A completely unassailable statement about Norway’s geopolitical position came from the Storting’s lectern in 1973. The then Prime Minister Lars Korvald began a speech by saying: “Norway is a country in the world”. In retrospect, there has been a lot of outrage over this statement; some have embellished it by sneaking in “little” in front of “world”.
“He’s a damn good public speaker, he Korvald”, was the lush professor Henry Valen’s comment to us students during a lecture in political science at the time. Valen believed that Korvald’s scarcity set the audience’s thoughts in motion and was more aimed at play than at scholarship. Since then, the political resonance of the KrF prime minister’s missionary attitude has had a good resonance in Norwegian foreign policy.
There is cover for claiming that Norway has become a humanitarian superpower, with a volume of aid to developing countries that few other states in the OECD donor country group can match, measured as a percentage of gross national income (GNI). In the last couple of years, the percentage has admittedly fallen, from 1.1% in 2017 to 0.75% in 2023, with the government citing increased costs of supporting refugees here at home. The UN’s target is 0.7%, but the average for the rich industrialised donor countries has been only approx. 0.3% of GNI.
In February, a broad majority in the Storting approved allocating NOK 75 billion over five years to Ukraine in the multi-year Nansen program – partly as arms aid, partly for the reconstruction of Ukrainian society. A good allocation and very visible to the world. In the same time period and until 2030, the same parliamentary majority has adopted financial frameworks for the Armed Forces which, with the procurements and the operations that are envisaged, mean that the Armed Forces will be in the red by four billion kroner each year, accumulated to 32 billion by the end of the planning period. This was disclosed in the Defense Research Institute’s (FFI’s) “Forsvarsanalyse 2023”, which was presented in mid-March.
Like many Western European countries in and outside NATO, Norway greatly reduced its military defence force after the end of the Cold War just over three decades ago. In the research team, it is said that we took out the peace dividend. For those of us who use common Norwegian words, today it is reasonable to say that it was wishful thinking interspersed with a lack of history that this was based upon.
When President Putin and his skilled economists had got the Russian economy back on its feet after the collapse and chaos throughout the 1990s, enormous sums were allocated to increase and modernise land, air and naval military capacities. It was easy to see the result in the regular, large-scale exercises of the Zapad style. Political leaders in Western Europe did not take the warnings to heart – with a few exceptions, including Finland.
Parts of Georgia were invaded in 2008, but it was only when Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 and stepped up military support for the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine that we saw a shift. It primarily took the form of economic and technological sanctions against Russia, but also as an increase in allocations for defence and preparedness. It was so half-hearted though, so half-hearted.
The German defence force, the Bundeswehr, is today close to what can be described as non-operational. For a long time, the same thing happened with the Swedish defence, and with the Norwegian too. But with Norway’s NATO membership they have compensated by leaning more heavily on allies, especially the USA. When the national defence becomes so small that, as Chief of Defense Haakon Bruun-Hanssen said in his professional military council in 2019, it is unable to keep a defence battle going at the same time as the receipt of allied aid must be maintained – yes, then even the additions that have been made are of little worth. The Solberg government chose to accept the worst of the defence chief’s four options outlined in 2019 – and by then Russia had soldiers at war on Ukrainian soil for five years already.
On 23 March I was present in the Deichman library in Bjørvika, where FFI presented its defence analysis. As usual, a solid job has been done. The analysis concludes that the Armed Forces are unable to carry out the tasks they are expected to carry out; the challenges are in a queue, accumulated over several years, because the financial framework has been too narrow in relation to the assigned tasks. The backlog has thus been well known, but nothing has been done about it.
What surprised me, and probably others, was that FFI’s researchers did not take into account that the financial framework in the forthcoming long-term plan for the Armed Forces can be expected to be more spacious, in light of the new, brutal reality that is unfolding in the heart of Europe. The state that has caused the war is close to us in the northern regions. Rather, the researchers expressed that there may be tougher competition for budget funds in the coming years; there is so much else pressing on…
The Russian war machine is now so heavily decimated that it will take many years – at least five, according to Chief of Defense Eirik Kristoffersen – before it represents a direct threat in our immediate areas. The cyber domain and hybrid instruments excepted. We have time for a reality check.
What comes from the Defense Commission in May, I’m afraid, will be a bit premature in this respect, because we must, among other things, have time to discuss, plan and realise closer security and defence policy cooperation with our Nordic neighbours. There I am impressed by Norway’s military commanders, who are several horse’s heads ahead of the politicians in building Nordic community and culture. The Nordic region can become a strong and stability-creating geopolitical entity in our part of the world.
The 75 billion granted to Ukraine is given through the Nansen programme, and information about it on Norway’s government’s website is given in Russian. A clear message then. Fridtjof Nansen was almost given hero status for his efforts in Soviet Russia during the famine of the 1920s. But this is hardly a political asset or diplomatic capital that we can draw on today vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia.
The author of the article is a former state secretary in the Ministry of Defense and a parliamentary representative for the Conservative Party.