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NATO Arctic drill takes on new significance after Russia invasion of Ukraine

Published: Updated:

The scenario for the NATO military exercise in the Arctic circle has been similar for years now: Norway is attacked by a fictional country, triggering the alliance’s collective defense clause and leading to troops from the United States and more than a dozen partners coming to the defense of the country.

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But this year, the bi-annual exercise, known as Cold Response, has taken on an added significance for some of the roughly 3,000 US Marines taking part in it because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Corporal Sean Galigan, a 21-year Marine from New Jersey who is focusing on refueling aircraft during the exercise, said the invasion was in the back of his mind, even though the exercise had been planned months before Russia started building up forces near Ukraine.

“It’s always something that could happen, but now since we’re here, if something did happen, we would be ready to go,” Galigan said.

Relations between Norway and Russia, which share an Arctic border, gradually improved in the post-Cold War era before suffering a setback when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

That triggered tensions in the north on both sides of the border and more frequent military maneuvers.

Even before the invasion, which Russian President Vladimir Putin says is a “special military operation,” Moscow accused NATO of destabilizing European security with large-scale military drills and by building up its military on the alliance’s eastern flank.

While there are no signs that Russia is looking at making military moves on Norway, the invasion of Ukraine, which has destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed scores of civilians, has increased unease in the region.

“It feels a little more real,” a C-130 Marine Pilot said he as he flew from Bardufoss to near Evenes in Norway.

The enemy in the exercise is fictional but the parallels to what a future conflict in the region could look like are unmistakable. In the exercise, the US Marines are making amphibious landings in Norway, the airspace over the country is contested and painstaking effort is taken to look at the logistics of bringing troops to the country and resupplying them.

The previous iteration of the drill was canceled because of the coronavirus and was last held in 2018 when it was called Trident Juncture.

The exercise, which runs through the first week of April and brings together about 30,000 troops from 27 countries, is run out of a mock operations center in Boda, with rows of Marines working on computers to track their fictional enemy.

On Friday, the exercise was briefly put on hold as the center moved away from the drill and coordinated the response to a real-life crash of a US Marine aircraft that killed all four onboard.

The next day, the command center was back to focusing on the exercise, tracking the movement of the Marines as they made their way onto Norway’s shores and F-18 aircraft provided air cover to troops further north.

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