It’s much quieter now at the border between Norway and Russia, and two senior researchers at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway are dismissing accusations that Russian authorities were behind last year’s disruptive influx of asylum seekers over it. They don’t think the Russians were intentionally trying to destabilize Norway in an act of so-called “hybrid war,” but the researchers were quickly challenged by a panel of critics.
Arild Moe was introduced as an “expert” on Russia when he summarized, at a panel debate in Oslo on Wednesday, the results of a probe he conducted along with colleague Lars Rowe of the allegations against Russia. The two researchers’ conclusions were just published in a lengthy article in the online journal Nordisk Østforum (external link, mostly in Norwegian).
Moe and Rowe looked into whether Russian authorities deliberately channelled migrants towards their country’s far northern border to Norway as part of the “hybrid warfare” (targeted non-military attacks) Russia is suspected of waging elsewhere. Over the past several months, Russian authorities also have been accused of supporting hackers, spreading false rumours and manufacturing news, and even backing far right-wing organizations in various countries, not least Germany. Russia’s alleged goal, reported Oslo newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend, is to destabilize key western countries and even pit them against each other. In Norway’s case, Russia has been suspected of exploiting the refugee crisis to punish Norway for going along with sanctions against Russia and for being an active member of NATO.
The key question in last fall’s refugee influx over the Norwegian-Russian border at Storskog was how so many people with unclear national origins could have been allowed into Russia’s border zone, which runs for a width of around 15 kilometers along the border to Norway. “Everyone knows the border zone in Russia is very senstive,” Moe said the “academic breakfast meeting” Wednesday held at publishing firm Cappelen Damm. The meeting was co-organized by Nordisk Østforum, the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI and NOASP (Nordic Open Access Scholarly Publishing).
Yet in the space of less than three months, 5,500 migrants gathered in and passed through Russia’s border zone, a highly militarized area long thought to be under the strict control of Russian authorities. They famously rode over the border to Norway on bicycles, in accordance with local regulations that forbid walking over it.
Moe and Rowe argue, however, that having so many people in the area was “not desirable” for the Russians and that it’s unlikely they sent them or encouraged them to travel to the border area. Moe contends that the Norwegians have more likely thought that border control on the Russian side was much stricter than it really is. He also cited research showing that the Russians themselves had asked the Norwegians back in 2012 to tighten control of border crossings, by producing a letter to be given to migrants that they’d be denied entry to Norway without a visa to Europe’s Schengen region (of which Norway is a part and within which borders are open). The Norwegian government, headed by the Labour Party at the time, refused.
Moe conceded that many Russians surely exploited the migrants’ rush to the border, earning money by providing them with everything from taxi rides to bicycles, and that some officials in a country where corruption is a problem probably also earned money by issuing visas. That doesn’t mean Russia initiated the refugee influx in the north, however, according to Moe.
He and Rowe believe the influx instead resulted mostly by word-of-mouth among the migrants themselves, who viewed the so-called “Arctic Route” as both cheaper and far less risky than crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat. And while some believe Russia tried to pit Norway against Finland, which initially was spared an influx of asylum seekers along its border to Russia, the same situation later flared along Finland’s border, too, leaving both Norway and Finland in the same boat.
A panel comprised of two journalists and another researcher at the FAFO foundaton in Oslo criticized Moe’s and Rowe’s findings. While they generally agreed that Russian authorities didn’t plant all the asylum seekers at Norway’s doorway, they claimed that Russia’s failure to quickly disperse them is significant. “Not acting is a form of acting,” claimed Kjell Dragnes, a former foreign editor at newspaper Aftenposten who ended up being accused of predictably “demonizing” Russia by a member of the audience. Dragnes argued that if the Russian authorities had wanted to halt the influx and disperse those congregating in the border zone, they would have. Guri Tyldum of FAFO also suggested the Russians opted to “close their eyes” to the influx and that another influx is probable.
Thomas Nilsen of the Independent Barents Observer based in Kirkenes, close to Norway’s border crossing with Russia, said that if anyone has firm control of their borders, it’s the Russians, and that they “can do exactly what they want” in the entire border zone area. Nilsen, who has crossed the border to Russia hundreds of times himself, said he had witnessed Russian border guards helping to screw bicycles together, and that when the influx of asylum seekers eventually ended, “it was the Russian authorities who stopped the traffic, not (new Immigration Minister) Sylvi Listhaug.”
One official from Norway’s state police directorate, who spent a lot of time around the border crossing at Storskog during last autumn’s crisis, called the Nansen Institute researchers’ conclusions “too thin,” while another member of the audience accused the researchers’ critics of “always blaming Russia” for conflicts. Asked what Norway can learn from last year’s refugee influx, Tyldum warned that waves of refugees are unpredictable and can roll over Norway again.
They all urged good relations between Russia and Norway and called on Russia to listen to its neighbours. Moe said he does not think another influx like the one through Storskog will re-occur. Both the Norwegians and the Russians eventually won control over the situation, and the Russians, Moe thinks, are likely glad Norway did tighten its borders after all.