16:10 GMT19 October 2020
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    Late last year, the Nordic country hosted Trident Juncture-18, the NATO alliance's largest drills in recent memory, with 31 countries contributing some 50,000 troops, 10,000 military vehicles, and dozens of warships and combat aircraft, including a US carrier group.

    Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen has warned that a conflict in the European continent is no longer outside the realms of possibility, and accused Russia of taking the lion's share of the blame.

    "By and large, the developments in our surroundings illustrate that we have to take into account that armed conflict between states in Europe is no longer unthinkable," Bakke-Jenson said in a New Year's address delivered on Sunday to the Norwegian Military Society.

    "Concern number one is Russia. We see a more clear kind of seriousness connected with our neighbor in the East," the defence minister added. 

    Accusing Russia of "deliberately" seeking to "degrade and undermine Western unity and international cooperation," Bakke-Jenson said that Moscow has had a confrontational attitude towards the West since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and the "annexation" of Crimea.

    "These changes in behaviour directly affect Norwegian and allied security," he suggested.

    Mentioning Russia over two dozen times in his speech, Bakke-Jensen also turned to China, accusing the Asian superpower of "challenging the US position of leadership globally," and warning that together, in some regions, China and Russia can quickly establish military superiority over the Western alliance.

    The US has significantly expanded its military footprint in Eastern and northern Europe since the Western-supported coup d'état in Kiev in 2014, which prompted Crimean authorities to break away from Ukraine and rejoin Russia following a peninsula-wide referendum in which over 96 percent of voters voted to secede from Kiev.

    The US deployed over 300 marines to Vaernes, central Norway in 2017, adding another 400 troops at Setermoen, northern Norway, less than 100 km from the Russian border, late last year. Last spring, the US Navy moved to reestablish the 2nd Fleet, a Cold War-era force deployed in the North Atlantic and Arctic theatres.

    In November, the US and its NATO allies deployed tens of thousands of troops, dozens of ships and thousands of pieces of military equipment for the Trident Juncture-18 drills, the largest military exercises of their kind in decades. Seven Norwegian sailors were injured after their frigate collided with a tanker and ran aground during the drills, with NATO receiving hundreds of complaints from local residents about the drills causing damage to arable land, and soldiers' use of built-up areas as outdoor toilets.

    Speaking at a defence ministry meeting with Russia's Belarusian allies during the drills, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that "NATO's military activity near our borders has reached an unprecedented level since the Cold War," and accused the alliance of blatantly using the so-called "Russian threat" to justify its continued buildup.


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