In a remote region of Norway, a tense standoff is taking place between a tiny town and its giant neighbor to the east, Russia. The Kremlin is accused of using the area as as a staging ground for its policies to divide the West.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to its most tense relations with the West since the Cold War, playing out in the halls of international diplomacy and the global movement of arms and energy supplies. But the showdown is also alive on more local settings, most recently pitting Norway's remote northeastern region of Finnmark against its giant neighbor to the east.
The latest escalation in a series of events occurred last Saturday when Russian Consul General Nikolai Konygin was set to give a speech in the small town of Kirkenes to commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of the town from Nazi Germany and their Norwegian collaborators.
Konygin, who was accompanied by visitors the Russian border city of Nikel, was met with Norwegian protesters who turned their back on the Consul General during the speech and began waving Ukrainian flags. The scene looked like a miniature battlefield as the Russian entourage remained facing the consul general while waving Russian flags.
But the implications of this diplomatic showdown in a town of 3,600 stretch far beyond Norway's borders. Some believe that the Kremlin has used the region in the past as a testing lab for stoking internal divisions in the West.
The risk takes on further amplitude in the wake of the decision of neighboring Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, to apply to join NATO. Finland's border with Russia (1,340 kilometers, 830 miles) is far longer than Norway's (195 kilometers, 122 miles). Norway has long been a NATO member, but has maintained a policy of not hosting NATO troops on its territory and long sought to maintain cordial relations and trade ties with Russia.
But as with so many policies, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is upending the status quo.
Risk of hybrid warfare
The protests against the Russian Consul Generals' speech came against a backdrop of a heated debate, which escalated when the local chief of police Ellen Katrine Hættahas proposed closing all ports for Russian ships and warned the public of hybrid warfare.
Currently, three ports in Norway welcome Russian ships and all of them are located in the northern parts of the country. These ports were given an exceptional status when Norway decided to comply with the European Union’s eighth sanction package against Russia on Oct. 6, which meant closing all other ports for Russian vessels.
Since her warnings, police chief Hættaha has faced criticism from local trade unions, the Mayor of Kirkenes, labor unions and decision makers who argued in an open letter to a local newspaper that Kirkenes must welcome Russian ships for the sake of trade, jobs and cooperation. They also urged Norway not to isolate itself from its neighbors.
The union leaders' and local politicians’ views can be seen as a continuation of policy in Kirkenes and the greater municipality of Sør-Varanger, which has traditionally cooperated extensively with its eastern neighbor in areas such as tourism, trade, and arctic research.
These kinds of divisions are exactly what the Kremlin is hoping for.
The Mayor of Kirkenes Lena Bergeng had previously expressed reservations about displaying acts of solidarity with Ukraine since the outbreak of the war, including displaying a Ukrainian flag at city hall or ending the friendship agreement between Kirkenes and the Russian city of Severomorsk. Bergeng had argued that such actions were not necessary.
Whether intentional or not, this kind of division between national security services and local authorities and businesses over relations with Russia is exactly what the Kremlin is hoping for, argued local journalist Skjalg Fjellheim in a recent opinion piece.
Fjellheim explained that the rift is also an indication of the special status the northern border region has because its economy is dependent on trade with Russia.
Fear and uncertainty in Norway
Police Chief Hættaha’s proposals of closing Norwegian ports and warning of hybrid warfare come in the midst of an ongoing discussion over an investigation into a 51-year-old Russian citizen who was detained for flying a drone around Kirkenes airport.
The man was detained in Tromsø, in northwest Norway, from where he was set to travel to Svalbard, a visa-free region in the Arctic. In addition to pictures of the airport, the detained Russian had shot images of a Bell helicopter belonging to the Norwegian defense force. The man was eventually let go as taking pictures with a drone of an airport is not illegal.
Hedvig Moe, deputy director of the Norwegian Norwegian Police Security Service, held a press conference last Friday, in which she said that it is difficult to say whether the drone operator was in fact conducting espionage on behalf of Russia.
“Instead it could be part of an operation that aims to create fear and uncertainty in Norway,” Moe said to the local newspaper in Kirkenes,Sør-Varanger Avis.
Last week, Norwegian authorities also arrested a researcher at The University of Tromsø, accused of spying for Russia. Authorities believe the would-be academic was in Norway under a false identity working for one of Russia’s intelligence services, NRK said. A local court ordered him to be held for four weeks.
This happens to coincide with the city of Tromsø deciding this week to terminate its friendship agreement with the Northern Russian cities of Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Nadym.
A file photo from 2019 of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Kirkenes, Norway for a memorial service
Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via ZUMA
Not just Norway’s foreign policy in the balance
Norway has long cultivated a cordial relationship with Russia. Cooperation in the border region and in the Arctic questions has thrived in recent years. And to ease tensions, Norway has invoked a number of self-imposed restrictions on its military capabilities.
This has included not hosting permanent NATO forces on its soil during peacetime and banning nuclear weapons. These restrictions are not written down in formal contracts between NATO and Norway. Instead, they have cemented Norwegian policies.
While recent events in northern Norway are unlikely to cause major changes in the two countries' bilateral policy, Fjellheim argued that the Kremlin uses Norway’s border regions as a testing lab for different policies that could cause internal divisions.
This seems to be working in remote northern Norway. It remains to be seen whether similar scenarios will play out elsewhere, especially as the war heads into its second winter.