war on the rocks

The Perils of Playing Footsie in Military Boots: Trident Juncture and NATO’s Nordic Front

August 20, 2018

This October, 40,000 U.S. and allied troops will converge on the sea and in the air over Norway for a NATO exercise named Trident Juncture. This will be NATO’s largest exercise since 2002 and will involve 30 allied and partner countries. One-hundred thirty aircraft and 70 ships will churn the waters of the Norwegian Sea and darken the skies above it, while thousands of allied land troops will operate in Norway in what is called a NATO “Article 5” exercise. Article 5 is that part of the North Atlantic Treaty in which members pledge to come to the aid of an ally under attack. For the purposes of the Trident Juncture exercise, that ally is Norway.

Not only is the exercise large, but U.S. military engagement will be significant, with a U.S. admiral in command. The exercise envisages an armed attack against Norway, a scenario that seems all too real after a year of provocative Russian exercises aimed at Norway, such as a simulated attack against the Norwegian intelligence service installation in Vardo by Russian bombers in March 2017.

Such direct U.S. military involvement belies the overtly friendly relationship between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Even as Trump seems ambivalent toward Russia, the United States has pursued a tough policy toward Russia through recent sanctions and its participation and leadership in this very exercise. The White House National Security Strategy, released just this past December, refers to Russia, along with China, as challenging “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

But the danger in this bizarre bifurcation in U.S. policy toward Russia is the potential for confusion among both foes and allies during an actual crisis. At the core of the NATO alliance lies the belief that the United States will come to the assistance of its allies in a moment of peril. Trump’s tweets and his conduct in his Helsinki meeting with Putin undermine allies’ trust in the U.S. commitment to their defense and muddle the intent of the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.

No exercise can fully compensate for that loss of credibility because an exercise only reveals capabilities, not whether the president would use them in a crisis. But an exercise can demonstrate in concrete terms both that the United States, as a nation, still stands with its allies and that the allies themselves are growing more capable and more prepared for the Russian threat. For now, that will have to do.

Norway Stands Tough

Norway is a good example of how allies are responding to Trump’s contradictory Russia policy. The relationship between Russia and Norway has been a civil one as befits relations between neighbors. Communications are strong, especially between Norwegian officials in northern Norway and their counterparts on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Russia and Norway have amicably resolved disputes on issues such as fisheries and boundaries and the Russians even cohabitate peacefully with Norwegians on Svalbard, Norwegian sovereign territory where, by treaty, Russians have the right to have a presence. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide has described the risk of war in the Arctic as “low.”

But despite such neighborly relations, Norway is hosting much of this major exercise and will commit a large portion of its military forces to participate. The Norwegians do not seem to buy the rosier view of the Russians coming from Trump. Rear Adm. Nils Andreas Stensoenes, chief of Norway’s navy, said to Reuters about recent Russian activity, “What we saw last year were demonstrations of their capability to strike important targets in Norway.”

In March, the head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service, Lt. Gen. Morten Haga Lunde, sounded the alarm in a speech describing recent incidents in which Russian aircraft flew offensive attack profiles against Norwegian military and intelligence facilities as well as against NATO naval vessels participating in a NATO exercise in the Norwegian Sea. Lunde also highlighted a move in last year’s major Russian-Belarusian Zapad 17 exercise, in which Russia deployed the nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missile system to an area near the Norwegian border, putting most of northern Norway within its range.

For Norway, a nation that takes its defense seriously, participation in this exercise sends two messages: one to the Russians not to expect Norway to knuckle under to bullying, and one to the Americans that, despite the era of good feelings coming from the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, Norway considers Russian military activity a growing concern in its neighborhood and will do its part to provide significant military capability to deter Russian adventurism in this sensitive part of the alliance.

Even Sweden

An even more significant message comes from Norway’s neighbor Sweden, which will also participate in Trident Juncture. As a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, I appreciate the significance of the Swedish government’s decision to take part in this Article 5 exercise, a decision which underlines how concerned the Swedes are with Russian activities in the region.

Sweden has an “enhanced opportunity” partnership with NATO but, in line with its policy of military nonalignment, the Swedish government has traditionally drawn the line at participating in NATO exercises that test allied responses to an incident where Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is invoked. But for this exercise, the Swedish government has crossed that line. In fact, for the first time the four-party opposition bloc to the current Swedish government now favors joining NATO, despite Russian warnings that such a move would provoke a Russian reaction.

The increasing Swedish concerns about Russian activities aimed at Stockholm, including cyber and disinformation campaigns, as well as provocative aircraft and submarine activity, have prompted Sweden to re-introduce military conscription, re-occupy with military force the strategically located Gotland Island, and increase defense spending by over $300 million a year through 2020. As an example of what Sweden will do with this increased funding, the government just announced it will purchase a Patriot PAC-3 MSE air defense system costing over a billion dollars.

The message from Stockholm is a determined one. To the Russians, Sweden is demonstrating that it will do what it takes to provide for its defense and will not be intimidated by threats. To the Americans, the unambiguous Swedish message is one of concern about Russian activity in the Nordic-Baltic region, as evidenced by Sweden’s large-scale participation in an Article 5 exercise which they would normally avoid, as well as a consistent message I heard often in Stockholm that Sweden will not remain a bystander if conflict comes to its neighborhood.

The American Contradiction

Even if Trump is not very concerned by Russian military activity, the Department of Defense continues to move forward in strengthening deterrence against Russia in Europe. Recent examples include re-establishing the U.S. Second Fleet based in Norfolk, Virginia, to help protect the sea lanes between the United States and Europe,  as well as to help allies deal with increased Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap. It was agreed at the NATO Summit in Brussels that the Second Fleet will also become a NATO command should hostilities break out. Finally, the NATO officer commanding Trident Junction is an American admiral, Adm. James Foggo, who also serves as NATO’s commander of Joint Force Command in Naples.

The nations participating in the Trident Juncture exercise, including the United States, are clearly concerned about Russian military activity in Europe. Their view is completely at odds with a U.S. president who considers Russia not a threat but a “good competitor.” This contradictory picture sows disillusionment and unease among U.S. allies and partners who themselves are taking action to deter further Russian adventurism in the Nordic-Baltic region, and who hope that Trump will recognize the dangers they see. Despite U.S. participation in the Trident Juncture exercise, which would seem to reinforce American credibility in standing by its allies, the picture of a wobbly U.S. commitment to NATO undercuts NATO credibility and the efforts of the U.S. military to restore a strong deterrence posture in Europe.

Perhaps in the end, the Russians will prove to be the benign threat that Trump seems to think they are, but NATO and the Nordic-Baltic nations don’t seem to agree. It’s time the U.S. president listened to those who should know.

 

Azita Raji served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2016 to 2017.

Image: Norwegian Armed Forces