Editor’s Note: There are a few spoilers in here, but the vast majority are from the first couple episodes.
This time of year, Battle Road in Minute Man National Park outside of Boston is encased by a thick layer of treacherous snow and ice. Those who do brave the slick path in winter are rewarded with mile after mile of quiet to reflect on the relationship between insurgents and occupiers in America’s past as they walk Revolutionary War battlefields.
The American narrative of resistance is essential to the nation’s identity even today, particularly if you raise your children in New England. Like all stories, however, this narrative is more complex than is taught to elementary schoolchildren. Come summer, flowers and flags will bloom alongside the monuments to close-fought skirmishes. Not all the flags will be American. Some will be British.
This complicated relationship between occupied and occupiers is worth remembering when watching Okkupert (English title: Occupied), an understated and compelling 10-part Norwegian-language television drama envisioning a Russian grab for Norway’s oil and gas (Europe’s largest reserves). It was only available in Norway until Netflix recently brought the series to U.S. viewers with subtitles. It is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand how flawed our assumptions about NATO, the future of Northern European security, and Russia’s relationship with Europe might be.
It would be unfair to spoil too much of Occupied. It is worth, however, laying out the stakes: Norwegian scientists successfully harness a new source of energy, derived from Thorium. While a 2014 essay (“The Wonder Fuel That Wasn’t”) in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists downplayed Thorium’s potential, Oslo’s future politicians believe otherwise. After deciding Thorium is the future, they move to shut down Norway’s oil and gas production to help Europe — and the world — save itself from environmental catastrophe tied to fossil fuel production and consumption. What should be the Norwegian prime minister’s proudest day as a transformational-type charismatic green politician becomes a life-or-death moment at the hands of spetsnaz operators and Russian helicopter gunships orbiting Statoil platforms.
Russia’s grab for Norway’s energy resources starts off with this quick punch to the nose but then a subtler, suffocating embrace follows, in part because Moscow has the European Union’s blessing. In Occupied, Not even the Swedes are with Norway. NATO, now without the United States due to European free-riding, does not come galloping to the rescue.
Still, politics, both national and international, are central to Occupied. The story is about people first, many who swallow the Russian narrative behind its invasion in order to avoid a bigger fight and certain bloodshed. It is a character-driven series following political leaders, a journalist and his go-for-broke restaurant-owning wife, the nascent Fritt Norge (Free Norway) insurgent movement, aggressive Russian officials, and a Norwegian security agent. The latter is perhaps the series’ most intriguing character. His moral path is as twisted as a fjord’s switchback trail as he attempts to stave off open conflict. Occupier and occupied both struggle for footing along a slippery ethical slope that takes the entire 10 episodes to build toward a climax.
The show is not perfect. It misses a chance to showcase the role of Russian information and electronic warfare in its special operations. Some viewers will find the drama, and eventual action, too slow of a boil. There is no meaningful reference to Russia’s Ukraine strain of hybrid warfare that seems to a be a model for Moscow’s Norwegian invasion. For an ‘80s Cold War kid, how many hear the Aaron Copland-inspired score for the 1984 film Red Dawn and want to shout out “Wolverines!” in a cry as tragic as it is triumphant? Occupied, for better or worse, has none of that jingoism.
Occupied serves as a reminder that realistic stories about future conflict help us confront our assumptions about today’s security environment. If it had not been made, far fewer people would be considering the following questions: Is NATO focusing on the Baltic States at the expense of Scandinavia? How should Europe define defense relationships post-NATO? What is a leader’s first correct countermove if hybrid or asymmetric warfare operations begin? Most importantly, Occupied raises a fundamental question about the point at which a European citizen, so accustomed to a peaceful life and more interested in social welfare than defense spending, decides their nation is worth fighting for.
Critics in Norway did not warm to the big-budget series, which cost $10.9 million, as one reviewer noted: “Occupied feels in many ways distorted, true, but not entirely fair.” A creation of best-selling crime writer Jo Nesbo, it conjures up memories of Norway’s German occupation and daring resistance during World War II while jabbing at Russia’s foray into Ukraine. Given Vladimir Putin’s attention to the power of popular media and journalism in shaping Russia’s narrative, it is no surprise officials bristled at the show’s debut.
Occupied matters to more than Norway or Russia. Consider England, which is still coming to terms with its relationship with Russia: Billionaires still bring sacks of cash to London while Russian spies snuff out dissidents with Putin’s blessing or even direction, according to the UK government’s latest report. The BBC just last week (Feb. 3) ran a special drama broadcast on former British officials wargaming a confrontation with Russia over the Baltics. For American viewers, Occupied underscores the difficulty in deterring Putin’s Russia from repeating Ukraine-like operations on its western borders. It also forces consideration of how we protect our allies.
Sheltering in the American ambassador’s residence (which has a Cadillac Escalade parked out front), the Norwegian prime minister appeals for help: “You still have the power to assert your will if you want to.” To which the American ambassador replies coldly, “Unfortunately, history has taught us a lesson and the United States doesn’t get involved in conflicts without a winning strategy.” For Norway’s leaders, desperate to avoid triggering a vindictive military response from Russia, there is no obvious winning strategy either.
In the hills outside of Occupied’s Oslo, as was done in America’s Minute Man National Park, memorials to fierce fighting will one day be erected. But whether their construction honors the valiant Russians who entered Norway to ensure European stability or win-at-all costs Fritt Norge insurgents depends on how well each side understands their place in history.
That is something only a second season can answer.
*Author’s Note: The idea to title this essay Run, Freeze, or Fight came from a conversation with Marika Landau-Wells, winner of the Art of Future Warfare Project’s “After the war …” short fiction contest.
August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project and a non-resident senior fellow at the Council. He is a writer, consultant and analyst. His first novel, GHOST FLEET, co-written with Peter W. Singer, was published in 2015.