OSLO | US Air Force strategic bombers will soon pose their slender and disturbing silhouette in Norway, a further illustration of a military ferment unparalleled in the region since the end of the Cold War.
“Far North, low tensions” … The adage has long been used to designate the relatively peaceful diplomatic and security situation that reigned in the Arctic for decades.
But the resurgence of tensions between Westerners and Russians, especially since the Crimean crisis in 2014, has reshuffled the cards and led both camps to once again show off their strength. Including in these high latitudes presumed to be rich in natural resources and where the melting ice opens new maritime routes.
This month, long-range B-1B bombers are expected for the first time at Ørland air base, to train for a few weeks with the Norwegian air force guarding the northern borders of NATO.
“This deployment is part of an overall military activity in the High North which has significantly increased in recent years, both on the western side and on the Russian side,” observes Kristian Åtland, researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Institute. (FFI).
“The fact that they are strategic bombers naturally raises concerns among the Russians,” he observes.
In fact, Moscow sees red, noting that these planes can, under certain circumstances, carry atomic weapons.
“No one in the Arctic prepares for armed conflict. However, there are signs of growing confrontation and military escalation, ”said Russian Goodwill Ambassador to the Arctic Council Nikolai Kortchunov.
This militarization in the region “could make us go back decades, towards the times of the cold war”, he told the Russian agency RIA in early February.
In Oslo, we play down the matter. Located in the heart of Norway (and below the Arctic Circle), the base concerned is 1,200 kilometers from the Russian-Norwegian border, it is argued.
“Having our allies train at home is a well-established and natural aspect of our security policy and of cooperation within NATO,” said Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen.
“Russia knows it well and has no reason to feel provoked,” he said in an email to AFP.
But the episode is not isolated.
Norway has also just decided to provide its American, British and French allies with a point of support for their nuclear-powered submarines, near Tromsø.
In 2009, the nearby Olavsvern base, in the bowels of a mountain, was closed and sold to private interests by … Jens Stoltenberg, then Prime Minister, who has since become NATO Secretary General.
Tensions oblige, the need has re-emerged, to have a stopover to go and hunt down the Russian submersibles which use, not far from there, the “Bear Gap”, an obligatory passage between their bases on the Kola Peninsula and the depths of the Atlantic.
This amounts to “playing NATO roulette” with nature, the population and relations with Russia, denounces Greenpeace, echoing local reluctance.
The renewed tensions also led neighboring Sweden (not a member of NATO) to announce a massive 40% increase in its military spending by 2025, unprecedented since the 1950s, and to remilitarize the island. from Gotland, in the Baltic.
Historically standing apart from the blocs, the Nordic country now has a majority in Parliament in favor of a “NATO option” which would allow it, like Finland, to join the alliance quickly. However, the government is opposed to it.
For the first time since the 1980s, the US Navy deployed an aircraft carrier to the Norwegian Sea in 2018, followed by surface ships to the Barents Sea, in the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, the following year.
The change of team in the White House should not change this posture.
“The United States has a long history of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region, and I hope this can continue,” said new US Minister of Defense Lloyd Austin.
“I am, however, seriously concerned by the strengthening of the Russian army in the region and the aggressive behavior of Russia in the Arctic and in the world,” he added on the sidelines of his hearing in the Senate.
Because Russia is also rearming.
In March 2020, President Vladimir Putin ordered “the strengthening of military capabilities” and the “creation and modernization of military infrastructure” in the Arctic by 2035.
With 86 ships, including 42 submersible, the powerful Northern Fleet was the first to acquire, last summer, a fourth generation nuclear submarine of the Boreï class.
Base opening or modernization, testing of new missiles and drones, simulations of attacks on Western sites, increasingly distant maritime and air deployments bear witness to Russia’s policy of military reaffirmation.
Last year, Norwegian fighters took off 50 times to identify a total of 96 Russian aircraft flying off the country.
Much less than the 500 or 600 Soviet aircraft identified annually in the mid-1980s, during the Cold War era, but much more than the ten or so identifications that were the norm in the 2000s.