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NATO exercises near Russia: Is it a show of force or a provocation?


Tensions between Russia and NATO countries are higher than at any time since the Cold War. So why would the U.S. and dozens of allies stage war-games right on Russia's doorstep in northern Norway? NPR's Quil Lawrence has been observing the exercises. He's on the line with us now from the city of Tromso.

Quil, this, as I understand it, was a preplanned set of exercises. But obviously, I mean, there's so much symbolism involved here, right?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Right. Over the weekend, I spoke with U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Henderson, who commands the U.S. element here in Norway. And he described the scenario that this war-game is acting out, which happens every two years.

ANTHONY HENDERSON: Hypothetical mission is to counter an invasion of Norway, to counter that force.

LAWRENCE: And what do you want that force, which may or may not be Russia in the future, to see when they watch this exercise?

HENDERSON: We don't want just that force - we want anyone who would take on a defensive alliance like NATO to understand that it is prepared to defend all of its members unequivocally.

MARTIN: Ah. So he's being very careful there. Hey, it's not just about Russia. But, I mean, clearly it is. Is there any sign Russia is taking notice?

LAWRENCE: Well, I was interviewing him about aboard this Italian aircraft carrier, which is here for the exercise. And the captain of that ship, Marcello Grivelli, said that the Russian navy is watching them from just over the horizon.

MARCELLO GRIVELLI: They are just outside the Norwegian territorial waters. Their behavior is professional. They are not seeking any escalation. So they are doing what they normally do in this kind of a situation, where they just observe.

MARTIN: So what exactly is Russia observing? I mean, what is NATO showcasing? Or maybe, what are they trying to learn from these exercises?

LAWRENCE: Well, they're showing off a lot of weapons that Ukraine would love to have right now - antiaircraft systems, artillery, antitank weapons. But Norway is nothing like where the U.S. and NATO forces have been fighting for the past 20 years. It's all - up here, it's fjords and snowstorms. The camouflage people wear is white instead of green. We saw it go from ten miles perfectly clear visibility to a complete whiteout on that ship over the weekend. And looming over all of this is the fact that four U.S. Marines died when their aircraft crashed this month. And it's not clear whether the weather was a factor in that. But it definitely hampered the search and rescue.

MARTIN: Why, Quil, is this big exercise happening in Norway? I mean, does anyone expect to be fighting in the Arctic?

LAWRENCE: I mean, that's what this exercise is meant to deter. We spoke with - I mean, and Russia also seems to have its hands completely full in Ukraine right now. But the war is definitely being felt up here. It's stressing Norway's long history of coexistence with Russia.

We spoke, actually, to the Norwegian prime minister, Jonas Gahr Store, over the weekend during this exercise. And here's what he - here's how he described it.

PRIME MINISTER JONAS GAHR STORE: We have been at peace with Russia for a thousand years. We live next to the world's most important nuclear weapons arsenal, which has called for what I call high north, low tension.

MARTIN: What does that mean, high north, low tension?

LAWRENCE: Well, for all of these years, Norway has been right on the doorstep, even during the worst moment of the Cold War. And Russia has a huge nuclear navy up here. Now, part of that - those ships are actually down supporting the fight in Ukraine right now. So there doesn't seem to be an immediate question.

But there are all sorts of new resources opening up up here in the Arctic, energy resources, which are all the more precious as the prices of fuel go up worldwide. There are a lot of places where people are afraid that Russia could start pushing little boundaries or making little bits of expansion, much as they did in Ukraine, you know, in 2014. And the world didn't really take much notice. So Norway doesn't want to provoke. NATO says they don't want to provoke, but they just want to make sure Russia doesn't think that there's any sort of soft target up here.

MARTIN: Quil Lawrence is reporting from Norway on these NATO exercises. We will hear more of his reporting later this week. Thank you so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Rachel.


Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.