In January, some 285 Marines were deployed to a small Norwegian base as part of a new initiative, Marine Rotational Force-Europe. They were to participate in Joint Viking, a Norwegian-British-US training exercise to season NATO elite forces for both cold-weather fighting and defensive warfare in Norway.
Major General Niel Nelson, the commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, praised the Norway training site both for its value as a cold-weather fighting training ground and for the presence of a network of caves that he called perfect to stock the weapons and vehicles the Americans brought with them.
"We could bring Marines out here in various capability sets, from airplanes, to ground maneuver, to logistics, to communications, to cyber," Nelson told Military.com. "[The Marines] can come out here and practice their skills with a partner of choice, and we would help coordinate that and lead that. They would come for two, three weeks, and learn and go back. That's a ready, capable force for the United States."
To up the count of Marines, the USMC would require approval from the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. Last year, they approved a trial period for Marine deployment consisting of two six-month rotations. "[The Storting] will make a decision on whether or not they believe our limited presence here is value added to them," said Nelson. "I think they'll lean that way."
The Norwegian Defense Ministry was effusive in its praise of the American presence. "The US initiative to augment their training and exercises in Norway by locating a Marine Corps Rotational Force in Norway is highly welcome and will have positive implications for our already strong bilateral relationship," said Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide in a statement.
Norwegian officials denied that the presence of American Marines and armor in Norway was a form of brinkmanship against Russia. "For the first four weeks they will have basic winter training, learn how to cope with skis and to survive in the Arctic environment," said Rune Haarstad, a Norwegian Home Guard spokesman, to Reuters. "It has nothing to do with Russia or the current situation."
The Russian embassy in Norway disagreed. "Taking into account multiple statements of Norwegian officials about the absence of threat from Russia to Norway, we would like to understand for what purposes is Norway so willing to increase its military potential, in particular through the stationing of American forces in Vaernes?" asked an embassy official in 2016 when the US deployment was announced.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Oslo's decision was "a test" to "the relationship between Norway and Russia… instead of developing economic cooperation, Norway is choosing to deploy United States troops on Norwegian soil."
Russia Defense and Security Committee Deputy Chairman Frants Klintsevich was also heavily critical of the deployment on Norwegian television network TV2. "How should we react to this? We have never before had Norway on the list of targets for our strategic weapons. But if this develops, Norway's population will suffer… [Russia needs] to react against definitive military threats. And we have things to react to, I might as well tell it like it is."
Norway, along with Latvia and Estonia, is both a NATO member and a country that borders Russia. When they joined NATO in 1949, they signed an agreement with the USSR that they would not allow foreign troops on their land on a permanent basis, to assuage Soviet concerns that the Nordic country might be used as launch pad for invasion.
The Marines sidestep this agreement by not being deployed permanently, instead being part of a rotational force along with a military equipment storage program. "We've been going to Norway for 25 years. So I don't really know what the hype is about," Maj. Gen. Nelson told Military.com before the deployment. We're just doing our job, from a more economical standpoint. I don't put a lot of stock in people pointing back and forth."
During the Cold War, NATO forces often used Norway as a training ground for cold weather warfare, practicing skills such as skiing, building snow caves, avalanche survival, and other techniques.