Assault rifles in hand, binoculars pointing towards the Russian coast, they cut through the water at the highest speed. At the Passvik River, Norwegian troops guard NATO’s northernmost border, the only officially open border between Russia and Europe still open.
The shock wave did not spare the Arctic. The war in Ukraine has turned life in a region torn between historic Russophilia, an economy dependent on cross-border trade with its powerful neighbor, and the necessary vigilance in the face of a mix of threats.
On each bank, watchtowers rise above a canopy of pines and birches.
“When I arrived here in the early 2000s, we were playing football with Russian border guards,” recalls Sergeant Lars Erik Gaussen, sitting on the sidelines of the Zodiac.
Today, we see each other, we look at each other, we barely greet each other.
By boat, 4×4, on foot or snowmobile, the men and women of the Pasvik company patrol the river that runs through half of the 198-kilometer border between Norway and Russia.
While crossing its frozen ground, Andrei Medvedev, a suspected deserter from Wagner, a Russian paramilitary group fighting in Ukraine, fled to Norway in January to take refuge.
According to his account, an incredible escape took place through barbed wire and under the bullets of Russian guards launched with dogs at their heels.
– “Hard Awakening” –
Norway is the only European neighbor of Russia that has never been at war with it.
“The conflict in Ukraine is ringing alarm bells for many people,” said Lieutenant-General Yngve Odlo, head of the Norwegian Operational Command. But “(military) activity in the far north has been relatively stable.”
Unusually, Norwegian forces would now outnumber Russian troops in the border area.
Normally stationed nearby, the 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade and the 61st Marine Infantry Brigade were among the first to be sent to Ukraine, where they lost thousands of soldiers.
“We track their movements and we have a good idea of what they’re doing, but whether there are 1,000 or 10,000 troops, it doesn’t matter,” says Lt-Gen Odlow.
Because, on the other side of the border, the Kola Peninsula is also home to the formidable Northern Fleet and the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world.
Despite the return of tragedy to the continent, Norway, always with pragmatic diplomacy, is the last Western country to keep its borders open, at least on paper.
The Storskog border post, 15 km from the port city of Kirkenes, is the only land entry point for Russians into the Scandinavian Kingdom and the Schengen Area.
However, the border is not “open to all winds”, says Göran Johansson Stenseth, head of the police unit responsible for controlling it.
Oslo has actually stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians and closed its consulate in Murmansk. Documents for visa-free border crossings under bilateral agreements have expired, usually due to not renewing them during the pandemic.
Passes have become scarce, down to 5,600 in June from 20,000 to 30,000 a month a few years ago – mainly dual citizens and fishermen.
– cod sharing –
That day, a coach of Russian fishermen was standing under the barrier. As the occupants disembark to inspect their belongings, a customs dog sniffs the inside of the vehicle.
While the rest of Europe has closed its ports to them, Norway still welcomes Russian fishing boats.
An exception to the restrictions in Oslo is justified by the importance of preserving a valuable bilateral agreement that made possible co-management in the Barents Sea, the world’s largest cod stock.
With seagulls constantly flying by, Kirkenes is one of three Norwegian ports where Russians are allowed to offload their catches.
It’s enough to cause concern in a country that has become Europe’s biggest supplier of natural gas through a vast network of vulnerable underwater gas pipelines, as the Nord Stream explosion in the neighboring Baltic Sea reminded us.
Russia is using several dozen military and civilian ships in northern Europe to detect possible acts of sabotage, according to a joint documentary by Nordic public channels aired in April.
Inexplicable Soviet-era radios were reportedly found in locked compartments during an inspection of Russian trawlers.
In January, two sailors were fined after landing in Kirkenes dressed in military uniforms. An episode that revived the specter of “little green men” who appeared in Crimea, armed and without insignia, before Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
– “they are ours” –
A monument erected in honor of the Red Army at the height of the city is decorated with a wreath of flowers in the colors of Russia anew.
At the end of World War II, the area, along with the Danish island of Bornholm, was the only area in Europe from which Soviet forces voluntarily withdrew after being liberated from the Nazis.
Traditionally indicative of close cross-border ties, many road signs in Kirkenes are written in Cyrillic.
On the ground floor of the town hall, a Norwegian lion dances with a Russian bear, a sculpture created to celebrate the friendship between the two countries.
The mayor said, “I don’t know how long we’re going to leave him here.”
From her office, Lina Norum Bergeng has a direct view of the Russian consulate, an imposing yellow building whose windows are protected by thick bars, with hearts in Ukrainian colors hanging from the trees in front of it.
Of the approximately 10,000 administered people, about 400 are of Russian nationality.
“He is one of us,” insists the Labor councillor.
The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 plunged the population into astonishment and disbelief, then into sadness, he said.
She herself, although she was on the same side as the government in Oslo, was the first to speak out against the delivery of arms to Kiev. Then he made up his mind.
– Strong blow to the economy –
Without even having time to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirkenes’ local economy, which had largely turned to Russia, is suffering brutally from a drop in cross-border traffic.
The largest private employer, the Kimek Group, which used to make a living primarily by maintaining Russian ships, is no longer authorized to do so due to sanctions.
The first batch of 20 jobs out of 86 have been announced now.
“Everyone is angry,” says father Kim Roon Lidersen, 36. “We didn’t start this war with Putin,” he added. “We understand we need sanctions, but then the government has to help us.”
Oslo pocketed 105 million crowns (9.3 million euros).
But the fear in Kirkenes is that young people will leave due to the loss of skilled jobs. Maintaining a strong presence in the region in the face of an unpredictable neighbor is seen as an issue of sovereignty.
Before Covid and the war, Russians flocked to buy diapers, instant coffee, jam and other consumer goods; On the other side of the Norwegian border, they were going to fill up with cheap petrol in nickels.
Today, the aisles of Spar KJop, a hard discount brand with posters written in both languages, are nearly empty.
“Now very few Russians come to shop,” says manager Ann Kristin Emmanuelson.
Between heart and wallet, Ms. Emmanuelson is divided on the restrictions.
The flirtatious shopkeeper said, “We had great relations with Russia. I really find it a shame (…) that it has been so difficult for them to come here.”
Projects have taken off in the Barentssecretariat, an organization dedicated to cross-border cooperation. Unable to work with universities and other Russian state bodies.
For its acting chief Marit Egholm Jacobsen, it will take “at least” a generation to regain the lost cordial relationship between the two sides of the border.