Beyond the Wall: The NATO Soldiers Guarding the Arctic from Russia

VICE World News reports from the Norwegian-Russian border in the Arctic Circle where soldiers are prepared for what was once unthinkable, and historic polar communities are being torn apart.

JAKOBSELV, Norway – Pvt. Magnus Vikan Trettenes is staring out across the ocean, perched on a rocky outcrop far above the Arctic Circle. 

With the Barents Sea stretching out to the horizon, a traveller arriving here might feel they’ve reached the end of the world, but this is the razor’s edge of NATO

Trettenes, 20, is one of four soldiers guarding the desolate final stretch of the 120-mile-long Norwegian-Russian border.

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“We sat here in this tower the day Russia invaded Ukraine,” he says, looking out across the river that separates East from West. “The dream scenario would be that nothing happens, but in times like these, there’s no room for slacking on the job.”

The Norwegian border outpost.

Trettenes is a conscript in the Norwegian armed forces, a member of the vaunted Sør Varanger Battalion defending NATO’s northern flank. 

Aside from the waves crashing on the sandy beach below, it’s calm at the border today. But the tension here is rising. The invasion of Ukraine has left all of Russia’s neighbours wondering what trouble the Kremlin will decide to stir up next. The prospect of a European war feels like a reality here now.

The long way back down from an outpost.

“On the day the war began, I didn't look at the videos,” says Marit Østtun, 23, leader of the battalion’s Quick Reaction Unit. “It was too close. I was too aware of what I would face if they came over the border here.”

Soldiers like Østtun are the eyes and ears of NATO. 

Her job here is both simple and infinitely complex. Should a military threat arise, Østtun would need to mobilise her troops and meet it in under five minutes, battling the clock in a treacherous land of ice bogs and subzero temperatures, where skis are the primary form of transport and nature is out to get you.

Marit Østtun, 23, leader of the battalion’s Quick Reaction Unit.

It may seem odd that Østtun is defending this barren tundra. But make no mistake: Control of the Arctic is of vital strategic importance for the Kremlin. 

Much of Russia’s oil and gas production sits within the Arctic Circle, and about 20 percent of Russian exports are generated here. As global warming thaws the ice, sea trade routes are beginning to open up too. Controlling these may give Russia influence over global commerce in decades to come, and the invasion of Ukraine has shown just how far Vladimir Putin is willing to go to achieve his strategic goals. Not since the Cold War has Arctic security been such a high priority for NATO.

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Norway isn’t the only treaty member with an Arctic presence – the US, Canada, Denmark and Iceland all have control over northern waters – but it is the only one sharing a land border with Russia. That puts this Scandinavian nation in a difficult position. Here, unlike in the US or Britain, Russia is not a distant bogeyman but an ever-present danger. The notorious Russian security service the FSB – the main successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – staffs the border towers just over the Jakobselv river; a constant reminder of the nature of this violent and unpredictable neighbour.

As the conflict in Ukraine has dragged on, once positive relations between Russia and Norway have deteriorated. The geopolitical fault lines in the Arctic are deepening, and the role of conscripts like Østtun and Trettenes is more important than ever.

As a founding member of NATO, Norway has long carried the heavy weight of Arctic security on its shoulders. But soon, it won’t be alone: After decades of military non-alignment, Sweden and Finland could be poised to become part of the alliance. 

The countries submitted joint membership applications in May. Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the move was an ”act of peace", while Swedish leader Magdalena Andersson said, with a characteristic lack of bombast, that the country was "leaving one era and beginning another”.

But the shift in policy cannot be overstated. If the bids are successful – and NATO member Turkey has said it will veto them because of what it sees as their support for Kurdish groups – it will mark the most significant geopolitical realignment in the region since the Iron Curtain came down 30 years ago.

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Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia, and it was invaded by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. But despite a difficult history, polls have shown consistent opposition to NATO membership in the Finnish population. That changed when Vladimir Putin rolled tanks into Ukraine.

“I think there’s this sense that the eastern bear has shown its face,” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “As the president [of Finland] said, the masks are off now.” 

“You have a young generation of Finns who didn't have this personal connection to World War II, but now they've seen [the invasion of Ukraine] and they realize this is what the Russians could do and that Finns just need to prepare and prepare and prepare.”

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

While Sweden shares no border with Russia, it has been at pains to avoid conflict with the Kremlin. The country has remained neutral for more than 200 years, and the change in attitude marks a momentous shift.

The fact that both Sweden and Finland are on track to join the alliance is perhaps the greatest irony of Putin’s assault on Ukraine. The man who has repeatedly warned against NATO expansion has inspired it.

But who could be surprised by the Nordic change of heart? 

Both Sweden and Finland are Davids to the Kremlin’s Goliath, and as evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine have come to light, fear and loathing for Putin’s war machine has grown.

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“It was very predictable; the Russian army even has a culture of violence against its own people,” says Pekka Toveri, former chief intelligence officer for the Finnish Army.

A red hut on the Norwegian side of the border.

“That has happened in every fucking war that [Russia] has done. It’s always been war crimes, rapes, looting. In the Chechnyan wars, in Georgia.”

“It’s amazing how stupid the Russians can be not understanding that this creates a huge reaction in the Western government against them.”

Many defence experts have predicted that Finland and Sweden may officially join the organisation during this year’s NATO conference, taking place in Madrid at the end of July. 

But this is by no means a done deal as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opposed ratification of these potential member states. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Ankara will come around, but behind closed doors NATO officials have said that their applications could take up to a year. 

During that time, Sweden and Finland will remain exposed. 

Putin has made ominous warnings against both countries following their bids. As a show of support, a number of Western nations, including the US and the UK, have promised to step in should the Kremlin decide to start yet another war.

But with most of his troops tied up in Ukraine, another invasion may be a bridge too far, even for Putin.

“Russia has proved to be amateurish when it comes to conventional warfare,” says Kjell Inge Bjerga, director of the Norwegian Institute for Defense. “It's not likely at all that we see some kind of conventional attack on the Nordic countries.”

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“But this will make them more focused on developing their hybrid and cyber toolbox, and we are already in the midst of a hybrid war.”

Norwegian soldiers patrol the Arctic border with Russia.

Bjerga says that such hybrid attacks could see Russia attempt more large-scale hacks of Nordic computer systems, airspace violations or increased radio jamming in the Arctic.

Of course, even if the Kremlin did decide to strike out with conventional military force against its neighbor, Toveri says the Finns would be ready:

“We have this total defence concept,” he says. “We have general conscription – all males are required to serve – and civil society is prepared for a crisis too.”

“In Finland if you build a block of flats, you’re legally required to have a [bomb] shelter in the basement. Bridges are built so that they are easy to rig with explosives, so Finnish engineers can blow them up.”

“Finland doesn’t have a defence force; Finland is a defence force.”

Sweden boasts an impressive airforce and financial muscle. Strategically, the Swedish island of Gotland is also a huge boon for Baltic defence. Should a conflict with Russia ever arise, the alliance could use it as a staging point for air and naval forces.

On the Russian border itself, the battle-ready Finns can field almost a million reservists, and figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that the country already spends more per capita on its military than any other in the EU. While that still doesn't amount to the 2 percent of GDP technically required of NATO members, both Sweden and Finland say they will build up to this in the coming years.

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Bjerga, of the Norwegian Institute for Defence, says that if and when these Nordic nations join forces with Norway, they will form a bulwark against future aggression.

“Norway takes care of the navy, Sweden has the air force, Finland has the army. From Moscow this is close to a catastrophe. Because you have a very strong NATO complement close to the border.”

All three nations are set to increase military spending, and in Norway, that money will flow toward the Arctic. In March, its government announced hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, for frigates, corvettes and subs to defend the northern sea passage. The border guard will see a marked increase too.

Winter helmets inside a Norwegian border post.

“The defence establishment in Norway is definitely worried.” says Bjerga, at his office in Oslo’s Akershus Fortress, a 13th-century castle, parts of which are still used by defence authorities. “They started to worry in Georgia in 2008 and more so after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.”

“Defence spending has increased by 30 percent since 2015. Parliament bought the argument about a much more dangerous Russia [even before the invasion of Ukraine].

“Of course we have this government line in which they tell the public that there is no tension in the High North.”

Norway has long walked a diplomatic tightrope with the Kremlin. While inviting NATO forces into its Arctic seas, Norway has secured deals with Russia on everything from fishing to environmental policy. For years it has tried, and arguably succeeded, to fly under the radar.

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But Eivind Vad Petersson, state secretary of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, told VICE World News that the days of working closely with Russia are largely over: “Norway built a broad, practical cooperation with Russia through 30 years. Continuing this is impossible. We have reduced our cooperation to a minimum and are facing an uncertain future.”

While the national conversation in Norway has shifted, the story isn’t so simple in the border regions.

A keystone of the Norwegian policy on Russia has been its “people-to-people” strategy. The country has poured cash into schemes that promote better relations through trade, sports and cultural exchange.

Nowhere in Norway is this policy more important than in Kirkenes, a northern settlement that sits just 10 miles from the Russian border across from its twin city of Nickel. Out of around 3,500 Kirkenes residents, more than 400 are Russian citizens. Street signs in the town are written in Cyrillic, and the decks of local fishing trawlers ring out with voices from Murmansk, just three hours down the road. 

A sign at the border: Left is Russia, right is Norway.

People here played sports with Russians, or married them. Others drove over the border just to fill up their cars with cheap Russian petrol. Now, due to sanctions, that border is closed. 

Many in the town have mixed feelings about it. When asked about the invasion of Ukraine, some here shrugged their shoulders and said they “weren’t political” or that they didn’t like talking about it. 

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Dragging on a cigarette outside the only pub in town, Jøe Jorstad said he was unimpressed with restrictions: “We always had a common border here, since the Viking times, and we’ll have to deal with them after [the war] anyway.” 

Jorstad said since the crossing shut, Norwegians “didn’t have any input” on their Russian neighbours who would now hear “only lies about the war” from Putin’s propaganda machine.

“That’s the problem today,” he added. “Everything is treated like it’s black and white. But real life is in colour. And if you don’t talk to people, history is going to repeat itself.”

However, it seems some of the propaganda Jorstad complained about is seeping over the border into Norway itself. 

In addition to its sizable Russian population, northern Norway is also home to a minority of Ukrainian citizens. One of them, Nataliia Kolesnik, 45, moved to the town of Neiden three years ago from Kyiv.

Having found a steady job as a receptionist, she counted herself lucky, but when the war began, she started to receive abusive messages from a Russian woman living in Norway.

“I thought she was my close friend,” Kolesnik said. “But when the war began, she was writing to me drunk, saying, ‘Your President [Zelenskyy] is a Nazi.’”

“Her husband is Norwegian and he wrote to me too. Things like ‘Ukraine, bye-bye’ and ‘Russia will win.’ Many people here watch Russian TV. They think the war is America’s fault.”

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Kolesnik is originally from the Donetsk region of Ukraine, an area now largely under Russian control. Over the course of an hour, she told me that a close friend back home had recently had her leg blown off in a bombing raid, and that her childhood school had been levelled. 

For the most part, Kolesnik told these horrific tales with a steady gaze. But her voice trembled when she spoke of her family.

“I am calm because my daughter is here,” she says. “She came 10 days before the war started, just to visit, along with my brother's daughter. Now they’ve been here for three months. They have an apartment, and some money. But they want to go home.”

The sun shines through clouds at midnight in Kirkenes, above a World War II Soviet war memorial.

After speaking of the challenges she’d faced since the war, Kolesnik said she was surprised that some people she’d met in Norway were taken in by Kremin misinformation. She had watched several Russian news reports and was unimpressed.

“They even showed a Molotov cocktail made from a plastic bottle. It’s easy to see that it’s stupid. It's propaganda. It’s wrong information. Just cinema, you know?“

Strangely, perhaps, Kolesnik’s experience had not diminished her opinion of Russians in general. She even hoped to patch things up with her abusive neighbor. Like many things here, the situation was more complicated than it first appeared. As we wrapped up our conversation, we were interrupted by a group of her friends. All were Russian and all spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine.

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In the Kirkenes church the next day, Matvey Schetnev was rigging up lights below the altar. The 21-year-old Russian was spending his Sunday setting the stage for a concert.

“It's for a charity gig for Ukraine,” he said. “I look at the war like a Norwegian, not as a Russian.”

Schetnev had moved to Norway a few years before and still has friends and family in Russia.

Matvey Schetnev, (right) and his Norwegian friend Johann Nordhus in Kirkenes church.

“For me it’s difficult now to hold contact with my family over the border. We try not to speak about [the war] because you don't want to argue and fight over that. You understand that you can't be friends with them if they are thinking that way.”

Schetnev said any support of the war was the result of Russian media and that the older generation were more likely to be taken in by it.

“Many Russian people here have Russian TV; they have the exact same channels. I think that's frustrating. How can you live here for more than one year and still believe the Russian version?”

The divisions have been stoked by the local Russian consul. On the day of “Victory Day” celebrations in Moscow last month, its leader held his own event in Kirkenes. As traditional pepper cakes were handed out, he spoke to a small crowd.

“The consul said it was very sad that in the West you could now see a rehabilitation of Nazi criminals and Nazi history,” recalled local resident Bård Ramberg, 49.

“Some of these local Russians living in Norway were moved to tears about how much the Soviet Union sacrificed in WWII and said how sad it is that they had to go and fight fascism today. It’s surreal to me.”

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When the war in Ukraine began, Ramberg started a campaign to get Cyrillic signs taken down in the town, but he didn’t get much support from the community. 

Bård Ramberg

“I just thought: What can I do as a family man in a tiny town in Norway? What can I do? We have Russian street signs that were put up as an effort to better relations with the border communities in the early 2000s. And I thought, this is a message I don’t want my community to send.”

“When I watch the news from Ukraine, I substitute the village names [with Kirkenes]. It’s very personal because I live on the border with this terror state. But I am clearly in the minority, and I don’t know why.”

The range of Russian opinions in Kirkenes speaks to the complex problem that border towns in Norway, Finland, and other Baltic states face.

Unlike in the UK or US, people in these places deal with their Russian neighbours on a personal level. The face of Russia is not that of Vladimir Putin but of the local fisherman, soccer coach or bartender.

Pikene på Broen is a Norwegian gallery that runs inter-border art projects and offers residency programmes to Russian artists to visit Norway. Since the border closed, the gallery is now running what it calls “Quadrenic Rooms” to connect digitally with Russian artists and collaborating partners in Murmansk.

Gallery curators Ingrid Valan and Neal Calhoon stands next to border markers.

Gallery curators Neal Calhoon, 33, from Northern Ireland, and Ingrid Valan, 37, a Kirkenes local, said maintaining cultural links was important for the future of the Arctic region.

“The reality is that there are Russians on the other side who are against the war. If we cut all contact, then it's impossible for them to be heard on our side,” said Calhoon.

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“The people-to-people work that we do through art and culture is even more important now,” said Ingrid. “I don't think it helps any situation to have this Iron Curtain again.”

Lars Georg Fordal, director of the Barents Secretariat, which helps fund the gallery, echoed their sentiments. Standing at the empty Russian border crossing, he said that cooperation had helped keep jobs in the area and Kirkenes afloat.

Lars Georg Fordal at the border with Russia.

The polar town is losing young people in droves, as they head south toward bigger cities and away from winters where the sun doesn’t rise for two months of the year.

But the cross-border soccer matches and ski races his organisation promoted are no longer going ahead. Putting the sanctions to one side, the reality, he said, was that many young Norwegians just didn’t want to be associated with the Russians any more.

A few miles from Kirkenes, on the Sør Varanger military base, the concerns of the nearby town fade. The focus here is on the military might of the Kremlin.

Here Sør Varanger Battalion Commander Michael Rozmara, who has spearheaded NATO missions in Georgia, is looking forward to the addition of new Nordic members: “We had contributions from Sweden and Finland on that mission, and both have something to give us.”

Norwegian soldiers walk past a border marker as they patrol a beach.

When asked about the change in tone toward Russia, and the caution with which Prime Minister Jonas Gare Støre has approached the Kremlin, Rozmara says he had faith in the Norwegian approach.

“We need to put this in perspective: How does a small nation build a relationship with a much larger power? In many aspects, we have succeeded with our relationship with Russia.” 

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“Norway has never been to war with Russia,” he continues. “It could be a war in the future – which we thought 6 months ago was highly likely would never happen,” he says.

Norwegian soldier Bjørvik Jostein on patrol.

“So in a sense. We are leaning a bit more forward than we did 3 months ago. My unit’s motto is ‘Always Ready’ and now I would say that we are even a little bit more ready.”

When asked whether his troops were ready for any future conflict, Rozmara was confident. He has utmost faith in his troops. Norwegian border guards are specially chosen for their mental and physical toughness. Many have been champion skiers and typically around 50 percent of the Norwegian special forces start here in Rozmara’s platoon. 

Soldiers from Sør Varanger find strange – and some would say masochistic – ways to pass the time. In the winter, the temperature drops to a consistent minus 30 degrees Celsius, or minus 22 Fahrenheit. But nevertheless, some surf these Arctic waves.

“They used to drive out every Saturday to the beach – winter or summer, rain or snow – and go for a swim,” says Østtun, the 23-year-old leader of the battalion’s Quick Reaction Unit.

The wolf patch emblem of Sør Varanger.

After the dip they have to hike over plunging cliff lines, and through snow-packed tunnels to get back to their post. Looking down from the Jakobselv border tower once more, the Arctic waters don’t look so appealing. You’d have to be pretty bored to brave the beach up here. 

Asked if he ever gets tired of the long days and quiet nights, Pvt. Trettenes looks to the horizon and shrugs.

“You don't get views like this anywhere else in the world. In my eyes, it’s the best place to be.”

Pvt. Trettenes.

Tagged:

Ukraine, russia, Sweden, finland, ukraine invasion, worldnews, world conflict

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