support of NATO Operation Atlantic Resolve (bolstering European defenses against a potential Russian attack) both American and Norwegian officials dismissed suggestions that the Marines’ six-month deployment to Norway had anything to do with tensions between NATO and Russia.
The Marines, who deployed from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, landed in Norway’s third largest city, Trondheim, en route to the Vaernes military base where they will remain for six months of cold weather training and learning how to adjust to an arctic environment. After their six months are complete, another three hundred Marines will rotate in. Currently, there are no plans to extend the American military presence in the region for longer than a year.
“The US initiative to augment their training and exercises in Norway by locating a Marine Corps Rotational Force in Norway is highly welcome and will have positive implications for our already strong bilateral relationship,” Norwegian Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, said in a statement.
Despite the Vaernes military base being over nine hundred miles from the Russian border, the Kremlin wasted no time in denouncing the joint military training operation, which will also involve British troops in the near future.
“Taking into account multiple statements of Norwegian officials about the absence of threat from Russia to Norway we would like to understand for what purposes is Norway so … willing to increase its military potential, in particular through stationing of American forces in Vaernes?” a Kremlin spokesman told Reuters in October, when this operation was announced.
A spokesman for the Norwegian Home Guard, Rune Haarstad, attempted to assuage Russian concerns about the presence of American troops in Norway, saying, “For the first four weeks they will have basic winter training, learn how to cope with skis and to survive in the Arctic environment. It has nothing to do with Russia or the current situation.”
Major General Niel E. Nelson explained that the decision to station Marines in Norway would lead to closer ties with American’s Norwegian allies and improve the two nation’s cooperative abilities in a military setting – and although he did not cite Russia in his statement, he did indicate that bolstering Norwegian ties would improve NATO’s ability to deploy troops to the region when and if necessary.
“We enjoy a very close relationship with the Norwegian Armed Forces and a limited rotational presence in Norway would certainly enhance this relationship and our ability to operate together,” Nelson explained to CNN while the operation was still being considered. He then added that the presence of US Marines “will increase NATO’s ability to rapidly aggregate and employ forces in northern Europe.”
Unofficially, however, this operation has anxiety over Russia’s use of military force in its annexation of Crimea in 2014 written all over it.
“In 2014, that was a clear sign that Russia has stepped in to an area where they are willing and able to use military power,” Brigadier Eldar Bernil, of the Norwegian Army, told CNN. “Suddenly we have changed focus in particular from what was going on in Afghanistan to collective national defense.”
A senior Norwegian security official, who requested to remain anonymous, also cited concerns about Russia’s underhanded military involvement in Crimea, wherein Russian military power backed separatist rebellions, only so Russia could step in.
“We are talking about hybrid warfare,” said the unnamed official, “which is warfare under the threshold of war, where you challenge the nature of democracy, where you have free access to social media. Suddenly when the tension rises, you bring in the soldiers, like you did in Crimea, and say, ‘From now on, I am responsible and I will take care of you as long as you do what I say.’”
Like the stationing of thousands of American troops along the Russian border, the Kremlin has repeatedly denounced this international operation, and likely will continue to. With only days remaining before Donald Trump takes office, he has already voiced a willingness to reconsider sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the annexation of Crimea that prompted these expanding NATO security operations to begin with. It remains to be seen if President Trump will continue American support for NATO Operation Atlantic Resolve, as well as existing plans for international military training exercises in Norway.
Image courtesy of CNN