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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores VI: Norway

The Viking Saga IV: The Viking Realm and the Frozen Gates between the West and the East

On a cold night in the year 1194, a group of Drakkars reach a group of islands known to the ships’ crews as the ‘Svalbarði’. As they approach the snow covered land, illuminated by the Northern Lights and stars in the northern skies above, they can see that theirs are not the only ships sailing towards the islands. A Lodje, a ship used by the Pomors, people from the frozen north lands, is sighted. And then another, and another. The Vikings land ashore, with the Pomors following closely behind. Driven by curiosity, the two groups decide to approach each other on the frozen shore. They meet, and as a meteor streaks across the northern skies, the Vikings and the Pomors interact for the first time.

Today, those islands are called “Svalbard” and, although it is Norway who claims sovereignty of the archipelago, they are still a meeting place for the East and West, with members from many nations, such as Russia and the US, living there from time to time. Svalbard can also be seen as an Arctic boundary between the East and West, being a gateway through which Russia can access the Atlantic Ocean. These gateways, and the countries they belonged to, were especially important during WWII and the Cold War and with the growing interest in the Arctic they are once again becoming increasingly important. Nowadays Svalbard is particularly important for Norway as both the islands and their surrounding waters are a cornerstone for the country’s Arctic policy and strategy. Because of Svalbard, Norway is the only Scandinavian country with a direct coastline along the Arctic Ocean and that northern area is a fundamental element for Norwegian actions regarding the area.

Norway denominates this region as the “High North” and has designed a policy for it over the last 20 years which has been developed since the end of the Cold War, taking its current, more defined shape, around 2005. From those days until now the High North policy has had 7 important elements: a deepened and renewed cooperation with Russia[i]; the development of a broad diplomacy, aimed at including countries outside the Arctic region as well as the same institutions created for the area (such as the Arctic Council); the knowledge of the climate change rate and its effects, which are being accounted as an opening for new resources and new trade routes but also as a new obstacle for the livelihoods and traditional way of life of indigenous people; the integrated maritime management of resources, namely fisheries, which has brought a harmonisation between Norway and Russia on the topic; the appearance, and exploitation, of oil and gas fields in the waters to the east of Svalbard; the acceptance of the Rule of Law , or to be more accurate, the Rule of the Sea which in turn provides Norway sovereignty over important resources (and as a basis to solve any dispute); and finally, the establishing of a network through other Arctic countries and Institutions, even the EU, and partnerships like the Nordic Dimension (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). 

The latest High North policy has since added new objectives, based on those previously mentioned. The first objective is to establish the emergence of a new energy source for Europe, which would then provide secured oil and gas for the continent. The second, in close relation with the previous objective, is the forging of a new industrial age in the High North involving the exploitation and sustainable management of gas, oil and fisheries in the Barents Sea as well as cooperation with Russia on the matter[ii]. This drives into the third objective, which is the pioneering work on integrated maritime management, all to be performed in the light of the previously mentioned cooperation with Russia and within the frameworks given by the Arctic Council. The fourth objective is to take measures following the increasing attention towards the Arctic Ocean’s potential as a shipping route, which presents an opportunity and a challenge to both Norway and Russia in terms of provision of services to the ships and the risk that they might encounter respectively. This objective also takes account of the increased interest shown by outsider states, namely China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). The fifth objective is the implementation of measures in order to support and perform research activities in and on the area, since it is being perceived as source of knowledge on climatic and environmental change[iii]. The sixth is the cooperation between academic and research institutes, institutions, Arctic, and Non Arctic countries, and with a focus on environment, native peoples and resources management, along with tourism and SAR operations. The seventh and final objective is the implementation of actions oriented at the increased military presence of Norway in the light of the increased importance that the High North/Arctic is acquiring once again. Cooperation with Russia and the hosting of NATO exercises are the main actions to be taken and the exertion of sovereignty is beyond any doubt the aim behind this objective (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011).

All of the previous objectives are framed within four more general objectives of the current High North Policy: the safeguarding of peace and stability while providing stability; the ensuring of an environment friendly resource management; the strengthening of international cooperation and rule of international law; and the strengthening of basis for employment, value creation and welfare through regional, national and international cooperation. Three key words capture the soul of the Norwegian High North Policy: Knowledge, Activity, and Presence (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011).

Environment is one of the core preoccupations of the Norwegian strategy, along with the issue of resources and potential new Arctic shipping routes. But the fact that Norway, along with Finland, is a country that shares an immediate border at sea and land with Russia makes cooperation with Russia an imperative action, as Huebert, Exner-Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge (2012) all remark. Cooperation, as it seems, is the main feature of the Norwegian policies on the High North, but on the other hand the desire to increase military presence and capabilities is another feature that takes into consideration a possible failure of the cooperative dynamics. It is a possibility that Norway takes very seriously into account, not only because of the fact that Norway is a neighbouring NATO country with Russia but also because of the strategic implications of an opening Arctic in which exertion of Sovereignty turns into an important matter [iv] (Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge, 2012).

As a matter of fact the policy recognizes that, regarding Russia, there are some important nuclear units present there and the High North area is being used as the scenario for military exercises involving air and naval units of great capacities. Norway also aims at protecting its interests in the area, which includes a climate of stable and predictable relations with Russia and other actors present in the area, along with the protection of maritime resources, as Skagestad (2010, p.12) explains.

Jensen, Jensen & Rottem (2011) explains in a similar way that the military presence in the High North responds to an aim of “traditional state security” (p. 18), where deterrence is the absolute top of such measures in order to tackle any desire of high-level military confrontations[v]. NATO is a cornerstone for such aims but Norway also wants to deal with “minor strategic” conflicts by itself, such as a conflict taking place on one of its fisheries, for example [vi]. As such, sovereignty, protection of national interests and resources, and deterrence are the primary reasons behind the dual approach of Norway on its Arctic area, not forgetting that its policy has cooperation with Russia in every single instance as the second-most important framework, along with the discussed (military) presence in the area.

In a deeper way, the High North Strategy points out that the Armed Forces have as a priority the preparations for strengthening their presence in the High North, becoming the gravitating objective around which the Armed Forces will be organized. Particular attention is being paid to the Coastal Squadron and the Coast guard, along with the Norwegian Intelligence Service. New vessels are being incorporated (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011) and the modernization of the Navy and the Air Force are also set as actions to do on the list of priorities: new vessels, helicopters for both Navy and Coast Guards ships and the replacement of the current F – 16 fighter flotilla (with possibly F -35, advanced 5th Generation multirole fighter in which Norway took a part on its development) for the sake of surveillance and rapid reaction in the area. Following this, the Armed Forces Joint Headquarters has been established at Bodø, in the north of the country (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). Moreover, there is a convergent recognition of the High North/Arctic as a place strategically important for Norway and Russia in military and energetic aspects, and subsequently demanding the presence of the Armed forces in the area Norwegian Ministry of Defence, 2013).

NATO might be one of the cornerstones of Norway defence policies, but the Nordic Defence Cooperation is another important element for the Norwegian High North Defence. Fighter training is currently taking place among the air forces of the member states, in the High North area, along with a cooperation between Norway and Finland on artillery systems, the Finnish purchasing of Norwegian-made SAM missiles and the possible joining of Sweden and Finland on the NATO Air Situation Data Exchange (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011).

The assets in which Norway has been investing to give the High North Strategy and policies the strength to be executed are of great importance and capacity. First of all it has introduced 5 stealth Fridtjof Nansen class Frigates that are multi-role, capable of attacking surface and submerged targets. What makes these vessels so special is that have incorporated the Aegis System, marking a close cooperation with the United States, and have provided the vessels with a high-rank anti-air defence. Secondly, the Norwegian Navy has introduced a class of 5 small and stealth patrol vessels class Skjold, with anti-surface and anti-air capabilities (though the latter is a one of short range) and also capable of speeds over 100 knots. It also has six diesel Ula class submarines and there are plans for the purchase of large support ship for the frigates, increasing the naval assets and their capabilities for the High North. There is also a research ship capable of gathering intelligence and 8 OPVs, three of them capable of having a helicopter and some armed with a 57 mm gun and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection, the latter being operated by the Coast Guard[vii] (Wezeman, 2012; Huebert, 2010; Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge, 2012).

As was mentioned, there are plans for the replacement of the 60 F-16 fighters for 48 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, complemented by six P-3 Orion ASW and long-range patrol aircraft (Wezeman, 2012; Huebert, 2010; Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge, 2012). Finally, since 2009 the Brigade Nord has been stationed above the Arctic Circle having winter training and is a heavy mechanized unit meaning that it has infantry fighting vehicles like the M-113 and CV 9030 within its ranks, along with BV 206 all-terrain carriers, Archer self-propelled artillery systems, and Leopard 2A4 Heavy Battle Tanks (Regehr, 2012). This, according to Pettersen (2012), is a reaction to the declaration by Russia a year beforehand that it would create units capable of operate in the Arctic [viii].

Like Denmark, Norway is among the few countries that it is taking the right measures in the light of the changing Arctic, its transformation into a new geopolitical hotspot, and the everyday possibility of a Russian comeback with a similar aggressive attitude as the days of the Cold War. Norway’s position makes it clear that stabilization and cooperation with Russia in order to reach it is an important issue for the sake of stable and peaceful relations with its powerful neighbour (which reminds one in a certain way of how things were during the Cold War). Being a NATO member also seems to push Norway into such direction. Still, Norway is far more conscious than other nations such as Finland, Iceland and Canada, about the possibility of a conflict involving China or Russia. In the Russian case, Norway hold all the keys to the immediate gateway that would allow Russian vessels, or not, into the open seas of the North Atlantic in the case of a conflict. That gateway is Svalbard, where Norway and Russia, the Vikings and Pomors, might collide in the light of those potential conflicts. In Regards to China, the need to exert sovereignty is more than clear for a Norway that will see more than one flag sailing through its waters in the near future. This of course includes the provision for controlling potential harmful ships as well as SAR operations and disaster management. Sovereignty also comes into the fact that Norway must control and secure the resources, and their exploitation, in the area.

Norway is relying on its preparations to defend itself and manage a potential situation of conflict with its NATO membership and with the Nordic Defence Cooperation. This is an important step taken in the light of a conflict that, as it has been reviewed with the previous Scandinavian cases, will affect them entirely in one way or another, having an Arctic Littoral or not. For instance, if Finland is very vulnerable due to its large border with Russia, Norway, in turn, is very vulnerable for its great maritime border with Russia and the shape of its coasts, just as Iceland is very vulnerable to the sight of Russian warships and submarines raiding near its waters. Therefore, it is very positive that Norway is boosting its cooperation in every sense with some Scandinavian nations, moreover when it comes to dealing with some immediate potential threats.

Norway, in other words, is ready to contribute by peaceful means to a good environment in the Arctic area, but it is also ready to hold the axe and fight if tensions spark. The Cold War might be over, but given recent Russian actions, Cold War instruments and mentality might partially return to the minds and desks of the politicians and generals of Norway. And if so the Arctic might become a very warm place, but not necessarily because of the environmental change.

[i] The document accounts the good trend the relations between Norway and Russia had, although it recognizes that differences still remain due to some issues Norway has, such as being a NATO member. See: p. 11.

[ii] Bear in mind the prospective presence of oil and gas in Arctic waters.

[iii] This includes the acknowledgement that pollutants impact the region, as well as the impact of the radioactive pollution made by the Soviet Union at the Kara Sea during the Cold War. According to the Organization Bellona, there are 17000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships with such type of waste, 14 nuclear reactors – 5 of them still contain nuclear fuel – and 735 pieces of radioactive contaminated machinery, along with one nuclear submarine – the K27 – whose two reactors are still loaded with nuclear fuel. See:

[iv] Other “soft” security considerations includes SAR and environment.

[v] It will be very interesting to see how this is going on in the next case: Russia.

[vi] Surprisingly, Jensen & Rottem (2009) point out that the Norwegian policies on the Hard area apparently responds not only to a Russia increasing its military presence in the area, but also to the consequences of a rising China, making such policies to be understood in the light of the geopolitical changes and are not isolated from such.

[vii] Some of them are from the (and named) Svalbard class.

[viii] See: Pettersen, T (2012). Norway establishes ‘Arctic Batallion’. Barents Observer. Retrieved from: on 15.01.2014


Bellona (2012). Russia announces enormous finds of radioactive waste and nuclear reactors in Arctic seas. Retrieved from on 15.01.2014

Huebert, R (2010). The Newly Emerging Arctic Security Environment. Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Huebert, R., Exner – Pirot, H., Lajeneusse, A., & Gulledge, J. (2012). Climate Change and International Security: the Arctic as a Bellwelther. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Jensen, L. C.; Jensen, Ø; & Rottem, S. V (2011). Norwegian foreign policy in the High North. Energy, international law and security. In: Atlantisch Perspectief, 3/2011 (35). Den Haag, Netherlands.

Jensen, Ø; & Rottem, S. V (2009). The politics of security and international law in Norway’s Arctic waters. In: Polar Record 46 (236), pp. 75 – 83. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Norwegian Ministry of Defence (2013). Competency for a new era. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oslo, Norway.

Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011). The High North 2011. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oslo, Norway.

Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011). The High North. Visions and Strategies. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oslo, Norway.

Pettersen, T (2012). Norway establishes ‘Arctic Batallion’. Barents Observer. Kirkenes, Norway. Retrieved from: on 14.01.2014

Regehr, E (2012). Circumpolar Military Facilities of Norway. The Simons Foundation. Vancouver, Canada.

Skagestad, O, G (2010). The ‘High North’. An Elastic Concept in Norwegian Arctic Policy. Fridtjof Nansen Institute. Lysaker, Norway.

Wezeman, S. T (2012). Military Capabilities in the Arctic. SIPRI Background Paper. SIPRI. Stockholm, Sweden.

*Cover image‘Missile Torpedo Boat’ by Sten Dueland


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