Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl flew up to Northern Norway’s border to Russia on Sunday to meet with local police and defense forces stationed in the area. The visit comes after the government announced stricter border control and that the border may be closed on short notice if deemed necessary.
The tighter border control also comes after a marked increase in the numbers of Russians, mostly young men, crossing the border to Norway using visas valid for most of the rest of Europe as well. Many of the new arrivals have told Norwegian media that they’re leaving Russia to avoid being drafted into the army and sent to fight Russian President Vladimir Putin’s highly contested war on Ukraine.
“We’re seeing the same situation as elsewhere along Schengen’s outer border, with men subject to (Putin’s) military mobilization traveling out of Russia,” Sølve Solheim told newspaper Klassekampen last week. Solheim is leader of the local police’s operative immigration control office for Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county that shares a 198-kilometer long border with Russia.
Hundreds of Russians have crossed the border to Norway since Putin announced his mobilization order for another 300,000 troops to be sent to Ukraine. That’s much less than the thousands who’ve poured into Finland and other countries bordering Russia, but The Barents Observer (external link) has reported how local hotels in Kirkenes have been full with those waiting for available flights on to other destinations. Few of the new arrivals intend to remain in Kirkenes, with Norway described as a “transit country.”
The increased numbers of Russians entering Norway, however, have prompted Justice Minister Mehl to boost security around the border. “Police have good control at Storskog (the border crossing east of Kirkenes) and now we’re strengthening presence in the border areas away from the border station,” Mehl stated in a press release.
That includes use of the police helicopter sent up to the area just before the weekend. Mehl called it “a useful tool” for following movements in open terrain on the Norwegian side of the border. It will also increase capacity for detecting any illegal border crossings that otherwise are the responsibility of military personnel stationed in the area.
The government tightened visa regulations for Russians in May but those already holding valid visas have still been able to enter. If Russian officials close borders to prevent Russian citizens from leaving, however, Mehl fears there will be more attempts at illegal crossings.
“We will close the border quickly if it should be necessary, and changes can come at short notice,” Mehl said. “We have close contact with the police and customs agents regarding developments at the border, and check everyone entering.”
The tighter visa rules have sparked controversy, as have any attempts at limiting the numbers of Russians fleeing their own country. “Russians who want to flee (Putin) are not the enemy,” Sergey Khazov-Cassia, who left Russia as early as March, told newspaper Dagsavisen last week. “The Russian Army and Putin are the enemy.”
Several Members of Parliament have also argued for more liberal visa regulations for Russians, while others counter that security issues are at stake and that Russians entering must be screened. Finland, meanwhile, has joined Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in closing its eastern border to Russian tourists, citing deep concern over Russia’s war on Ukraine, international condemnation of Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions in eastern Ukraine and suspected sabotage of Russian gas pipelines in the Baltic.
That left Norway as the only border crossing still open to Russian tourists, amidst Mehl’s warnings it may ultimately close, too.