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Opinion How Norway stood up to Putin – and what Canada can learn

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia

Dmitry Rogozin paid a surprise visit to this Norwegian outpost two years ago, on his way to a Russian ice-station near the North Pole. The Russian deputy prime minister tweeted a picture of himself standing outside the airport.

It was a deliberately provocative act because Mr. Rogozin is at the top of Norway's sanctions list, having championed the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Yet, as a Russian national, he was legally entitled to visit Svalbard because Norway's sovereignty over its Arctic islands is not absolute: Citizens of any of the 45 parties to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty have a right of free access.

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Norway responded to the provocation by offering to host a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Svalbard. The meeting took place this week.

Technically, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is not part of NATO but rather a parallel organization focused on discussion and networking among parliamentarians from the 28 NATO states. As a non-military organization, it could meet on Svalbard without violating another provision of the 1920 treaty; one that prohibits the islands from being "used for warlike purposes".

Russia, however, condemned the choice of location as an attempt to "drag" Svalbard "under the wing of the military political bloc". This, it said, violated the "spirit" of the treaty.

Now, this might seem like a tempest in a tea cup, but it is much more than that.

For decades, Norway has followed a policy of engagement and co-operation with Russia, especially in the Arctic. This policy has provided significant gains for both countries, including a jointly managed cod fishery in the Barents Sea worth billions of dollars each year.

But Vladimir Putin is restless. The Russian President has annexed Crimea, forcefully intervened in Syria, and conducted countless near-border exercises and airspace incursions in the Baltic and Arctic regions.

Most recently, Mr. Putin has intervened in elections in the United States, France, and other NATO countries with propaganda campaigns and computer hacking.

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Cyber-attacks can constitute armed attacks under international law, for example, if they cause a nuclear power plant to meltdown. And Mr. Putin's attacks have struck at the core of liberal democracy. Armed attacks generate a right of self-defence, and collective self-defence against Russia is the raison d'être of NATO.

Mr. Putin's greatest victory involves the apparent capture of the U.S. President. Donald Trump has questioned the value of NATO and threatened to not come to the defence of member states that fail to meet the alliance's spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

This week, Mr. Trump dismissed the director of the FBI in a blatant attempt to block an investigation of Russia's involvement in the U.S. election. Then, he warmly welcomed a smug-looking Russian foreign minister to the White House.

At best, Mr. Trump is ignorant, naive and disinterested with respect to NATO and the Russian threat. At worst, he is working for Russia.

Canada and some other NATO member states have deployed small numbers of troops to the Baltic States. But would this "trip wire" function if the United States withdrew its support?

Would Canada be willing to go toe-to-toe with Russia if it called our bluff and sent tanks into Latvia? Or would Prime Minister Justin Trudeau order the Canadian troops to stand down? What if Mr. Trump asked him to stand down?

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A popular Norwegian television show revolves around a fictional Russian occupation of that country. The plot seemed farfetched when the show was broadcast during Barack Obama's presidency, because it was based on the premise that the United States would abandon Norway to its fate. The same premise is far more plausible today.

By hosting the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, little Norway pushed back against Mr. Putin in a small but symbolically important way. Having been occupied by Hitler's forces during the Second World War, it knows something about bullies and opportunists.

The threat is not so different today. It is time for NATO countries to stand firmly together. It is time to renew our commitment to collective self-defence, with or without the United States.

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