Ukraine-Norway military cooperation: A short overview

Boye Garder Lillerud,
Lieutenant Colonel, Norwegian Defence Attache to Ukraine and Georgia

Military relations between Norway and Ukraine have deep historical roots. The earliest recorded relations between Norway and Ukraine date back more than a thousand years. Norwegian Vikings traded with Kyivska Rus’ and for many decades served the Kyivan princes. The most famous example being the marriage between King Harald Hardråde (“Hard Ruler” and the founder of Oslo) – who in modern terms was the Minister of Defence of Prince Yaroslav the Wise – and the Prince’s daughter, princess Jelisaveta in 1045 – who then became Queen Ellisiv of Norway.

Following a long 900-year hiatus, the relations between Norway and Ukraine have developed substantially since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991. Norway recognized Ukraine as a sovereign state on Christmas Eve in 1991 and diplomatic relations were established a few months later. Military relations were not, however, significant the first decade of the 1990s as Norway – and Ukraine- was coming to grips with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent reorganization and reduction of armed forces on both sides of the former Iron curtain.

In early 2000, the Norwegian MoD launched a project to support the transition of redundant naval officers in the Russian Northern Fleet from military service to civilian life. It was the perceived success of this program that provided the impetus to see if a similar project could benefit the redundant officers of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet on Crimea in 2003. This was, for all practical purposes, the starting point from which all modern day Norwegian-Ukrainian military cooperation efforts would evolve from. There are two distinct time periods to be reckoned with: Before and after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.


The idea that strengthening peace, international security and confidence through military cooperation is not novel. For it to work, however, there needs to be both political will and an overarching plan. In 2003, Norway and Ukraine possessed both.

Originally, the bilateral military cooperation plan was divided into two distinct parts. Firstly, cooperation in the military-political sphere, which was aimed at promoting regional security with other European countries. This included ministerial visits, staff talks and regular exchanges of views about challenges to European Security at the political level. Secondly, within the military-technical sphere the driving focus was sharing of experiences in reforming armed forces, participation in Partnership for Peace (PfP)-related activities, as well as several smaller projects related to judicial questions, military education, medical services and special operations. But the flagship project was always the “Norway-Ukraine Project”, funded by the Norwegian MoD and executed by the Ukrainian NGO International Foundation for Social Adaptation (IFSA) in partnership with NORD University in Bodø.

The project itself is based on the professional retraining of former military servicemen and providing them with civilian specialties which are in demand in the Ukrainian labour market, as well as assisting them in adapting socially to the conditions of civilian society. It has been – and continues to be – a project which shows real results. It helps to reduce the impact of negative social effects of economic reforms and the reforms of the defence sector in Ukraine. Most of the graduates have succeeded in adapting to a non-military life, either by creating a family business or by increasing their professional competitiveness in order to get civilian jobs.

Between 2003 and 2020, 11,720 people have participated in the project, including 1,401 veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Operation/Joint Forces Operation (ATO/JFO) in Donbas. Since the beginning of the project, it has involved 39 Ukrainian cities and more than 20 higher educational establishments in Ukraine. The project is currently funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Following the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas, Ukraine has fundamentally ramped up its military cooperation with NATO and other Western countries. Norway has from the very first moment been a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders. Crucially, Ukraine has chosen a path that will require reforms and adaptation in many areas; not only militarily, but also politically, economically, and socially.

To support the reform effort, the military cooperation followed a three-pronged path: bilaterally, in the framework of the Nordic-Baltic Assistance Program (NBAP), and within the NATO framework. A common thread for all the cooperative efforts is that they aim to be mutually beneficial, sustainable, and finite. Three areas of military cooperation deserve to be mentioned in this context. Despite not being about “bullets and missiles” per se, they are fundamental prerequisites for a well-functioning defence sector. Additionally, they tap into particular areas of expertise of the two countries.

Firstly, military education and academic research is an area where the exchange of knowledge is mutually beneficial. The Norwegian MoD has provided training, equipment, and funds to support the implementation of Advanced Distance Learning (ADL) in Ukrainian military education establishments. The efforts of digitizing education are supported by the Jefferson Institute and is done in cooperation with the National Defence University of Ukraine (NDUU). Similarly, a research cooperation project between the NDUU and the Norwegian Defence University College (NDUC) in the field of “hybrid warfare” provides a platform for academic collaboration on the unique Ukrainian experiences from the conflict in Donbas.

Secondly, there is currently a project to increase emphasis on merit- and integrity-based professionalism in the Ukrainian MoD. The project aims to enhance the levels of human resource management competence among officials, strengthen the legal frameworks, administrative procedures, and practices, as well as create synergies that may benefit other parts of the Ukrainian public administration. The project goal is fully in line with key priorities of the Ukrainian government, NATO and EU guidance. It is coordinated by the Centre for Integrity in the Defence Sector (CIDS) in the Norwegian MoD.

Thirdly, the more military-technical cooperative activities and assistance projects are decided on a case-by-case basis. Their scope and variation is therefore greater, but mutual benefit is also a key factor here. Norway has, for instance, contributed mentors in the field of planning and procedures during the annual multinational “Sea Breeze” exercises in the Black Sea. Ukrainian officers have participated in the Allied Winter Warfare Course that takes place in Norway. Norwegian officers have participated in the multinational exercises “Rapid Trident” and so on.

To conclude, military cooperation between Norway and Ukraine is diverse and multifaceted. Both countries remain invested in several fields of cooperation, including knowledge transfer, good governance, integrity-building and anti-corruption efforts.

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