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Tense Situation Below Freezing

The Golden Gate remains open at the Norwegian-Russian border
In 2015, Norwegian citizens in their northern counties witnessed an unusual scene as thousands of bike-riding migrants from the Middle East and North Africa cycled into their country across the Russian border. This stretch of border stands as Europe’s last open gate before Russia a factor that spares Norway from Russian hybrid threats due to its openness.

THE LAST OPEN GATE

Deep snow blankets Kirkenes, one of Norway's northernmost cities, nestled in the frozen Barents Sea bay, where sometimes the silence is only broken by the crackling of ice. In Kirkenes, located four hundred kilometers from the Arctic Circle, daylight lasts for just an hour and a half in January; December days are even shorter. Nevertheless, life does not stop in this border town, which has a stormy history, evidenced by the Soviet monument built on its highest hill. During World War II, the municipality like the rest of Finnmark county was one of the most bombed and was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Soviet Union in 1944. The monument echoes a time when Norway, a NATO member, maintained better relations with the Russians.

Today, Kirkenes prresents a surprising sight: buses destined for Murmansk in Russia line up at the city's bus station. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2022, this has been a rare occurrence, as the European Union from Poland to Finland has closed its borders with Russia (and Belarus). Norway remains the exception in Europe, with the Storskog border crossing near Kirkenes operating without disturbance. The frosty Storskog is currently the only open border gate between Russia and the Schengen area – since Norway, while not a member of the European Union, is a signatory to the Schengen Agreement.

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Northern Europe has faced an unusually strong threat from Russia. Finland's accession to NATO in 2023, and Sweden's application to join, have significantly altered the geopolitical balance around the Arctic Circle. Helsinki's move would have been unimaginable in the past, giving rise to the term "Finlandization," which meant Finland's military neutrality and allowing Soviet influence in its foreign policy in exchange for maintaining Finnish sovereignty.

The Kremlin did not take kindly to the abandonment of traditional Finnish neutrality and Finland’s entry into NATO. Following Helsinki's decision, unexpected migrational pressure arose on the Finnish border at the end of 2023. Migrants, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa, braved temperatures down to minus forty degrees, queuing for asylum at northern crossing points such as Raja-Jooseppi. However, Raja-Jooseppi like other Finnish-Russian crossings was shut down on November 28 last year and has remained closed. Finland’s center-right government considers the increased migration a deliberate response by Russia to punish Finland for joining NATO. Furthermore, this is not the first time Moscow has used this unusual pressure tactic to force Finland's hand in foreign politics. Following the Crimea occupation and economic sanctions on Russia, Helsinki experienced significant migration pressure on its eastern borders in 2015-2016, a situation that was resolved only after a summit meeting between the heads of state in Moscow.

BIKE-RIDING MIGRANTS BEYOND THE ARCTIC CIRCLE

Finland was not the only country with migration-related troubles during this period. Migrants also accumulated at Norwegian borders at the turn of 2015 and 2016. The "bicycle migrants" became known for exploiting a legal loophole to cross the Norwegian-Russian border by bike. In 2024, however, the Storskog crossing, just 150 kilometers from Raja-Jooseppi, is quiet.

“Since 2016, the number of migrants crossing the Norwegian-Russian border has been net zero,” reports Goran Stenseth, border police commissioner. "Norway prides itself on pragmatic relations with Russia. We have to admit, an open border and proper communication are still better than a closed border and lack of communication," the commissioner explains.

Norway’s relationship with Russia is unique. Oslo and Moscow have long cooperated closely along the Barents Sea. The bilateral agreement signed in 1949 between the Soviet Union and Norway on establishing a border defense commission a body of commissioners still guarantees that cooperation today. Despite tensions caused by the war in Ukraine, Norway and Russia held joint exercises in 2023, and the Sor-Varanger garrison still starts its work each morning with consultations with the local office of the Russian security service, the FSB. While tensions are increasing between Russia and its NATO member neighbors, time seems to have stopped at the Norwegian-Russian border, which remains friendly and peaceful despite harsh weather.

THE THREAT OF AN IRRATIONAL SYSTEM

For the Russians, pragmatic ties with the Norwegians are now more important than ever. As Europe’s doors close to the Federation, every partially open door gains value. It's in Russian interests to keep the Storskog crossing open to their citizens to the Schengen area. This status could be compromised by unorthodox and systematic threats like organized migration. This might explain why, although Finland has not seen migration pressure since 2016, there is no crisis at the Norwegian border. However, Norway has taken a significant risk with this move. While its relations with Russia today are considered good in Europe, Oslo's allies are watching its open border with concern. Finland recently announced it would conduct random border checks at the Finnish-Norwegian border to prevent any Russian citizens from entering Finnish territory via Norway. Nonetheless, Norway stands by its decision: Storskog is important to the Russians, and peace at the borders is vital for Norway.

Skeptics, however, are unsure if Russia is following a thought-out strategy at Storskog. "Russia is an irrational system," reminds Jan-Paul Brekke, research director at the Institute of Social Research in Oslo.

"It may not be a rational decision by Russia to ignore the Norwegian border. It might simply have been cheaper to disrupt the defense of the Finnish border, or the local governor might have been more cooperative, favoring Finland over Norway," he adds.

Whatever the truth, security agencies warn that migrational pressure from Russia may intensify again. Similar symptoms to the eastern (or Belarusian) migration crisis in Finland might just be a trial run for what to expect. Preparing for upcoming events, the parliaments of Finland, Norway, and Estonia have authorized construction of physical barriers along their Russian borders. According to Arseniy Sivitsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Belarus, 2024 will be a significant year regarding migration from Russia. His forecast is clear: The Belarusian border has become inactive, Russia is currently testing Finland, and real migrational pressure is expected in the summer of 2024.
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