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NATO

‘No hawk on security’: Jens Stoltenberg profile

Once a staunch opponent of NATO, its new leader Jens Stoltenberg could be a key voice of calm as the Western military alliance seeks to mend relations with an increasingly pugnacious Russia.

'No hawk on security': Jens Stoltenberg profile
Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Marte Christensen/NTB Scanpix
An economist by training, Norway's former prime minister, who will replace current secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen on October 1st, has never had any particular fondness for defence or security matters.
   
But a decade in office has left the 55-year-old with a strong international network and honed his skills as a cross-border negotiator.
   
Norway's Labour Party head is the first NATO secretary general from a country bordering Russia and his friendly ties with Moscow could be an important asset as the Crimea crisis revives tensions not seen since the days of the Cold War.
   
During his tenure as prime minister, Norway and Russia signed key agreements on the delineation of their frontier in the Barents Sea and on visa exemptions for their border populations.
   
"Stoltenberg's and Norway's experience as a neighbour of Russia will surely come in handy," the respected Norwegian daily Aftenposten commented recently. "But the decision on what kind of relationship the West ought to have with Russia is made in other forums than the NATO system," the newspaper added in an oblique reference to the European Union and, above all, the United States.
 
As a young man, Stoltenberg was vehemently opposed to NATO and the European community, two organizations that he eventually came to support.
   
As a long-haired teenager, he threw stones at the US embassy in 1973 in reaction to Washington's bombardment of Haiphong in North Vietnam.
   
Twelve years later, he assumed the reins of Labour Youth, at a time when it advocated a Norwegian exit from NATO. It was on his watch that the organization eventually rallied to the cause of the Atlantic Alliance.
   
"It appears that his radical notions have been merely diluted with age – but not altogether discarded," a commentator at The Wall Street Journal wrote recently.
   
The conservative newspaper reminded its readers that as a minister, Stoltenberg took part in an Oslo-Paris bicycle relay in 1995 to protest French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll.
   
Born into a political family — his father was minister of defence and then of foreign affairs, his mother a deputy minister — he also devoted the majority of his career to politics.
   
After joining parliament in 1991, the tall, blue-eyed Norwegian rose rapidly through the political ranks, becoming minister of energy and then of finance, before being named the country's youngest prime minister in 2000, the day after his 41st birthday.
   
He only kept that position briefly, but returned to power in 2005 and stayed on at the head of government until October last year.
 
Under his leadership, the Scandinavian country participated in the war in Afghanistan and contributed to the air strikes against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.
 
Norway, traditionally pacifist but with strong Atlantic ties, is one of the few NATO countries that has increased its defence budget in recent years.
   
Enjoying a high level of popularity as prime minister in his own country, Stoltenberg also received international praise when he called for "more democracy" and "more humanity" after extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people on July 22nd, 2011.
   
He also appeared to be a man of the people in a pre-election stunt in 2013 where he posed as a taxi driver in order to hear the views of ordinary voters. However the stunt backfired when it later emerged that the Labour Party had recruited and paid some of the passengers.
   
The married father of two cut his teeth on difficult negotiations in the past. These days he is so skilled at the art of compromise that some accuse him of being adverse to conflict.
   
"Nobody can consider Jens Stoltenberg a hawk on security policy," said Gunnar Stavrum, a commentator at online newspaper Nettavisen.
 
 "The choice of Jens Stoltenberg shows that after a period of intensified international conflict, the big members of NATO want a secretary general who is prepared to compromise."

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NATO

Cold War vibes as US shows military muscle in Norway

The United States is deploying long-range B-1 bombers to Norway to train in the strategically important High North in a new show of force unseen in the region since the Cold War.

Cold War vibes as US shows military muscle in Norway
A file photo showing US soldiers during a 2018 NATO exercise in Norway. Photo: AFP

“High North, low tensions” goes an old saying, describing the relatively calm security situation and diplomatic relations in the Arctic for decades.

But mounting tensions between the West and Russia, particularly since the 2014 Crimea crisis, has led both sides to beef up their militaries even in the remote High North, an area believed to be rich in natural resources and where the ice melt has opened up new shipping routes. 

This month, long-range B-1 bombers capable of carrying large amounts of air-to-ground weaponry will arrive at Norway’s Orland air base for several weeks of training missions with the Scandinavian country’s air force, which guards NATO’s northern border.

“This deployment comes in the context of global military activities in the High North, which have increased significantly in recent years, both from the West and Russia,” noted Kristian Atland, a researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

“The fact that these are strategic bombers naturally causes concern in Russia,” he added.

Moscow is in fact fuming.

“Nobody in the Arctic is preparing for an armed conflict. However, there are signs of mounting tension and military escalation,”  Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov, said.

The current militarisation in the region “could turn us back decades to the days of the Cold War,” he told Russia’s RIA news agency in early February.

Oslo is meanwhile keen to downplay matters.

Located in central Norway — and well below the Arctic Circle — the Orland base where the B-1B bombers will be stationed is 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from the border with Russia, officials note.

“To have our allies train here with us is a well-established and natural part of our security policy and our cooperation with NATO,” Norway’s Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said.

“Russia knows this and has no reason to feel provoked,” he said in an email to AFP.

But this is not an isolated move.

Norway recently agreed to grant its US, British and French allies’ nuclear submarines access to a supply port near its Arctic town of Tromsø.

In 2009, Norway, under then prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, now NATO’s secretary general, closed the nearby and once-secret Olavsvern base carved inside a mountain and sold it to private investors — not anticipating the geopolitical changes to come.

But with rising tensions in the region, the need has arisen for a base from which to track Russian subs sailing through the nearby “Bear Gap”, a passage required to get from their Kola peninsula bases to the Atlantic.

Echoing local opposition, Greenpeace has criticised Oslo’s initiative as “playing NATO roulette” with nature, locals’ lives, and relations with Russia. 

Moscow’s increasingly assertive position has also led Norway’s neighbour, non-NATO member Sweden, to announce a massive 40 percent increase in military spending by 2025 — a rise unseen since the 1950s — and remilitarise its Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

While Sweden has long had a policy of military non-alignment, there is currently a majority in parliament for a “NATO option” that would allow it, like Finland, to rapidly join the alliance. The Social Democratic government is however opposed to membership.

For the first time since the 1980s, the US Navy deployed an aircraft carrier in the Norwegian Sea in 2018, and then several other vessels in Russia’s economic zone in the Barents Sea the following year.

The change of administration in Washington is not expected to alter the US position.

“The United States has a long history of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region, and it is my hope that can continue,” the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on the sidelines of his Senate hearing.

“I have serious concerns, however, about the Russian military build-up in the region and Russia’s aggressive conduct in the Arctic and around the world,” he added.

Moscow is rearming as well.

In March 2020, President Vladimir Putin called for Russia’s military capabilities to be bolstered in the Arctic and ordered the “creation and modernisation of military infrastructure” by 2035.

Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet, which has 86 vessels including 42 subs, was notably the first to receive a fourth-generation Borei class nuclear submarine last summer.

With the opening or modernisation of bases, new missile and drone tests, simulated attacks against Western targets, as well as military deployments heading increasingly further afield, Moscow has also been showing off its 
military might.

The Norwegian air force said it scrambled its jets 50 times last year to identify 96 Russian aircraft flying by its airspace.

While that is far fewer than the 500 or 600 Soviet jets identified annually in the Cold War mid-1980s, it is more than the dozen or so identifications that were the norm in the 2000s.

READ ALSO: Norway cancels manoeuvres with Nato allies over virus fears

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