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NATO Drills In Finland, Norway, Sweden 03/04 06:39

   

   HELSINKI (AP) -- NATO kicked off an exercise on Monday to defend its newly 
expanded Nordic territory when more than 20,000 soldiers from 13 nations take 
part in drills lasting nearly two weeks in the northern regions of Finland, 
Norway and Sweden.

   With over 4,000 Finnish soldiers taking part, the Norway-led Nordic Response 
2024 represents the NATO newcomer's largest ever participation in a foreign 
exercise, according to Finland's military.

   "For the first time, Finland will participate as a NATO member nation in 
exercising collective defense of the alliance's regions," the Finnish Defense 
Forces said in a statement.

   The Swedish Armed Forces said about 4,500 personnel from its air force, army 
and navy would take part in the drill, which is being conducted in demanding 
Arctic winter conditions.

   Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia, 
joined NATO in April 2023 in a historic move following decades of military 
non-alignment. With its bid now ratified by all NATO members, neighboring 
Sweden is currently finalizing formalities to enter the military alliance as 
its 32nd member -- most likely in March.

   Both Sweden and Finland had developed strong ties with NATO after the end of 
the Cold War, but public opinion remained firmly against full membership until 
Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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

   For years, the biannual NATO drill, which has been conducted in the Arctic 
extremes of northern Norway, was called "Cold Response."

   However, "thanks to the NATO expansion with Finland and eventually Sweden, 
we are now expanding the exercise to a Nordic Response," the Norwegian Armed 
Forces said on its website. This year, the drill is hosted equally by Finland, 
Norway and Sweden.

   The pan-Nordic drill is part of Steadfast Defender 24, NATO's biggest 
exercises in decades, with up to 90,000 troops involved over several months of 
drills that are aimed at showing that the alliance can defend all of its 
territory up to its border with Russia.

   The participating nations in the current exercise that runs through March 15 
are Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the 
Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

   Roughly half of the participating troops will drill on land. The rest will 
train at sea, with over 50 participating submarines, frigates, corvettes, 
aircraft carriers, and various amphibious vessels, and in the air with more 
than 100 fighter jets, transport aircraft, maritime surveillance aircraft and 
helicopters, according to the Norwegian military.

   The combined joint training will focus on the defense and protection of the 
Nordic region, Norwegian military officials said.

   "We need to be able to fight back and stop anyone who tries to challenge our 
borders, values and democracy," said Brigadier Tron Strand from the Royal 
Norwegian Air Force, Commander of the Norwegian Air Operations Center, in a 
statement. "With the current security situation in Europe, the exercise is 
extremely relevant and more important than ever before," he added.

   "The High North represents an important and strategically located area for 
NATO" and the Nordic Response 2024 exercise "increases Nordic preparedness and 
the capability to conduct large-scale joint operations in challenging weather 
and climate," NATO said on its website.

   Finland's new president, Alexander Stubb, will inspect the drill together 
with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store in northern Norway on March 7. 
It's the first foreign trip for Stubb since he was sworn in as Finland's new 
head of state and its supreme military commander on March 1.

   Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden is to visit an airbase in northern Sweden 
on March 11, the country's military said.

 
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