In the Norwegian town of Kirkenes uncertainty prevails. On Friday, the Alexander Grusev, the last Russian ship that its inhabitants will see this year. Nor will more truckers arrive who have just crossed from the neighboring country; products made in Russia are banned at the border from this Saturday. In Kirkenes not only the economic blow to the region is lamented; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has evaporated decades of cooperation between the two sides of the border.
Located 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, 10% of the 3,500 inhabitants of Kirkenes are Russophones. The signs, on the streets or in the public library, are in Norwegian and the Slavonic language, and the shipyard of one of the main employers in the town worked mainly with ships coming from the Russian port of Murmansk, the largest city. largest in the Arctic. For decades, every week a flea market was held in Kirkenes with matryoshkas and Soviet insignia, its inhabitants crossed to Russia with their cars to fill the tanks, vodka abounded, and cultural and sporting events with Russian participants were frequent. A future completely turning its back on the neighbor is still difficult to imagine.
There is only one border post between the two countries: that of Storskog, 15 kilometers from Kirkenes. Every day, Norwegian and Russian guards remove their respective barriers at eight in the morning and put them back up at three in the afternoon; nobody will be able to pass during the following 17 hours. Border activity never fully recovered from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. In 2019, 266,000 people crossed it; last year, less than 15,000 (about 40 daily). Jens Arne Hoilund, the Norwegian Border Commissioner, acknowledges that since the beginning of the war there has been a “certain uptick” of Russian citizens in private vehicles, affected by the European veto of their country’s airlines.
On the Norwegian side, there is practically nothing around the border: square kilometers of tundra, some pine trees, a lot of wet snow that has been accumulating since the end of September, and a ramshackle store from souvenirs. The owner of it does not seem overwhelmed by the lack of clientele: “I don’t want any Russians here. As far as I’m concerned, don’t let even one cross,” says Orjan Nielssen, a septuagenarian who bikes more than 20 kilometers every day with his dog, an Alaskan malamute, to open his modest store. Whole weeks go by without anyone buying anything; some of the products have been on display for many years. Among them, some magnets of Vladimir Putin made in 2001. “It has become the same as [Iósif] Stalin,” Nielssen says as he points to objects with the face of the Russian president. “Years ago we all knew that he was a dictator and a murderer; everyone except Rune Rafaelsen, of course”, he sentences.
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Nielssen refers to the former mayor of the municipality of Sor-Varanger (whose administrative center is Kirkenes) who resigned from the post a year ago due to heart disease. Few Norwegians better reflect decades of cooperation with his giant neighbor; and few have been involved in so much controversy. In October 2019, Rafaelsen gave a speech in Kirkenes attended by a multitude of Norwegian and several Russian authorities, including Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister since 2004, in which he praised the Soviet troops who liberated the city from occupation in 1944. Nazi. “And Putin then said that I was worthy of the Order of Friendship,” the Social Democrat explains by phone.
A few days after Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, Rafaelsen went to a post office to send his 2020 medal to the Russian ambassador in Oslo. “I made it clear that I was not going to get a decoration from Mr. Putin, who has caused a war and is violating international law,” he declares. The 72-year-old former mayor expresses that he is “deeply shocked” by Lavrov’s attitude, with whom he has met on several occasions over the past two decades.
“I have dedicated more than 40 years to strengthening ties with the USSR and Russia. I have always defended that border places should be zones of friendship and opportunities”, argues Rafaelsen, who has also been at the head of the Barents Secretariat for years. This organization, in charge of promoting cooperation between the two countries, has had its activity frozen since the beginning of the war; such as the Arctic Council, and other forums in which Oslo and Moscow participated. There will also be no more joint rescue drills in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. “No official contact should be resumed until things change in the Kremlin,” adds Rafaelsen.
Mistrust of Russia also translates into a greater military presence in the North. The Norwegian government announced in March that it will invest an additional 3 billion crowns (310 million euros) in defense this year. A third will go to the purchase of ammunition, light weapons and basic military equipment. “We need to be prepared to defend ourselves for a long time if necessary,” explains Per Erik Solli, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, by phone. The coastguard teams, the army unit in charge of patrolling the border and the air force will be significantly strengthened. Solli, a retired colonel, stresses that these are only urgent measures, taken while working on other long-term ones in parallel.
Oslo will also increase resources for espionage activities in the Arctic, mainly around Kirkenes. “Since the 1950s the Norwegian secret services have worked continuously close to the border. His priority has always been the submarines in the Barents Sea of the Northern Fleet, which are loaded with more than 400 nuclear weapons”, explains Solli. “Decades ago we knew that the USSR had the capacity, but not the intention. Now everything is more unpredictable”, interprets the ex-military.
“Kirkenes is the geopolitical center of Norway. Nothing happens in Oslo”, sums up the former mayor Rafaelsen. A local resident, Frode Berg, was arrested in 2017 in Moscow with 3,000 euros in cash, accused of trying to obtain classified information. They released him in 2019, in an exchange of confidants. At the beginning of April, the Norwegian government announced that it would invest just over 10 million euros to “deal with hybrid threats and acts of espionage” in the north of the country.
The relationship between Oslo and Moscow has been reduced to a minimum. Hoilund, the Border Commissioner, is in charge of two hundred police officers who perform “practical and necessary functions” on the Norwegian side of the 197-kilometre border between the two countries. Among them, the cleaning of the vegetation and the maintenance of the signaling. These tasks are regulated by a bilateral pact of 1949, which also establishes the number of annual meetings between Hoilund and his Russian counterpart, or the action protocol for accidental border crossings. “The agreement survived the entire Cold War, the perestroika, [la anexión rusa de] Crimea, and it must be maintained no matter what happens, ”says the commissioner.
The inhabitants of Kirkenes, who live in an area with a population density much lower than that of any Spanish province, have been hearing for years about pharaonic projects for the city. Some saw the unstoppable melting of the Arctic as a great opportunity: the town’s port is the closest to China in all of Europe along the Northern sea route. The Chinese ships are still waiting. And the Russians no longer expect them. Far away is December 2019, when Rafaelsen told the French newspaper Le Monde: “Kirkenes will be the new Singapore”.
NATO shows off muscle in the Arctic
For three weeks in March and April, at the height of the Ukraine war, NATO carried out large-scale military exercises in the Norwegian Arctic. More than 30,000 soldiers from allied countries participated in this edition of Cold Response, the biennial drills that take place in the Scandinavian country. Kristian Atland, of the Defense Investigative Agency (FFI, for its acronym in Norwegian), assures that this year’s land, sea and air exercises concluded “successfully”, despite the tragic death of four US Marines in a helicopter crash.
For the first time, the Alliance maneuvers in Norway were planned in Oslo and not at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels. These military exercises allow the Nordic country and its allies to demonstrate “their ability to operate together in extreme weather conditions,” says Atland. For Norway, a founding member of NATO, but which does not allow permanent bases of foreign soldiers on its territory, these exercises are key to showcasing its ability to coordinate allied troops. The Norwegian Armed Forces have already announced that Cold Response 2024 will be the largest-scale military rehearsal ever held in the country.
The possible entry in the short term of Sweden and Finland into NATO would mean a notable reinforcement of the deterrent capacity of the transatlantic organization in northern Europe. “Both countries have much to offer the Alliance,” Atland notes. “And it is Russia that has achieved this unexpected turn that benefits it so little,” he says.
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