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Russia invading Ukraine has added urgency to NATO troops conducting drills in Norway

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

The U.S., NATO and troops from 27 countries are wrapping up a massive war game called Cold Response in northern Norway. The exercise happens every two years. But this year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added urgency and tension to the sight of 30,000 NATO troops conducting drills in Norway's high north, which, after all, borders Russia. NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us now from Norway, about five miles from the Russian border. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi.

SNELL: This is one of the biggest NATO exercises since the Cold War, and it's happening at maybe the point of the highest tension between the West and Russia in that time. So how has that affected things?

LAWRENCE: Well, there was some concern at the beginning that this could provoke Russia, but then the thinking immediately was that it better be done still to deter Russia. Otherwise, things have been going as normal, according to the U.S. Marine Brigadier General Anthony Henderson, who's leading the U.S. force here.

ANTHONY HENDERSON: NATO's a defensive force. So as a defensive force, it should be able to train and do exercises in the appropriate areas, along with its NATO partners and allies and anyone else who wants to join in.

LAWRENCE: And by anyone else, he might have been referring to Finland and Sweden, which are not NATO, but they did take part in this exercise, and they have been thinking about joining NATO very seriously in light of recent events.

SNELL: Tell us more about what the exercises themselves are and how they've been going.

LAWRENCE: Well, they started out badly. Four U.S. Marines died when their aircraft went down - crashed. And this does happen in training, and the investigation into why that happened is still ongoing. But it did prove a real test for how these forces can cooperate on a rescue and recovery in conditions that many of them aren't used to. That was what the Norwegian chief of defense Eirik Kristoffersen told us.

EIRIK KRISTOFFERSEN: After years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, to get back into the Arctic environment and fight during these very challenging conditions - it's been raining. It's been freezing. It's been snowing. It's something we have to relearn every year.

SNELL: This is a strategic area for Russia. A key part of Russia's nuclear arsenal is in the north there, near the border with Norway. How has Russia reacted to this huge NATO exercise right next door?

LAWRENCE: Well, the Russians did their own nuclear exercise up here in the north just the week before the invasion of Ukraine in February, and that was widely seen as a warning to the West. But otherwise, this is a NATO war game, and the Russians have always observed it. They're doing it again from just outside Norwegian territorial waters. And Norway has had a delicate balance with Russia up here for decades. The Norwegian chief of defense, Kristoffersen, said that this invasion has changed a lot of that calculus, though.

KRISTOFFERSEN: So Ukraine is Mr. Putin's own responsibility - all the terrible things that is happening in Ukraine right now. And of course, this will affect us in many, many years to come. We can't trust Mr. Putin after what he has done.

SNELL: Now, as we mentioned, you're speaking to us from a Norwegian town that's just a few miles from the Russian border. I'm wondering, what's the mood like?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I'm in the city of Kirkenes. Today, we spent some time at a scientific research station that was just across the river from Russia. You could see it - well, one minute you could see it, and the next minute, it would disappear in the snowstorm, which is pretty normal spring weather here in the Arctic. But this city has really staked its future on cooperation with Russia. They've got very friendly relations. The economies have become intertwined. And so since the news, there's been a lot of concern for these people, for their friends across the border, but also some shock to see that some of those friends and business partners are zealously cheering on what's happening in Ukraine. And it's really been a gut punch to them that their future has been replaced with what some of these people are calling the return of the Iron Curtain. And they're thinking that Europe - the rest of Europe might see this sort of thing soon as well.

SNELL: NPR's Quil Lawrence is in northern Norway along the Russian border. Thanks, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.