Russian war-related news round-up

NORWAY’S FORMER DEFENSE CHIEF believes Russia is both willing and able to utterly destroy Ukraine. Even though Russian forces have met much more opposition than expected, Sverre Diesen doesn’t think Ukraine can prevail now.

Russian war-related news round-up

“As long as the Russians have the capacity to bomb Ukrainian cities into ruins, at great humanitarian and civilian expense, Ukraine can’t win this,” Diesen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday.

Diesen, now working for the Norwegian defense department’s research institute FFI, fears even more Russian bombing of civilian targets. He notes that Russian forces have run into major logistical problems, need reinforcements from other parts of Russia, and that can take time. “We also see signs of weakening resolve and discipline within the Russian forces,” he said, but that won’t stop Russia from bombing Ukrainian cities.

“The big question,” he added, “is how much more damage and how many more deaths will the Russians impose on Ukraine with its ruthless bombing?” Russia has also suffered heavy losses, with intelligence experts reporting that several thousand Russian soldiers have also been killed in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24.

It all boils down to a huge dilemma for NATO, the US and other pro-democracy countries: “Only the West can stop the bombing,” Diesen told NRK. “It will be a choice between letting Ukraine be ruined and losing the war, or boosting support and challenging the Russians’ threat to escalate the conflict.” And that, according to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and others, could set off World War III.

THE HEAD OF OSLO’S CITY GOVERNMENT IS WARNING against boycotts of Russian goods and overt actions that can be viewed as being “anti-Russian.” Raymond Johansen stressed to newspaper Dagsavisen that “we must be clear that Russians are welcome here, they can’t be blamed for Putin’s madness. It’s not the Russian people Ukraine has to fight.”

Johansen is skeptical about how a district council in Oslo recently voted in favor of calling the intersection near the Russian Embassy “Ukraine’s Square.” He thinks acts like that “can be used by Putin to try to prove we’re anti-Russian. We need to think things through, so that we don’t make poor choices in our eagerness to show solidarity” with Ukraine.

Johansen also criticized how the state tourism agency on Svalbard, Visit Svalbard, has encouraged tourism companies against buying services from Russian companies. In some towns and cities, local hotels are not welcoming Russians. He thinks freezing all cooperation with Russia will also freeze out opposition to Putin, and that will in turn fuel his nationalism.

PUTIN’S WAR IN UKRAINE HAS MADE the popular Russian port of St Petersburg far less attractive to cruiseships, claim tourism officials. It’s also, reports NRK, prompting cruise operators to leave the Baltic entirely and divert more of their vessels to Norway this summer, when tourism is expected to pick up again after the Corona crisis.

It remains unclear whether Norway can or will accommodate them. Several fjord areas and the capital of Oslo itself are limiting the numbers of cruise calls because of the emissions the ships generate and the hordes of tourists who disembark in small communities all at once.

Some local officials confirm new cruise interest, though, and point out that the cruiseships are unlikely to be filled to capacity as they were before Corona. “The ongoing war situation will also probably dampen travel interest, so the ships won’t be as full as before,” Tor Mikkel Tokvam, harbour chief in Aurland, told NRK. He has taken in 10 new reservations for cruiseship docking permission this summer.

NORWAY’S POLICE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY PST WARNS that the Norwegian oil and gas industry boosts the threat from Russia. It can be a target of Russian frustration because it poses a threat as a major rival to Russia’s own oil and gas industry.

“Oil and gas is of high value for security policy in Russia, in addition to its pure economic value,” PST wrote in a new evaluation of Norwegian security on Friday. “As an important competitor to Russia, Norway can both strengthen Europe and weaken Russia through its sales of oil and gas.”

PST believes Russia poses more of a threat to Norway now because of its dissatisfaction over Norway’s decision to send defense weapons to Ukraine, its oil and gas industry that offers an alternative source of energy to Europe, and Norway’s ongoing membership in NATO. “We view the threat of Russian spying in Norway as higher,” Hanne Blomberg of PST told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday.

That in turn is prompting the government to boost border partrol, “and that can occur with a short time,” Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl said at another press conference on Friday. Defense Minister Odd Roger Enoksen, meanwhile, said that military intelligence “has seen higher preparedness around Russia’s atomic arsenal in the far north, and we must follow that closely. There’s no reason to be afraid that Putin will use Russia’s nuclear weapons, but we have to be prepared that the worst can happen.”

The government has proposed and won support for a large boost in funding for Norwegian defense and civil preparedness.

THE HEAD OF NORWAY’S MILITARY INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, Rear Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, has joined several other defense experts in claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin made some major miscalculations before invading Ukraine on February 24. Stensønes, who leads the military and overseas equivalent of PST called E-tjenesten in Norway, said on national radio Friday that Putin underestimated the Ukrainian people’s bravery, willingness to fight for their country and the efficiency of the Ukrainian military. It’s tiny compared to Russia’s arsenal, but has already managed to hold off an invasion of Kiev for three weeks.

Stensønes also agrees that Putin underestimated how the war he launched on Ukraine would immediately end quarreling within NATO and the EU, and quickly bring democratic countries together. Russia’s original plan, Stensønes claims, “was to use light forces, get into Kiev very quickly and take control over the capital and government leaders.” They were also, he said, supposed to attack military forces in a variety of ways, in the hopes that the Ukrainian forces would fall and the Russians could easily assume control early.

“That plan didn’t succeed at all,” Stensønes told NRK, adding that the Russians have now reverted to “Plan B, in which they’re using heavier forces, heavier artillery and trying to gradually break through (to Kiev) kilometer by kilometer. Then the civilian losses mount and destruction becomes much greater.” British intelligence reported on Friday that it now looks like Russia’s advancement “has halted on all fronts.”

“What’s difficult now is that Putin has landed in a situation where the consequences of western sanctions are greater and his war becomes much more expensive than he’d thought,” Stensønes said. “At the same time he’s made very clear demands about what he wants. That makes it difficult to see any way out of this. The best hope is a good negotiated solution.”

NORWAY WON’T CENSOR RUSSIAN MEDIA often used as President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machines. Debate has swirled over the issue after some European countries decided to block websites like Russia Today and Sputnik.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said last week that it would be “natural” for Norway to join its European allies in blocking the sites as well, but that set off objections from Norwegian press organizations. Even though they have no professional respect for the sites, Norwegian journalists, editors and champions of freedom of expression had concerns.

“We’d weaken liberal ideals and freedom of expression by using the same censorship that Russia uses,” claimed Knut Olav Åmås, leader of Fritt Ord (The Free Word), an organization dedicated to freedom of expression. Several newspapers also editorialized against blocking the Russian sites that publish in English including Dagsavisen, which wrote that it “would be wrong” to censor Russian media operating in Europe. “The propaganda war isn’t in Europe or Norway, it’s in Russia over Russians’ version of reality,” the paper wrote.

On Friday Støre said his government would not block Russian media after all. “Desinformation should be met as much as possible with critical thinking, not censorship,” he stated during his address to Parliament on the consequences of Putin’s war on Ukraine. He added that Putin could end up using any blockage of Russia sites as a means of legitimizing his own censorship of a free and independent press.

NORWAY USED ITS SEAT ON THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL Thursday to hold Russia responsible for what it considers to be human suffering in Ukraine that’s entirely unacceptable. Norway’s ambassador to the UN also claimed that Ukraine “must stop its military aggression against Ukraine.”

It’s highly unusual for Norway to launch a verbal assault on Russia, but that’s essentially what its ambassador Mona Juul did on Thursday. “Russia and Russia alone bears the full responsibiity for the war and the humanitarian crisis,” Juul, a veteran diplomat, said at the UN Security Council’s latest session regarding the dramatic situation for the civilian population of Ukraine.

She noted how a Ukrainian child has become a refugee almost every second since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine. “More than 3 million civilians have crossed the border to neighouring countries to seek protection,” Juul said, “and more than 2 million are on the run within Ukraine.”

She concluded by demanding that Ukraine follow the order from the International Court to immediately stop what Russia simply calls its “military operations” in Ukraine.

THE NORWEGIAN GOVERNMENT IS SET TO PRESENT a new crisis package with funding aimed at addressing the consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s expected to offer more funding for Norwegian defense, civil preparedness and security, health care, sanctions against Russia and resources needed to handle an influx of Ukrainian refugees.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is due to address Parliament on Friday. He has earlier claimed that Norway will provide an extra NOK 2 billion in support for Ukraine, but been under pressure from opposition parties to specify how the money will be allocated and whether it’s enough.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reports that Støre will unveil the new crisis package, put together when his new Labour-Center coalition government gathered for its first state budget conference this week. The defense- and foreign ministries have been involved in forming the package along with the justice- and labour ministries.

LUXURY YACHTS OWNED BY RUSSIAN OLIGARCHS are now unwelcome in Norway, but one docked in Narvik claims it can’t leave. “We wanted to leave last week,” claims its British captain Rob Lancaster, “but no one will sell us fuel.”

Lancaster allowed a crew from Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on board the yacht Ragnar this week. It’s reportedly owned by Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former KGB agent and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It sailed into Narvik on February 15 (see earlier report below), more than a week before Putin invaded Ukraine but also just as NATO troops were arriving in Northern Norway for NATO’s annual “Cold Response” winter military exercises.

The large yacht is still in Narvik, with Lancaster telling NRK the vessel was supposed to pick up some “guests” for a tour to Svalbard and Greenland “but they didn’t turn up.” After being boarded and inspected by police, the Norwegian coast guard and customs officials, Lancaster now complains of “discrimination” because no marine fuel suppliers will fill the yacht’s tanks. Several local suppliers confirmed that they don’t want to sell to a Russian ship, with the local mayor adding that they fear violating sanctions.

Lancaster stressed that the yacht’s crew members are all “western,” that they  “have nothing to do” with the owner of the Ragnar, and that the yacht itself is registered in Malta, part of the EU. Some Norwegian politicians have called on state authorities to seize the yacht. For now, at least, it’s not going anywhere.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS THAT HOUSE UKRAINIAN REFUGEES in private homes can be eligible for financial support from state immigration agency UDI. It means private persons can offer rental units for refugees and receive financial compensation through their local governments.

“The number of Ukrainian refugees coming to Norway is rising, and we can be facing a refugee influx the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” stated Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl, “therefore we need to use all the acccommodation we have to handle this.”

Her ministry instructed UDI to act accordingly on Wednesday. The prospect of using private homes to house refugees would also relieve demands on capacity at asylum centers.

NORWAY’S HUGE OIL FUND WAS SUPPOSED TO LAUNCH a plan this week for selling off its investments in Russian stocks and bonds. On Tuesday, however, the central bank that manages the Oil Fund said that hasn’t been possible.

The sell-off is part of Norway’s condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Norwegian finance ministry had given Norges Bank two weeks to to draw up a plan for carrying out its selloff by March 15. All investments were frozen as of February 28, four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his invasion of Ukraine.

The bank noted that the Oil Fund’s investments in Russia were valued at around NOK 27 billion (USD 3 billion) as of December 31. The Moscow stock exchange, however, has been closed since February 28, and there are massive sanctions in place against Russian banks and businesses. In a letter to the finance ministry on Tuesday, the bank wrote that it will follow the ministry’s order to sell off all its holdings in Russia.

Because of closed markets and all the sanctions, however, “it is not possible to start the sales now. Norges Bank will get back to the ministry with a recommendation for ending the freeze … when the markets are functioning more normally.” The central bank and the Oil Fund will also recommend how to proceed based on sanctions and the fund’s own interests, cautioning that the sell-off “must be carried out over time.” Norges Bank called the situation “extremely uncertain.”

NORWEGIAN COMPANIES ARE STRUGGLING TO COMPLY with all the sanctions imposed against Russia after its president invaded Ukraine. That’s because hundreds of pages of sanction packages haven’t been translated yet or made part of Norwegian law.

It’s been three weeks since the Norwegian government latched on to the EU’s sanctions packages. Norway is not a member of the EU but wanted to show solidarity with the condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. The problem is that the sanctions weren’t “automatically” transferred to Norway as a non-member of the EU.

The lack of translations and formal legal adoption of the sanctions makes it “very difficult” for companies to understand what the sanctions actually mean and how they should be applied, Anniken Hauglie of national employers’ organization NHO told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday. Norway’s foreign ministry claims it’s been scrambling to translate the sanctions and make them legally valid as soon a possible.

NORWEGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ANNIKEN HUITFELDT had an emotional meeting with refugees and aid workers at a border crossing from Ukraine to Poland last week. She called the situation “heartbreaking” at the time, and it’s since grown much worse.

Nearly 2.5 million Ukrainians had felt forced to leave their homeland by early this week. Many are expected to make their way to Norway, or are being picked up at the border by friends, relatives or well-wishers. “It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen this type of refugee stream in Europe, and so close to Norway,” Huitfeldt told new bureau NTB.

Norway has been gearing up to receive Ukrainian refugees, with accommodation in place for several thousand around the country but much more needed. Norway has committed NOK 2 billion in aid to Ukrainia and is also sending aid to Poland and other countries that are initially receiving all the refugees, mostly women and children. Ukrainian men are expected to remain in the country and defend their towns and cities from Russian forces.

RUSSIAN TROOPS USUALLY STATIONED NEAR KIRKENES in Northern Norway have reportedly been among those sent to fight in Ukraine, along with troops stationed near Russia’s border to Finland. They’ve also reportedly suffered heavy losses, weakening Russia’s northern brigades.

“They’ve been involved in major battles in Kharkiv,” Lt Col Geir Hågen Karlsen of Norway’s military college (Forsvarets høgskole), told newspaper Aftenposten during the weekend.

Around 4,000 Russian soldiers assigned to the Russian Northern Fleet’s ground troops are usually based close to the Norwegian border in the far north west of Murmansk. They’re the ones Norwegian forces would meet in any armed conflict. Now it seems their ranks are thinner after their brigades were involved in battles at Kharkiv on February 25 and March 1.

One of the Northern Fleet’s battleships has also been observed off Odessa, while troops from the Russian Marines attached to the Sputnik Base west of Murmansk have also been sent to Ukraine. The moves came even as NATO was gearing up for its major Cold Response winter exercises in Northern Norway that officially get underway this week. Russian officers are traditionally invited to observe the exercises but declined the invitation this year.

NORWAY’S NEW OIL & ENERGY MINISTER Terje Lien Aasland has had to disappoint European colleagues. Both the EU and the UK are keen to find new sources of oil and gas after having to refuse such imports from Russia. Aasland, however, can’t offer much help in replacing the Russian oil and gas after confirming that he can’t satisfy requests to boost gas production.

“Norwegian authorities are in dialogue with our allies regarding the extremely serious situation,” Aasland told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “As the only exporter of oil and gas in Europe, the Norwegian production outlook is a natural part of the dialogue.” But he could’t fulfill their requests: “It’s well known that  the companies on the Norwegian Continental Shelf are now daily producing as much gas and oil as possible on their Norwegian fields.” Norway doesn’t have more to offer at present to fill the gap, Aasland said.

A NORWEGIAN BAND THAT HAD TO CANCEL an upcoming concert tour because of sluggish Corona-related ticket sales has redirected the bus it intended to use. Now Skambankt is sending its bus to Poland instead, to pick up around 30 Ukrainian refugees and bring them safely to Norway. News bureau NTB reported that the band’s manager Terje Winterstø Røthing and bass player Tollak Kalvatn Friestad will travel along with their bus driver.

“We’ve had some dialogue with various organizations and the Ukrainian Embassy in Norway,” Røthing told NTB. “First they asked us to wait, but then they asked us to go. A representative from the embassy will fly down and meet us there. There are so many people arriving in Poland.”

They’ll head for Przemysl, one of the border towns overcome by refugees. “We’re doing this to help,” Røthing said. “At the same time it’s also a way of showing solidarity that can inspire others to do the same.”

MANAGERS OF NORWAY’S OIL FUND were asked by the Norwegian finance ministry to come up with a plan to divest the fund of all assets in Russia. The ministry initially ordered a freeze on all investments in Russia and then also a plan to sell out of the Russian market.

The plan is due to be delivered this week, and was initially branded by Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum as a means of sending a “clear signal” to Russian leaders that Norway condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Not everyone agrees that selling off Russian shares after they’ve crashed to rock-bottom prices is a good idea. Not only would the fund turn paper losses into concrete losses, supporters of the Russian government would have a chance to buy up shares cheaply. Companies in which the Oil Fund has its largest stakes include Gazprom, Lukoil and Sberbank of Russia, along with a long list of others.

NORWAY IS SETTING UP ACCOMMODATION for at least 8,000 refugees from Ukraine who arrive with acute housing needs. Both the state and local goverments are arranging for hotel space in addition to the 1,000 beds available at the national asylum reception center in Råde near Fredrikstad.

Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl announced this week that Ukrainian refugees can also be eligible for state financial support if staying in private homes or with families in Norway. Several refugee housing centers are also being set up or re-established in Bodø, Nord-Aurdal, Rauma (Isfjorden), Hå, Lødingen, Sunndal, Nordreisa and Porsgrunn. Most of them will be operated by Hero SA, which has been responsible for refugee accommodation through state contracts in the past also.

More othan 1,000 Ukrainian refugees will be placed in Bergen, too, at three Thon hotels: the Orion, Sandviken Brygge and Bergen Airport.  Bergen’s city government is working with state immigration agency UDI to provide the emergency housing.

Norwegians around the country with housing units available for rent or extra accommodation in their homes are also being asked to take contact with local officials. Some have said they’re “overwhelmed” by the response, also from people with an extra bedroom in their homes. Refugees from the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin are proving to be most welcome in Norway.

“The phone has been ringing constantly, the community administrator in Askvoll, Håkoon Loftheim, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “People have been offering their hytter (holiday homes), guest houses and available rooms in their homes. It’s amazing.”Among them is Helga Carlsen who told NRK she was glad when she, like other local residents, received a text message from local officials asking for rental properties available. She could offer a small house: “It’s fully furnished and ready for a family to move right in and have space for themselves. I’d been watching the news and seeing all the pictures and wondered how I could help. I’ll be very glad if some refugees can use my house.”

A UKRAINIAN PASSPORT OR ID-CARD IS ALL THAT’S NEEDED to ride public transport in Oslo and its surrounding Viken County, along with many trains around the country. Ruter, the public sector transport operator in the Oslo metropolitan area, is also teaming up with two other large transport firms in Southern Norway, Brakar and Østfold kollektivtrafikken. Ukrainian refugees who’ve begun arriving in Norway can use their passports or ID cards as valid tickets, like they also can in many cities around Europe.

Train operators in Norway including Vy, SJ, Go-Ahead and Flytoget (the Airport Express Train running to and from Oslo’s main airport OSL Gardermoen) are also allowing free travel with a Ukrainian passport or ID card. Ukrainian refugees can also travel free in or out of Norway from Gothenburg and Östersund in Sweden.

The transport benefit has been widely praised but also left some claiming that such privileges should be extended to all refugees, not just those from Ukraine. A Vy spokeswoman told newspaper Dagsavisen that the Ukrainian refugee crisis is “such a special situation with so many arriving at once,” that such special, if temporary, arrangements were necessary.

RUSSIAN CHILDREN WILL BE ABLE TO PLAY after all in Norway Cup, the world’s largest international football tournament. After lots of protests, Norway’s national athletics federation has reversed its decision to ban them after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war on Ukraine.

Berit Kjoll, president of Norges Idrettsforbund, had announced shortly after the invasion that athletes from Russia and Belarus would be banned from international sporting events in Norway, prompting Norway Cup organizers to honour the ban and block sign-ups from both countries. Kjoll initially supported that, on the grounds that “Norway Cup is an international sporting event and will be covered by the board’s ruling that encourages bans” on athletes from Russia and Belarus.

That set off lots of criticism from human rights organizations, children’s organizations and top politicians who thought children should be exempted from the ban. Now the athletics federation has changed its mind, with Kjoll writing in an email to state broadcaster NRK that she was “glad” the federation had “clarified” the federation’s “goal that children and youth from all countries … should be able to participate in games and athletic activity.” In other words, Kjoll and her colleagues beat a full retreat under pressure.

Norway Cup officials responded that they will “of course” follow the consequences of the new decision, meaning children aged 13 and up will again be welcome in Oslo this summer.

SUPPORT FOR NATO IN NORWAY IS HISTORICALLY HIGH, writes newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), and now even one of the country’s most ardent anti-NATO political parties is reconsidering its traditional opposition.

The Socialist Left Party (SV) is poised for an internal debate on its position, with SV leader Audun Lysbakken welcoming the discussion that follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago. “It’s natural that there be a debate in the party on our security policy when the situation in Europe has changed so dramatically,” Lysbakken wrote in a text message to newspaper Klassekampen.

SV has earlier stated a preference for a Nordic security alliance, especially since neither Sweden nor Finland are members of NATO. Finland is now reconsidering its position, however, and both countries will take part in NATO’s upcoming Cold Response winter exercises in Norway with special “partner” status. Both Finland and Norway share a border with Russia in the north.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN’S INVASION of Ukraine has unleashed new calls for Norway to keep building up its own defense, which was drastically reduced when the Cold War ended. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized this week about how fragile peace and security can be.

DN noted how Norway’s membership in NATO remains its “most important security guarantee,” but urged politicians to strengthen Norway’s own defense. “We need more and better military forces that can assert and defend our sovereignty and protect our security in situations where we now need to ask for help from our allies,” DN wrote.

Nearly 30,000 NATO troops are in Northern Norway for military exercises that officially begin next week. Norway can help others train for battle in winter conditions but DN claims that the Norwegian Navy is “weak,” with a lack of sailors and vessels, not least after losing one of only five frigates in a collision and sinking in 2018. The army also “must be strengthened” and more highly trained pilots are needed to fly Norway’s new fleet of F35 fighter jets, according to DN.

“The war in Ukraine shows that security in Europe can’t be taken for granted,” DN editorialized. “There must be a considerable build-up of the military. It will be expensive and mean that other projects get lower priority, but Norway has no alternative if we’re to be able to claim our own sovereignty in the midst of a crisis.”

NORWEGIAN OFFICIALS ARE REPEATING WARNINGS that all local governments and businesses must brace themselves for cyber attacks from Russia. Newspaper Dagbladet reported that security experts don’t think it’s in Russia’s interests to launch any military attacks against Norway, since the country faces enough challenges in Ukraine. Many of the Russian forces based on the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia, not far from its border to Norway, have also been sent to Ukraine, Lt Col Geir Hågen Karlsen told Dagbladet.

“But we must be prepared for other things, cyber attacks, for example,” Karlsen said. “We’ve seen a strong increase in those in recent years.”

THE NORWEGIAN GOVERNMENT IS SENDING medical supplies worth NOK 43 million (nearly USD 5 million) to Ukraine and neighbouring countries that are taking in refugees. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to shortages of everything from painkillers like Paracet to heart medicine, antibiotics and insulin.

Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said the supplies including surgical equipment are being sent via the EU’s system for civil preparedness, with the first deliveries from Norway arriving in Poland last week. “We must help one another in crisis,” Kjerkol stated, adding that Norwegian health care personnel are also standing by and ready to help local health services in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.

Norway has also offered to take in up to 550 Ukrainian patients as part of a European emergency response if needed, including children, anyone suffering burn injuries and cancer patients. Norway operates its own air ambulance that was put on standby duty from March 1.

A FUNDRAISING CONCERT FOR UKRAINE at Norway’s National Theater Monday evening brought in around NOK 75 million (USD 8.3 million). The money will be distributed to the Red Cross, UNICEF, Caritas, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Norwegian Church Aid to help refugees and those caught in the war-torn country. Norwegian performers included Maria Mena, Sissel Kyrkebø and Jarle Bernhoft among others, and featured a special appeal by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

NORWAY IS NO LONGER A FRIEND OF RUSSIA’S, according to Russia’s official news agency TASS. It reported on Monday that Russian authorities have now approved a list of foreign states and territories that are carrying out “unfriendly actions” against Russia. Included on the list are the US, all the members of the European Union, and Norway.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had already stated himself that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 had “changed the relationship” between Norway and Russia, which share a border just east of Kirkenes in the far north. Now that seems to have been confirmed, even though both Norwegian and Russian residents of the border area have long had lots of contact, could freely cross the border and cooperate on lots of regional issues from fishing rights to search and rescue operations. Many still hope formal agreements will remain in place.

AROUND 100 NORWEGIANS ARE KEEN TO FIGHT for Ukraine. News bureau NTB reported that the Ukrainian Embassy in Oslo has confirmed the expressions of interest in becoming voluntary soldiers for Ukraine, following its invasion by Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has earlier asked other Europeans to join the fight against Russia’s invasion, since Ukraine is not a member of NATO. There are no laws prohibiting Norwegians from fighting for other countries, but they must then be under the command of the country’s military and wear its uniform.

NORWAY EXPANDED ITS CLOSURE OF AIR SPACE to Russian flights last week. Now it also includes Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and the islands of Jan Mayen and Bjørnøya, where Norway has both military and weather stations.

Russia has a small community of around 400 people at Barentsburg on Svalbard, most of whom are officially tied to coal mining operations run by Trust Arktikugol. They’ll still be allowed to fly helicopters between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen, the largest community on Svalbard, since there are no roads between the two. Flights can also be allowed for humanitarian or emergency reasons.

RUSSIAN SKIERS LEFT NORWAY ON A SOUR NOTE after being declared unwelcome at the weekend’s World Cup competition at Holmenkollen in Oslo. Then they found their team vehicles spray-painted with the Ukraininan flag and tagged with unflattering slogans.

Russian skiing star Alexander Bolsjunov was especially bitter, even claiming he didn’t feel safe in Oslo and claiming he was “shocked.” One of the Russian coaches told state broadcaster NRK that “we are all very sad,” and the Russian team reported the vandalism to police before leaving Norway.

Norwegians athletes had made it clear they didn’t want to compete against Russian athletes, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last week. They didn’t defend the vandalism, though. While some said they could understand that opponents of the war would want to tag the Russian team’s vehicles while they were parked at Holmenkollen, biathlon star Tiril Eckhoff was critical, calling the vandalism “childish.” Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold agreed: “Call me naive, but I think this is Putin’s war. I don’t think it’s the Russian biathlon- or skiing team’s war, or wish.”

Organizers of the Holmenkollen Ski Festival claimed the Russian team’s vehicles were parked on public property and they couldn’t be held responsible. “What we can say,” Stefan Marx told NRK, “is that we don’t like what happened. It’s vandalism. We think the Russians should have been allowed to travel home in peace.” Some of them have also been met with threats. “I think that’s just terrible,” Alexander Stöckl, coach of the Norwegian men’s ski jumping team, told NRK.

NOT ONLY WERE RUSSIAN ATHLETES UNWELCOME IN NORWAY this week, so were Russian oil companies. Oil & Energy Minister Marte Mjøs Persen announced that after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no Russian companies will be granted any licenses for oil and gas exploration on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. “Norway stands together with Europe regarding the massive economic sanctions against Russia,” Persen said, meaning Russian firms won’t be allowed to do business in the Norwegian sector.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted that Rosneft, which is 40 percent owned by the Russian state, and Lukoil, a large privately owned Russian company, have had a presence in Norway’s offshore territory for 10 years, but Rosneft returned its license several years ago and Lukoil appears to be in the process of delivering its license back as well.

Persen’s decree isn’t likely, meanwhile, to affect Wintershall Dea Norge, which has been active off Norway. Persen told DN that “the Norwegian firm Wintershall Dea Norge is a wholly owned subsidiary of the German firm Wintershall Dea.” Even though Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman is its second-largest owner, the Norwegian unit can avoid the goverment’s ban on Russian players. Fridman and Wintershall itself have both criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Wintershall calling it “the Russian President’s war of aggression … that has shaken the foundations of the company’s work in Russia to the core.”

Wintershall CEO Mario Mehren said in what the company called “a personal statement” that “the brutal attack is causing unimaginable suffering and marks a turning point.” Wintershall declared in a press release this week that it would not pursue any additional gas and oil production projects in Russia, would stop planning for new projects, would “basically stop payments to Russia with immediate effect” and would write off its financing of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that amounted to around EUR 1 billion.

US PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN WON SOME GOOD REVIEWS in Norway for his State of the Union address in Washington this week, that spent a lot of time on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Newspaper Dagsavisen was among those praising Biden’s “stoic calm” in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine.

The paper noted that the president’s annual speech to Americans is also “a speech to the world,” which needs some reassurance right now. Biden had invited Ukraine’s ambassador to attend (a courtesy also extended by Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre when he addressed Parliament this week) and the US president was “confident and inclusive, clear and with well-thought-out remarks,” while refraining from provocation.

“The world should be happy that Donald Trump is no longer president,” editorialized Dagsavisen, and that Biden, “with his massive experience from Congress and the White House as vice president, is leading the world’s most powerful land right now.”

PRIME MINISTER JONAS GAHR STØRE HAILED THE COURAGE of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a phone conversation with the embattled leader on Wednesday. Støre told Zelensky that both he and the people of Norway “salute you for the courage of the Ukrainian people and you personally, for standing tall in this extremely dire moment in the history of Ukraine, but also of Europe. You have broad support from the Norwegian people in your struggle, which we also see as our struggle. ”

Støre has, however, cautioned Norwegians against heeding Zelensky’s call to travel to Ukraine and join the fight against invading Russian forces. “I understand that the discussion can come up,” Støre told TV2, “but war is dramatic.”

It’s not illegal for Norwegians to engage in war on behalf of another country, but anyone doing so must join the other country’s military and wear their uniform. “You must also assume the risks involved and be under the laws of the country at war,” said military lawyer Sigrid Redse Johansen.

NORWEGIAN POLICE, THE COAST GUARD AND TAX AUTHORITIES raided a private luxury yacht that suddenly tied up in the harbour of Narvik in Northern Norway last week. The yacht is reportedly owned by former KGB officer Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, who’s also a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Newspaper Fremover reported that Norwegian defense forces had been following the yacht Ragnar, as it sailed along the coast of Northern Norway just as major NATO winter exercises are getting underway. A former Norwegian intelligence agent told state broadcaster that it’s “hardly coincidental” for large Russian vessels to turn up during NATO exercises.

“This is something the Russians have done for years when major allied exercises are going on in Northern Norway,” Ola Kaldager told NRK. Kaldager said the vessels are usually fishing boats or “more advanced” sorts of vessels: “It’s a bit special that this is a good friend of Putin, who’s been a KGB officer.”

Norwegian authorities tried to downplay their “control” of the yacht, calling it merely a “standard control of a ship in our area.” All on board were holding valid passports and visas for the Schengen area, and authorities didn’t find anything amiss. Customs agents, however, were carrying out “normal routines” to ensure that any goods on board that are brought into Norway were subject to various taxes. The Norwegian Navy declined to comment on the authorities’ inspection of the yacht.

NORWEGIANS HAVE STARTED HOARDING IODINE PILLS, which can serve as a form of vaccine against radioactivity. Pharmacies have been running short of supplies, after sales jumped following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.

Some pharmacies have posted signs notifying customers that they’re “unfortunately sold out of iodine tablets for use after nuclear accidents.” It’s a scary message for many, in nervous times after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was raising Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons to a higher level of preparedness.

Putin’s move was roundly condemned as unnecessary and irresponsible, but it’s worried Norwegians who’ve had to deal with fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident over the years. “We do recommend that people have iodine tablets at home,” Ingrid Landmark of the state directorate for nuclear security told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday, “but primarily because of possible accidents.”

Landmark confirmed that iodine tablets can help ward off the effects of breathing in nuclear fallout for 24 hours. Pharmacies, meanwhile, were restocking and rationing sales of the tablets, while Landmark stressed that the danger of any radioactive fallout reaching Norway remained slim.

NORWEGIAN STATE OIL COMPANY EQUINOR is halting all new investment in Russia and will start the process of pulling out of existing projects in Russia because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. “We are deeply disturbed by the invasion of Ukraine,” said Equinor CEO Anders Opedal.

Equinor, formerly Statoil, has been doing business in Russia for more than 30 years, with the board’s decision to pull out on Monday called a “turning point in our operations, but the right decision.” Equinor has abided by sanctions but could uphold activity in Russia through what was called a “strategic cooperation” with the partially state-owned company Rosneft, run by one of Putin’s closest friends, Igor Setsjin. Equinor has, since 1996, been part owner of an oil field and has been producing around 30,000 barrels of oil a day.

Equinor’s assets and operations in Russia were valued at around USD 1.2 billion at the end of 2021, much of which will now have to be written down. Commentators called the pull-out necessary: “This is about the security situation but also has to do with Equinor’s reputation,” said Hilde Øvrebekk, a commentator specializing in energy issues at newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad. “You can’t continue to cooperate with a company that’s steered by Putin’s closest oligarchs.”

OSLO-BASED YARA INTERNATIONAL’S OFFICE IN KIEV was bombed during the weekend, reports Norwegian news site Nettavisen. Yara’s office is in the same building that was targeted by missile attacks after Russia invaded Ukraine last week. Kristin Nordal, spokesperson for the large fertilizer producer that halted phosphate purchases from Belearus last month, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that all its employees in Kiev had been accounted for. “We are extremely worried about the terrible situation in Ukraine and stand fully behind the Norwegian government’s condemnation of the Russian military invasion,” Nordal said. “Our most important priority now is the safety of our employees in Ukraine.”

UKRAINE’S EMBASSY IN OSLO WAS HIT BY A CYBER ATTACK on Monday that shut down its website. Several other Ukrainian embassies in the Nordic countries, elsewhere in Europe and the US were also hit, including websites for the embassies in Copenhagen, reports newspaper Berlingske, plus Sweden, Great Britain and Germany. Norwegian cyber security agencies have warned of increased cyber attacks even before Russia invaded Ukraine last week.

NORWAY TOOK IN ITS FIRST REFUGEES FROM UKRAINE during the weekend, after 20 people who’d traveled by bus arrived at the national asylum center in Råde, just north of the Swedish border. Immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) said they were all women and children and were “exhausted after a long trip.” Some arrived via Poland. Norway’s national refugee center, which initially processes refugees before sending them on to towns and cities around the country, has 650 beds ready and can expand to 1,000 as needed.

DEMONSTRATIONS SUPPORTING UKRAINE continued all over Norway during the weekend. They grew from just a few people standing outside the Russian Embassy on Thursday, to thousands gathering in Oslo and hundreds more in cities from Kirkenes in the north to Ålesund and Stavanger in the south.

Among them was author and retired teacher Asle Sveen, who co-wrote the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. “The last time I demonstrated here (outside the Russian Embassy in Oslo) was in 1968, after Russia invaded Czechoslovakia,” Sveen wrote on social media Saturday. He called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early Thursday “totally insane,” noting that Russian leaders earlier have referred to Ukrainians as their brothers and sisters, only to attack them now after lying for months.

Other demonstrators included both Ukrainians and Russians living in Norway, with several Russians telling Norwegian media that they were ashamed of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has done. “What’s happening now, with Russia attacking the independent country of Ukraine, has everyone in an uproar,” Evgenij Goman, a theater diretor and producer from Murmansk now living in and working in Norway, told newspaper Dagsavisen.

He said he feels both anger and shame over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and thinks many other Russians feel the same. Putin is now leading by fear, prompting Goman to think that most other top Russian politicians fear losing their jobs and positions, and are thus too afraid to voice any dissent.

OSLO IS PREPARING TO TAKE IN REFUGEES from Ukraine, Mayor Marianne Borgen confirmed over the weekend. She said the Norwegian capital will take in as many as the goverment asks: “Oslo wants to be and is a city based on solidarity and wanting to show its humanity.”

Oslo’s City Hall lit up witht the colours of the Ukrainian flag last week and on Friday, an actual Ukrainian flag was also flying outside. “This is a way of showing our solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” Borgen told newspaper Dagsavisen. “It’s important that we come to their aid, both here in Oslo and around the country.” She said several other Norwegian cities were also preparing to offer shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

Oslo City Hall (Oslo Rådhus),  home of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, was basking in the colours of the Ukrainian flag after Ukraine was invaded by Russia on Thursday on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We’re doing this in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and their families and friends both in Oslo and other places around the world,” Raymond Johansen, leader of Oslo’s city government, told news bureau NTB.

Johansen added that he thought it was “disgusting” that a “power monger” would invade a neighouring country with the goal of replacing its government in 2022. He said Oslo officials were also arranging to take in refugees from Ukraine.

PRIME MINISTER JONAS GAHR STØRE confirmed on Friday that Norway would contribute, in cooperation with the European Union, towards finding solutions for the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Ukraine after the Russians attacked. “We are positive and open to contributing to taking in our share of refugess within the framework of European cooperation,” Støre said at a press conference Friday.

The humanitarian situation following Putin’s attacks is acute. UNICEF estimates around 3.4 million Ukrainians will need help after being forced to flee their homes following the attacks. “We will stand up for Ukraine and the people of Ukraine,” Støre said. Norway has already committed to sending more than NOK 200 million in foreign aid to Ukraine.

SO MUCH FOR DIALOGUE BETWEEN NORWAY AND RUSSIA in the so-called “High North.” Russia’s ambassador to Norway ended up being called in on the carpet on Friday by Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, who flatly accused him of lying to her.

Russian Ambassador Teimuraz Ramisjvilij was told that Russia bears “full responsibility” for the invasion of Ukraine. Huitfeldt told reporters afterwards that “Russia has earlier claimed it had no intention of invading Ukraine. I told him (Russia’s ambassador) that (such claims) have been a lie.”

She stressed that Norway and Russia have lived (as neighbours) in peace for centuries. “This meaningsless attack (on Ukraine) is not in the interests of the Russian people,” Huitfeldt claimed. She said the most important message she wanted to get across was the Norwegian people’s view on the war that’s been started by the ambassador’s boss, Vladimir Putin.

“We did not have a conversation,” she told reporters. “I expressed Norway’s message and then I left the room.”

THE RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO NORWAY, meanwhile, suddenly dropped out of an annual conference this week in Norway’s northern city of Kirkenes, which is best known as a forum for dialogue between Russia and other Arctic neighbours. Ramisjvilij had attended on the opening days, but after Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine early Thursday morning, he suddenly didn’t want to show face any longer.

Russia’s ambassador also rebuffed interview requests from state broadcster NRK and stayed away from a dinner Wednesday evening, after complaining that the conference agenda had been changed. Since Putin earlier in the week first announced Russia’s official recognition of two Ukrainian regions as independent states, the conference agenda turned to the connflict in Ukraine

DEMONSTRATIONS IN NORWAY against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine quickly expanded on Thursday, and not only in Oslo. Ukrainians living in Norway, along with many others, were out protesting what they consider to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s audacity for ignoring their homeland’s sovereignty and trying to topple their democratically elected government.

Hundreds of people protesting the war Putin that started early Thursday morning gathered near the Russian Embassy on Drammensveien Thursday afternoon, to vent their opposition to Putin’s invasion.  Then they marched towards the Norwegian Parliament, passing the home of the Nobel Peace Prize  (above) along the way. Resident Russians also joined the protests, with one young Russian man telling state broadcaster NRK that he was “ashamed” the leaders of his country resorted to military aggression against a peaceful neighbour. (PHOTO: Morten Møst)

There were also protests in Stavanger, where one woman, Ludmila Laugaland, told NRK that she “woke up to a telephone call from family home in Kiev. There were bombs bursting around them. They packed up what they could and headed for a bomb shelter. They have nowhere to go now.”

NORWAY’S IMMIGRATION AGENCY (UDI) has suspended all demands for Ukrainians to leave the country if their residence permission has expired. No one will be deported for the forseeable future either, UDI announced. The immigration agency is also bracing for a new influx of asylum seekers after Putin’s toops rolled in, allegedly to destroy Ukrainia’s democracy and install Putin’s own puppet government. UDI reported that it hadn’t seen any increase in Ukrainian refugees arriving in Norway yet, but news bureau Reuters reported that an estimated 100,000 Ukrainians are now fleeing their homeland, mostly heading west towards Poland, Slovakia and Hungary on Thursday. UDI claimed it was prepared to handle an increase in asylum seekers.

CROWN PRINCE HAAKON interruped a family holiday abroad to return to Norway after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine early Thursday. The entire Royal Family had traveled to an undisclosed location this week to celebrate King Harald V’s 85th birthday on Monday. His birthday coincided with the annual week-long winter school holiday, and came just after the Norwegian government had eased most Corona-related travel restrictions. The crown prince, however, deemed it best to attend to his constitutional duties as regent and preside over the weekly Council of State session with the government on Friday.

NORWAY’S FOREIGN MINISTRY HAS TEMPORARILY CLOSED its embassy in Ukraine, after initially moving it father west of Kiev to the city of Lviv. The ministry was concerned about the safety of Norwegian diplomatic staff in Kiev even before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full invasion of Ukraine early Thursday. By Thursday evening Norwegian diplomatic personnel had been evacuated from Lviv as well. Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt claimed the government was “concerned about the situation for Norwegian citizens in Ukraine” but they’d been urged to leave Ukraine for weeks and the massive invasion jeopardized embassy staff. Citizens remaining in Ukraine “now find themselves in an unpredictable and potentially dangerous situation,” Huitfeldt acknowledged. She said the ministry has taken direct contact with all Norwegian citizens in Ukraine who had registered with the embassy.

THE ORGANISATION FOR SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE (OSCE) is pulling all its observers out of Ukraine, including 10 Norwegians. They’ve been monitoring the situation for months, concentrating on the disputed regions in the east, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the entire country on Thursday put their own security at risk. Now the Vienna-based OSCE wants to evacuate all observers, if only temporarily, but faces challenges with a war now underway.

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