On Tuesday, under crisp blue skies at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minn., two bald eagles eased above the trees. But abruptly, they flew off. It wasn’t the persistent wind that scattered them, but intermittent gunfire from a line of Minnesota National Guard and Norwegian Home Guard soldiers.

The troops training on a range were part of an exchange now in its 44th year, the most enduring engagement between a U.S. state and a NATO nation.

“It’s an experience of a lifetime, said visiting Home Guard soldier Torsten Bjornes, one of about 100 taking part alongside an equal contingent from the Minnesota Guard. Bjornes, who has a North Dakota-born grandmother, was eager for Minnesota troops to traipse to Norway for reciprocal training. “Come on over — we’re ready for you!” Bjornes said, smiling.

Norway was also ready when the U.S. called on the transatlantic alliance to fight in Afghanistan. Bjornes himself served there after the one and only time that NATO’s Article 5 has been invoked. Whether that call for collective defense will ever be triggered again is unknown. But like many members of the 28-nation pact, Norway is wary about Russian revanchism under President Vladimir Putin.

The threat is evolving, according to Maj. Gen. Finn Kristian Hannestad, the Norwegian defense attache in Washington, Maj. Gen. Tor Rune Raabye, commander of the Norwegian Home Guard, and Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, the adjutant general of Minnesota who oversees the Minnesota National Guard, all of whom flew to Camp Ripley in a Black Hawk helicopter that like the eagles seemed unfazed by the wind.

Raabye spoke of hybrid warfare, in which “all the tools of the state could be used in operations against other nations — everything from political information, economic, diplomatic and military pressure.”

Increasingly, the military pressure is itself asymmetrical. Raabye referred to the so-called “little green men” — Russian forces in unmarked army uniforms — menacing eastern Ukraine, and added that the Baltics, Poland and non-NATO, Western-friendly Finland and Georgia share similar concerns.

That’s due to “revisionists” in Russia commanded by Putin, who knows how “to work the fringes and seams,” said Nash, adding: “I think he’s taken advantage of that asymmetrical warfare; he tries to test NATO’s resolve.”

That’s what seems to be transpiring, although the news is being blurred by the whirlwind in Washington — including allegations regarding Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential election and reportedly with President Trump’s campaign itself.

On Feb. 14 came news of this valentine from Putin: Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile in violation of an arms-control treaty. A day later, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that a Russian spy ship slipped within 30 miles of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn. While it was within international waters, it reflects Russian provocations in Europe.

The same day, Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed his NATO colleagues. While he did not reprise the president’s uncertain trumpet on the alliance itself — Trump once labeled NATO “obsolete” — he warned about U.S. impatience on uneven levels of defense spending by member nations. “No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values,” Mattis said.

The political uncertainty isn’t the only dynamic different from the Cold War era, which however perilous presented certainties on both sides of the divide.

“We’re having a completely different political environment in Europe today and a different Middle East and a different environment with the media, the financial system, the stock market, everything is playing a completely different role than they did 40 years ago,” said Hannestad.

Raabye agreed: “For me the Cold War in a certain cynical way was stability, while the age we are in today is instability and everybody is insecure of what is going on.”

Added Nash: “When we had the Cold War, it was pretty simple. We lined up here, Warsaw [Pact nations] lined up there — all was pretty well laid out.”

Today’s geopolitical complexity doesn’t mean that fundamentals of military preparedness aren’t still essential. The Minnesota National Guard will take part in multiple joint exercises in Europe this year, including in June when a contingent of about 700 personnel and 500 pieces of equipment deploy to Baltic countries during an annual exercise called Saber Strike.

“Any kind of training exercising is all part of signaling power, cohesion and that NATO is standing together and that Article 5 is real,” Hannestad said.

Making Article 5 real requires civilian and military leadership, but also and especially troops training together, just like this week in Camp Ripley and in Camp Værnes in Norway. Unlike Camp Ripley’s raptors, the proverbial U.S. eagle and its transatlantic allies won’t flee under fire, but coordination is essential.

“You can’t do it from an office with a bunch of generals sitting around,” Nash said. “You have to put soldiers on the ground to be able to use those skill sets, be able to practice those skill sets, and understand each other’s culture, language and capabilities and the common defense we all bring to NATO, because that’s the power — the common defense.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.