A Marine stands watch during a cold weather training event in Setermoen, Norway, in preparation for Reindeer II, a bilateral exercise hosted by the Norwegian military to increase support capabilities between NATO allies in extreme conditions. Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. William Chockey.

While President Vladimir Putin this week sternly warned the West against encroaching further on Russia’s security interests, saying Moscow’s response will be “quick and tough,” American and NATO ships, submarines and aircraft will soon come calling at a handful of new ports and airfields in the Norwegian Arctic — right on Russia’s doorstep.

The warning during Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address came amid the announcement that Russia will begin returning troops to permanent bases inside the country, pulling them back from near the border with Ukraine.

The deployments took place against the backdrop of renewed clashes in Ukraine’s conflict-stricken eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatist forces since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.

Russia has argued that the build-up was defensive, while Ukraine – backed by Germany and other Western powers – has accused Moscow of attempting to provoke hostilities.

“I hope that no one dares to cross the red line in respect to Russia, and we will determine where it is in each specific case,” Putin said. “Those who organize any provocations threatening our core security interests will regret their deeds more than they regretted anything for a long time.”

Moscow has rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the troop buildup, saying it doesn’t threaten anyone and that Russia is free to deploy its forces on its territory.

But the Kremlin also has warned Ukraine against trying to use force to retake control of the rebel-held east, saying Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region.

“We really don’t want to burn the bridges,” Putin said. “But if some mistake our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intend to burn or even blow up those bridges themselves, Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, quick and tough.”

Fast attack submarine USS Seawolf conducts a brief stop for personnel in the Norwegian Sea off the coast of Tromso, Norway. Credit: US Navy photo.

Meanwhile, the recent signing of the Supplementary Defense Cooperation Agreement will allow the US to build infrastructure at three air bases and a navy facility along the Norwegian coast to bolster American and NATO allied operations in the Arctic and North Atlantic, Breaking Defense reported.

The agreement must still be ratified by the Norwegian Parliament, a move expected by the summer. 

Once it’s approved, the US will be able to start building new facilities at the Rygge, Sola, and Evenes airfields, along with the Ramsund navy base, while rotating troops and contractors to those bases to maintain facilities and service US aircraft and ships, the report said. 

The Ramsund facilities would mark the second base where American submarines and ships can regularly resupply along Norway’s North Atlantic coast, following the expected opening of the Tromso port even further north to American submarines in the coming weeks after undergoing a major expansion effort last year.

As for the air bases, Rygge sits on the outskirts of Oslo, while Sola is on the Atlantic coast in southern Norway and Evenes above the Arctic Circle in the north, the report said.

The new capabilities for American and NATO allies to land so far above the Arctic Circle would place them closer than ever to increased Russian activity in the North Atlantic and in the Arctic. 

A Norwegian soldier takes aim near Roros, Norway, during exercise Trident Juncture,. NATO’s biggest exercise in decades, bringing together more than 50,000 personnel from partner nations. Photo courtesy NATO.

In his speech, Putin pointed to Russia’s moves to modernize its nuclear arsenal and said the military would continue to build more state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles and other new weapons, Military.com reported.

He added that the development of the nuclear-armed Poseidon underwater drone and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile is continuing successfully.

But as he spoke, a wave of protests started rolling across Russia in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and a human rights group said nearly 1,500 people were arrested, the report said.

Thousands marched in central Moscow, where police blocked off a square next to the Kremlin. Police in St. Petersburg blocked off Palace Square, outside the Hermitage museum, and protesters instead massed along Nevsky Prospekt.

The Biden administration last week imposed new sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies — activities Moscow has denied.

The US ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and individuals, and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.

Russia retaliated by ordering 10 US diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former US officials, and tightening requirements for US Embassy operations.

According to Military.com, the US government will pay for all facilities it builds on Norwegian soil, and won’t permanently base any troops there, officials in Oslo were quick to point out.

It’s a point the Norwegian government has long stressed when talking about US Marine rotations to the country for training. 

“Our cooperation with our allies is under continuous development,” said Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide.

“The agreement reaffirms Norway’s close relationship with the US and confirms Norway’s key position on the northern flank of NATO … our policies regarding the stationing of foreign forces on Norwegian territory, the stockpiling or deployment of nuclear weapons and port visits remain unchanged,” she added. 

Norway has been quick to integrate the F-35s they have already taken possession of into NATO exercises, and the country will eventually operate 52 F-35As, which will be joined beginning in 2022 by five new P-8 surveillance aircraft. 

Sources: Military.com, Al Jezeera, Breaking Defense, RIA Novosti news agency