January 6, 2023:
At the end of 2022 Russia announced it would expand and rebuild its bases in the northwest, i.e., the border area with Finland and Norway. This expensive undertaking is in support of Russian propaganda about a purported NATO conspiracy to weaken and destroy Russia. Finland and neighboring Sweden have long been neutral between NATO and Russia, but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine it became clear that Russia was willing to act on its conspiracy theories. Sweden and Finland are joining NATO, which Norway has long been a member of. While Norway and Finland have small populations (5.4 million each), Sweden’s is over ten million and has long built its own modern weapons and maintained a cadre/conscript mobilization-type army similar to Israel’s. Finland shares a long border with Russia and long believed its neutrality, unthreatening military and good trade relations with Russia would keep things quiet. That is no longer the case and the mutual defense system offered by NATO membership seems the best move. Oil-rich Norway is a special kind of threat to Russia because the Norwegians have built a force of specialized naval, air and ground-based surveillance capabilities to keep track of what goes on in Russian major naval bases long active in an area near the small (198 kilometers) Norwegian land border with Russia. On the Norwegian side of that border are a few hundred active-duty troops and several hundred more Home Guard reservists that can be quickly activated in an emergency. On the Russia side there are two infantry brigades; the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade and the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade. Both brigades sent a lot of troops to Ukraine (where they suffered heavy losses) or Syria (where there were few losses).
The Russian expansion plan will not only replace the heavy losses the two brigades suffered in Ukraine, but also expand the northern garrison to several divisions and build facilities to house them. This expansion may not happen because it is part of a larger (30 divisions) and much more expensive expansion that Russia cannot afford and cannot raise enough troops for. This announcement is mainly about Putin showing his concern for an area that had always backed him. Since Putin took power he has increased spending on the Northern Fleet and that included expanding and upgrading base areas. The heavy losses suffered in Ukraine by the northern troops were largely accepted by the locals. Putin wants to make sure he can still depend on the northwest for political and other support. A lot of other provinces and cities that have lost a lot of their people in Ukraine are blaming Putin for mismanaging the war or for continuing it.
Despite greatly increasing the military budget, often with high-interest loans, Putin does not have enough cash to meet all his obligations. As a result, Putin tends to over-promise and under-deliver. Putin gets away with this because that approach is a common one in Russian politics. It is worse now because the Russian economy is suffering major damage because of the sanctions and costs of the war. Most Russians still support their government but also recognize that Russia is undergoing another “time of troubles” where the outcome is uncertain and likely to be bad news for most Russians.