IT WOULD HAVE BEEN UNTHINKABLE just two months ago, given years of border cooperation between Russia and Norway – but then Russia invaded Ukraine, another of its neighbouring countries. Now the Norwegian government has finally decided to follow the EU and close its borders to the transport of Russian goods, and its harbours to Russian ships except fishing vessels.
It was a decision that was difficult for Norway to make. It suspends years of cross-border cooperation even during the Cold War, and much more since the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s and Russia opened up for more business and trade. Norway’s northern city of Kirkenes, closest to the Russian border, was likely to be hit hardest by the closure of its harbour and suffer economically, but was relieved that Russian fishing boats can still dock. Most of one local shipyard’s customers are Russian fishing vessels.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine drags on, however, with Russia even attacking Kyiv while the UN’s secretary general was visiting on Thursday, Norwegian law was finally amended in a way that allows Norway to follow the EU’s sanctions that block all transport of goods on the sanction list. It took effect right after Friday’s weekly Council of State between the government and King Harald V, and the border station at Storskog just east of Kirkenes was immediately closed to all trucks from Russia.
“We are introducing the EU’s fifth sanctions package in Norway,” announced Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, in its entirety. “It means that we’ve closed Storskog to cargo transport immediately, and that transport of a long list of chemicals has been forbidden.”
She said Norway was making an exception on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard that Norway controls through an international treaty. The prohibitions on the Norwegian mainland won’t affect countries that have signed the Svalbard treaty, which included the former Soviet Union in 1925. Russia decided to carry on as a signatory to the treaty in 1992.
Norway’s harbours, meanwhile, will close to all Russian vessels except those tied to fishing from May 7, allowing them eight days to take on any needed fuel or supplies and to reroute. Fisheries Minister Bjørnar Skjæran stressed that the EU has exempted fishing vessels, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the exception was especially important for Norway, pointing to the two countries’ “special cooperation” around fishing in the Barents Sea. It means fishing boats returning from the North Sea can also dock in Norway if needed, and use Norwegian shipyards for repair or maintenance. Only those owned by Russians specifically identified on the EU sanctions list, or with any sanctioned Russians on board, will be turned away.
Huitfeldt told NRK that she doesn’t expect any Russian reaction. “This is a collective reaction from the EU to an illegal invastion of Ukraine,” she said. “This is foreseeable Norwegian policy.”
The harbour closures will otherwise mostly block Russian tankers, bulkers and cargo ships, along with seismic vessels that chart the sea bottom. Since Russian fishing vessels have represented the majority of those sailing into Norwegian ports, NRK estimated that around 40 percent of all Russian vessels will be affected by the new sanctions. Skjæran nonetheless claimed they are historically the strongest sanctions Norway has ever imposed against another country.
The EU, which Norway still hasn’t joined but cooperates with closely, approved its latest sanctions package that Norway is now following on April 8. Huidtfeldt attributes Norway’s delayed adoption of it on a need to clarify how it should be interpreted. Several opposition parties in Parliament have been urging the government to adopt it all along, with MP Ola Elvestuen of the Liberal Party claiming that Norway has been too slow in halting Russian transport and blocking Russian ships. He thinks Russian fishing vessels should also be blocked: “That’s what the Ukrainians, who are defending our common freedom with their lives, need right now.”
Others also claim the government took too much time to follow the EU, even though Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had already indicated Norway would do so. Støre, whose Labour Party has promoted cooperation with both the Soviet Union and later Russia for decades, said it was important that cooperation at sea and in ports continued.
“It’s good that the government has finally concluded that it would introduce harbour restrictions,” Ine Eriksen Søreide, a former defense- and foreign minister for the Conservatives, told NRK. “The Conservatives have been asking for this for a long time, and we have given the government our backing for several weeks.” She now leads the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee and thinks the government was too slow to act.
Some remain concerned that the sanctions now mostly affecting tankers and other merchant ships can jeopardize safety at sea. Russian vessels have usually called at Norwegian ports to refuel, purchase supplies or change crews. “These are things absolutely necessary to operate a ship,” Ståle Sveinungsen of Norway’s marine traffic center told NRK. “If ships run out of fuel, they could go adrift on land, and that’s of course something we don’t want.” Huitfeldt insisted that safety will be addressed, and that vessels needing help would get it.