By Gwladys Fouche and Terje Solsvik
FREDRIKSTAD, Norway (Reuters) – German troops and vehicles arrived in Norway on Friday for the largest exercise on NATO’s northern flank since the Cold War – a sign that the alliance wants to sharpen its defences against Russia after years of cuts and far-flung combat missions.
Russia said last week that it plans to hold its biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union next month, together with the Chinese and Mongolian armies.
“The focus has changed in the last years because the security environment all over the world, but also in Europe, has changed,” Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told Reuters as he welcomed German troops at Fredrikstad port.
Watching the hulking Ark Germania vessel unload 240 vehicles and other equipment, he said NATO was increasingly worried about Russia, which in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
“That’s also why we’re exercising the defence of Europe.”
Centred in Norway, the Trident Juncture exercise will bring together 40,000 troops from over 30 NATO countries and their partners, conducting air, sea and land operations from Finland and the Baltic Sea in the east to Iceland in the west.
“It’s a test of the collective defence mechanisms in NATO, the Article 5 that states ‘One for all, all for one’, where the NATO countries will come to the aid of one if attacked,” said Colonel Eystein Kvarving of Norway’s Joint Headquarters.
Lieutenant Nikolaus Berghammer, leading a logistics company of 60 German soldiers, said a dozen more ships were due from Germany in the next few weeks, and 70 vessels overall.
Normally based in Delmenhorst in northern Germany, Berghammer and his team were among the first to arrive in Norway and will be around until December.
The exercises, in late October and early November, will test NATO’s logistics and its ability to fight in the field. They will steer clear of Norway’s northernmost county in the hope of avoiding any tensions on the Russian border.
A few weeks later, there will be computer-simulated warfare aimed at training command and control procedures.
The Russian exercise next month, called Vostok-2018 (East-2018), will take place in Russia’s central and eastern military districts and involve almost 300,000 troops, more than 1,000 military aircraft, two of Russia’s naval fleets and all of its airborne units.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)