Military build-up on icy Norway-Russia border stirs uneasiness

The increase in military build-up on the Norway-Russia border has proved to be unsettling for many Norwegians especially in the town of Kirkenes whose 10 per cent of the population is Russian. 

US Marines learn to fight in freezing cold

Under a soft winter sun in northern Norway, US Marines train in the ice and snow as they learn how to fight in the freezing cold.

"Which country is to the northeast?" Staff Sergeant Daniel Croak bellows at a group of 20 soldiers in camouflaged combat jackets and white trousers in a pine forest near the town of Setermoen.

"Russia!" they shout back.

"Do not use your GPSes. They may be jammed," Croak barks to the Marines, a warning stemming from NATO accusations - denied by Russia - that Moscow has in the past jammed GPS systems in Norway.


Increased military presence in Arctic

The troops are part of a contingent of 650 Marines staging a recent joint military exercise with 3,000 soldiers from NATO-member Norway at a time when both NATO and Russia have increased their military presence in the Arctic.

A few hundred kilometres from Setermoen, Russia is modernising its forces on the Kola Peninsula, home to its Northern Fleet. Russia has also carried out manoeuvres in recent weeks, staging a major submarine exercise in the North Atlantic, according to intelligence sources cited by Norwegian media.


'Don't want rising tensions'

The rising tension is unsettling many Norwegians, not least in the town of Kirkenes, which for three decades has been trying to foster cooperation with Russia.

Residents can cross the nearby border quickly with a visa-free permit. Many go to the nearby Russian town of Nikel to buy petrol because it is much cheaper there, and street signs use both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

"I don't like it that they build up the military on both sides of the border. We don't want rising tensions," said Eirik Wikan, co-owner of the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes, which gets two-thirds of its revenues from repairing Russian vessels.

"Here in the north, we work together to reduce tensions ... We are trying not to be part of them."


'Russian town in Norway'

About 10 per cent of Kirkenes residents are now from the Kola Peninsula.

Kirkenes' Samovar theatre company performs in both Norway and Russia, and has Russian and Norwegians employees. Russian choreographer Nikolai Shchetnev feels at home and is thinking of applying for dual nationality.

"Kirkenes is a Russian town in Norway," said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of Soer-Varanger municipality which includes Kirkenes.

He said he would not welcome more tanks on the border though he saw Norway's NATO membership as "a guarantee that I can do my job."


Russia blames US Marines in Norway

Russia denies responsibility for the rise in tensions. It blames the recent basing of US Marines in Norway, which it sees as a security challenge.


Norway worried after annexation of Crimea

But Norway's worries grew after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then staged Arctic military exercises including maritime manoeuvres with ballistic missile-capable vessels present.

"These were clear messages from Moscow," said Lieutenant-General Rune Jakobsen, Commander of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, the Norwegian Armed Forces operational command centre. "Do not be part of (NATO's) ballistic-missile defence."

Despite the tensions, he says Russian forces are behaving less aggressively on the frontier with Norway than in some other border zones between Russia and NATO, such as the Baltic Sea.


'Small nation neighbouring a superpower'

In efforts to build trust, Jakobsen has in recent weeks had talks with the regional head of Russia's FSB security service in the Kola Peninsula, and met the new head of the Northern Fleet, Alexander Moiseyev, in Kirkenes.

"As a small nation neighbouring a superpower, you have to strike the right balance between deterrence and reassurance," Jakobsen said.


Military exercises important for Norway

But the military exercises are also important for Norway.

"Working together is what makes it possible to fight together, if we have to," said Brigadier Lars Lervik, commander of the Northern Brigade based in Setermoen.


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