Norwegian Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide indicated March 28 that the Norwegian army 2nd Battalion would be renamed the "Arctic Battalion" and equipped to patrol the country's Arctic territory. The battalion, a mechanized infantry unit based in the northern county of Troms, will be supplied with snowmobiles and other light vehicles for the task.
The move is a response to a similar drive for Arctic militarization by Russia, Norway's Arctic neighbor. The Arctic, which is estimated to hold vast untapped oil and natural gas reserves, has become more relevant to geopolitics over the past decade. With recent technological advancements and oil and natural gas fields further south drying up, Norway and Russia have been highlighting their territorial claims in preparation for potential mineral extraction.
Competition in the Arctic will strain the countries' relationship, though a hard break in relations is unlikely as long as both benefit from bilateral cooperation, such as between their state energy companies, Statoil and Gazprom. However, Norway will work to contain Russia's influence in the Arctic by strengthening its military partnerships with other countries in the region.
Norway's latest plans are part of a decadelong program to modernize its military, with a stronger focus on the Arctic and Russia. The March 28 announcement followed a statement earlier in the month by Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store calling Russia and the High North "key areas in Norwegian foreign policy" and advocating diverting funds to monitor Russian activity in the Arctic. And in early March, the United Kingdom signed an agreement to join a defense alliance with Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark aimed at coordinating military cooperation in the Arctic.
Russia, with an estimated $8 trillion worth of energy resources in its Arctic territory — 45 billion barrels of oil and 23 trillion cubic meters of natural gas — and an enormous arctic coastline that it has been operating along routinely for decades, already has strong military capabilities there. Russia's largest and most capable fleet is the Northern Fleet, with which it maintains considerable arctic capability. Also, Russia announced in March 2011 that it would re-equip its motorized infantry brigade based in Pechenga, on the Russian-Norwegian border, as an Arctic brigade.
Despite this militarization, Russia and Norway continue their cooperation in the energy sphere. Lacking significant offshore arctic drilling technology, Gazprom relies on Statoil's technological capacity to develop Russia's Shtokman project in the Barents Sea, which is estimated to hold 3.9 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and in which Statoil holds a 24 percent stake. The project is expected to begin exports via pipeline by 2016 and via liquefied natural gas tankers the year after.
The countries also continue a cooperative military relationship, exemplified by the POMOR annual naval exercises held in May. The true test of this working relationship in the Arctic will be the exploration and acquisition of untapped energy resources. At that point, the extent of the cooperation between Statoil and Gazprom will be an important indicator of the countries' wider bilateral relationship.