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For Marine Corps Force in Norway, 'Russia' Is a Four-Letter Word

U.S. Marines directed combat vehicles at the Vaernes Garrison in Norway. (Photo by Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)
U.S. Marines directed combat vehicles at the Vaernes Garrison in Norway. (Photo by Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

VAERNES GARRISON, NORWAY -- Maj. Gen. Niel Nelson uses three words to describe the purpose of the 285-Marine contingent deployed here: Ready. Relevant. Responsive. Citing the recent remarks of Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. European Command, the head of Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa adds a fourth: Resolve.

But even when pressed, Nelson won't directly address the two other "R" words featured in Scaparrotti's recent speeches: resurgent Russia.

The announcement late last year that the Marine Corps was beginning a new rotational deployment to Norway brought with it speculation that the move came in response to an increasingly powerful Russia and the threat it poses to Western Europe.

Russia, too, seemed to perceive the deployment as a threat, with prominent Russian defense official Frants Klintsevitsj telling national television station TV2 that the Marines were "dangerous for Norway and Norwegians" and a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman saying in a January interview with Norwegian broadcasting station NRK that the move would not improve relations between the two nations.

But while American tanks and helicopters arrive elsewhere in Europe as part of new and beefed-up rotations explicitly designed to deter Russian aggression, Marines in Norway are keeping their heads down and finding other things to talk about.

"For us, it's all, more or less, just working with our NATO allies," said 1st Lt. Aidan Frombach, commanding officer of 2nd platoon, Bravo company for 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, the Corps' infantry element in Norway. "It's something that we've been doing for a long time, so it's not anything necessarily new."

The commander of 1st platoon, 2nd Lt. David Calves, shrugged when asked whether Russia came up when the Marines trained side-by-side with troops from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries during a March exercise in Romania.

"We just talk about the weather and where you get a beer," he said.

While it's true that the Marine Corps has long had a close working relationship with Norway -- the Corps stores thousands of vehicles and other pieces of military equipment in carefully maintained caves in the country's Trondelag region -- it's also well apparent that Marines are mindful of regional sensitivities where Russia is concerned.

Troops with the Norway deployment were even advised not to repeat the word "Russia" in interviews with the media, according to a source with knowledge of the briefings.

Regional Marine Corps leaders are cognizant of the complex relationship between Russia and Norway, which share a 120-mile border to the north, and also of their own status as an invited guest in country.

"If you look at Norway today what kind of relationship do they have with their neighbor in the north," said Nelson. "A great relationship, right, because they have an economic relationship. That type of relationship has to be recognized. So ... I'll tell you that for us, we have to be ready and relevant across the globe. And so I'm not coming here for one pinpoint focus."

Norway and Russia were foes during the Cold War, their short border heavily patrolled on both sides, one of two land borders between the Soviet Union and a NATO nation. Norway has since maintained a pragmatic relationship with Russia, although economic and trade interactions were broken off after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. That relationship was formally re-established last November.

Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has emphasized military exercises and training between the Marines and Norwegian troops as a key value of the new deployment, saying in public statements there was no reason for Russia to react negatively to the Marines' presence.

The commanding officer of the Norwegian element headquartered at Vaernes, Home Guard District 12, Col. Haakon Waroe, told Military.com strategic questions about Russia were outside his purview.

"It's for my political masters to respond to whatever communication is going on between two sovereign states," he said. "For us, it's business as usual. We're having Marines around, we're training with Marines, we're supporting the Marine Corps. We're not looking at those higher, strategic aspects of what we're doing. That is for our headquarters to decide."

The Marine Corps presence in Norway is tied to the United States' obligations under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires all partner nations to respond if one is attacked. But potential threats do not reside in just one nation or region, said Nelson.

"A lot of people like to focus on a particular adversary. We look at responsiveness across ... we look south, we look to the sea, we look to the Mediterranean," Nelson said. "But we're regionally focused here, because the Norwegians have offered us an opportunity to go anywhere in Europe from one single location."

In addition to its value as a strategic launching pad, the Norway location offers Marines near access to their pre-staged equipment and weapons, allowing them to arm and mobilize quickly should a contingency arise. In a first this month, the Marines executed a strategic mobility exercise in which they laid out all the vehicles and gear needed to equip a robust ground combat element, working against the clock. Nelson told Military.com that, pending the approval of the Norwegian Parliament, the Corps may make Norway its primary location in Europe, more than doubling the size of the force here.

"An evaluation of the limited rotational presence is ongoing, and the United States has not made a final decision on requesting an extended presence," Air Force Lt. Col. David Faggard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command, said in a statement. "We must let the evaluation-process run its due course without speculating on an outcome on the future U.S. Marine rotational presence in Norway."

And while local forces remain reticent about the relevance of the Marines' position in the context of a resurgent Russia, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller connected the dots in a speech last year during a discussion of Marines' participation in Norwegian cold-weather exercise Operation Cold Response. Russian President Vladimir Putin had no doubt taken notice, he said.

"It's the biggest exercise we've done in Norway in some time," he said. "We were working to repopulate our [pre-positioning equipment] in the caves, and the Norwegians were happy to see us and I'm sure our Russian friends were paying attention. Mr. Putin has done us a great favor."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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