By Gwladys Fouche
OSLO (Reuters) - NATO needs to become more watchful about defending its members' security, including in the Arctic, because of the 'completely new' situation created by Russia's behavior towards Ukraine, Norway's defense minister said in an interview.
Until now, NATO's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea has chiefly focused on reassuring anxious members in Central and Eastern Europe that until a generation ago were dominated - or, in the case of the Baltic states, directly ruled - by Moscow.
But Norway's Ine Eriksen Soereide told Reuters that Russia's actions raised broader questions about NATO's collective defense - significant comments from a country that borders Russia and is as keen as Moscow to tap Arctic minerals, oil and gas.
"Ukraine has permanently changed relations between Russia and the international community, including between Russia and NATO," Soereide said.
"We are in a completely new security situation where Russia shows both the ability and the will to use military means to achieve political goals."
She said Norway has long pushed for NATO not only to intervene in crises such as Afghanistan, but to strengthen the collective defense of its members - an idea central to NATO's founding treaty, which declares that an attack on any one member country will be treated as an attack against all.
"We see this issue comes more to the fore in the discussions in NATO now than before. It is clear the Ukraine crisis has given the issue a push in the past weeks," Soereide said.
Western governments have declared Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine illegal, and accused Moscow of destabilizing parts of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have taken over public buildings and declared a breakaway state.
Moscow blames the tensions on the pro-Western Ukrainian government. The Kremlin said on Monday President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian forces near Ukraine back to their bases, but NATO and the United States said they saw no sign that tens of thousands of Russian troops there had pulled back.
Soereide stopped short of saying that the crisis had increased the threat level in the Arctic, from where Russia shipped its first oil last month.
"But it demands of us that we be more watchful of the activities that are taking place in our core areas," the minister said. "We need a NATO that has a good understanding of its regional areas."
Since the Ukraine crisis broke out, Norway has not registered any new increase in Russian military activity in the Arctic, Soereide said. "But we see that there has been an increase in activity over time."
She said, for instance, that Norwegian F-16s based in the Arctic were forced to scramble more often than before to meet Russian Migs intruding into Norwegian airspace.
"The activity we have seen lately has been normal for the time of year, for what we can expect. But it is clear that we see higher Russian military capabilities (in the north)."
Relations between the two neighbors are generally good, and Putin has welcomed the appointment of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as the next head of NATO. In 2010 Oslo succeeded in resolving a border dispute with Moscow.
At the same time Norway can be outspoken in its criticism of Russian policies. It has a strong pro-U.S. stance, is a founding member of NATO and set up its own Arctic battalion in response to a similar move by Russia.
Norway's PST counter-intelligence service took the rare step this month of saying it had observed increased Russian espionage since the Ukrainian crisis, directed against the oil and gas sector. Norway is Europe's number two gas exporter after Russia.
At a time when most NATO members are failing to meet the alliance's target of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense, Norway maintains it is investing 1.6 percent, while NATO figures put Oslo's ratio slightly lower, at 1.4.
Soereide said Norway would not cut its defense budget in coming years - especially since it has committed to buy 52 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, of which it has already ordered 16.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)