The traffic across the Norwegian-Russian border at Storskog is steadily increasing, but it is far from the amount before the pandemic, says Chief of Police Ellen Katrine Hætta in Finnmark, Northern Norway. Going forward, it will be even more difficult for Russians to apply for a visa to Norway, while more will want to flee.
Last Wednesday, Russia's president Vladimir Putin sharpened his rhetoric towards the West and flexed his nuclear weapons. Several, including US President Joe Biden, interpreted this as a nuclear threat against Europe.
The same day, Russia introduced partial mobilization of reserve forces to the war in Ukraine. 300 000 Russians with relevant experience from the military are called into service. In the wake of this, many are now trying to get out of the country.
On Thursday, the news broke that Norway is temporarily revoking its visa facilitation agreement with Russia with immediate effect. This makes it even more difficult for Russian citizens to get a visa to Norway after the summer's restrictions. Russian applicants will now meet increased documentation requirements, higher fees, and longer processing times.
High North News was last Friday in contact with Chief of Police Ellen Katrine Hætta in the Finnmark police district to check the status of the Norwegian-Russian border in the north.
"We are keeping a close eye on the situation in the border areas, and we have done so since the invasion of Ukraine in February, in close dialogue with our Finnish colleagues. From July, when Russia lifted its travel restrictions, we have seen a steady increase in traffic over the Skorskog border station from week to week," wrote Hætta in an e-mail and continued:
"However, and this is important: We are nowhere near the amount of traffic we saw over Storskog before the pandemic. In August this year, there were 5400 inbound and outbound travelers over Storskog, while there were 24 000 in the same month in 2019. There is little traffic, and the same can be seen on the Finnish side."
Norwegian border policy towards Russian citizens was further restricted in July after a more than doubling of asylum seekers from Russia.
Guidelines then came which stated that tourist and visitor visas for friends and partners, would, as a general rule, be declined. Visitor visas for siblings, business people, and people with a cultural purpose are still possible to obtain but are increasingly difficult to have approved.
Russians who live within a 30-kilometer zone from the border to Norway cannot renew their border resident certificate for entry to the Norwegian border either, as the Norwegian Consulate General in Murmansk is closed.
Parenthetically, the border station's capacity has not increased since the stream of nearly 5,500 refugees over Storskog in the fall of 2015.
In 2017, Sør-Varanger's former mayor Rune Rafaelsen criticized the then Solberg government for not butting the border station in a position to carry out border control in case of heavy traffic.
When asked how the chief of police assesses Storskog's current capacity to accommodate a larger stream of refugees, she replies that the situation is the same as earlier this year.
Prepared for sudden changes
"As Schengen's outer border, we know that changes can happen quickly and that conditions on the other side can affect both the traffic over Storskog and conditions here in Norway. We take this into account and we have contingency plans in place, in addition to implementing measures where we see a need," Hætta stated.
Territorial control and vigilance have increased throughout the Finnmark police district since Russia went to war against Ukraine, according to the chief of police.
"We are able to quickly adapt should changes occur, and we also have a good dialogue with other emergency response actors. It is important to have an equal situational awareness, and to understand in what way we can be affected by what happens on the other side of the border."
She also emphasized that increased vigilance is important in society as a whole.
"Citizens are good at reporting if they see something abnormal or something that appears to be suspicious activity. We want people to continue doing this, regardless of whether they live in Pasvikdalen or in Alta, or Bodø, for that matter. It is important that the police can check out any incidents related to the security situation we are in. This applies to everything from drones to GPS jamming, or illegal residence."
"Being vigilant is important, something I have repeated a number of times since the 24th of February. Report it if you see something suspicious," urged Hætta.
When asked about her observations about the atmosphere in the Northern border area in light of the intensified tone of the Russian regime towards the West and renewed actualization of nuclear weapons, the chief of police answered the following:
"The police in Finnmark stand by the task regardless of what might happen on the other side or in the geopolitical sphere. Our job is to secure Schengen's border regardless of the atmosphere."
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.