The newly enlarged NATO begins training in Finland, Norway and Sweden in defense of its northern territories

HELSINKI (AP) — NATO began training Monday to defend its newly expanded territory in the north as more than 20,000 soldiers from 13 countries participate in nearly two weeks of exercises in the northern regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden.

With the participation of more than 4,000 Finnish soldiers, the Norwegian-led Nordic Response Plan 2024 is the perfect solution NATO newcomer The largest ever participation in a foreign exercise, according to the Finnish military.

“For the first time, Finland as a NATO member state will participate in the exercise of collective defense of Alliance territories,” the Finnish Defense Forces said in a statement.

The Swedish Armed Forces said that about 4,500 members of the air force, army and navy will participate in the exercises taking place under the harsh winter conditions in the Arctic.

Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Russia, joined NATO in April 2023 in A historic step After decades of military non-alignment. With her giving It has now been ratified For all NATO members, neighboring Sweden is currently finalizing the formalities to join the military alliance as the 32nd member – likely in March.

Both Sweden and Finland developed strong relations with NATO after the end of the Cold War, but public opinion remained firmly against full membership until the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Non-alignment was seen as the best way to avoid tensions with Russia, its powerful neighbor in the Baltic Sea region. But the Russian aggression caused a radical shift in public opinion in both countries, and they jointly applied for NATO membership in May 2022.

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For many years, NATO's semi-annual exercise, which takes place in the far Arctic of northern Norway, was called “Cold Back.”

However, the Norwegian Armed Forces said on its website: “Thanks to NATO’s expansion with Finland and eventually Sweden, we are now expanding the exercises to include the Northern Response.” Finland, Norway and Sweden are hosting the exercises equally this year.

The comprehensive Nordic exercise is part of Steadfast Defender 24, NATO's largest exercise in decades, with up to 90,000 troops participating over several months of exercises aimed at showing that the alliance is capable of defending all of its territory up to its border with Russia. .

The countries participating in the current exercises, which continue until March 15, are Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

Nearly half of the participating forces will train on the ground. The rest will train at sea, with more than 50 submarines, frigates, corvettes, aircraft carriers and various amphibious ships, and in the air with more than 100 combat aircraft, transport aircraft, maritime surveillance aircraft and helicopters, according to the Norwegian military. .

Norwegian military officials said the combined joint training would focus on defense and protection in the Nordic region.

“We need to be able to fight and stop anyone who tries to challenge our borders, our values ​​and our democracy,” Brigadier General Troon Strand of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, commander of the Norwegian Air Operations Centre, said in a statement. He added: “In light of the current security situation in Europe, training is very important and more important than ever.”

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“The Far North is an important and strategically located region for NATO,” NATO said on its website, and Exercise Northern Response 2024 “increases the Nordic countries’ readiness and ability to conduct large-scale joint operations under difficult weather and climate conditions.”

Finland New president Alexander StubbHe will inspect the exercises with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Sture in northern Norway on March 7. It is Stubb's first foreign trip since he was sworn in as Finland's new president and top military commander on March 1.

Swedish Crown Princess Victoria will visit an air base in northern Sweden on March 11, the Swedish military said.

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