UPDATED: Norwegian officials confirm they have no plans to close Norway’s border to Russia in the far north, despite ongoing uncertainty over the dramatic military conflict within Russia. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said on Sunday that the situation remained “serious and unclear.”
Støre’s foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, had described the military conflict within Russia as “dangerous” on Saturday, and urged Norwegians in the country to leave. She added on Sunday that there was also great uncertainty around an agreement allegedly made Saturday night by the leader of an armed rebellion against Russia’s military. Russian authorities claimed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the mercenary Wagner Group, had agreed to end his uprising in exchange for amnesty for himself and his hired soldiers in Belarus.
“There are still many unanswered questions,” Støre told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday before leaving for a previously scheduled meeting with Nordic and Canada’s prime minister in Iceland. “We still have to be very careful and relate to the sitting leadership (of Russia).” Støre said Russian leaders had been “seriously challenged” by Prigozjin, but it was still too early to determine whether Russia has really been weakend by the uprising that began Friday night.
On Sunday a former British defense chief expressed fears that the Wagner Group may now attack Ukraine from Belarus, which shares a long border with Ukraine in the north. That raises questions as to whether the weekend drama was a ploy to weaken Ukraine’s defense.
“We are following the dramatic situation in Russia very closely,” repeated Huitfeldt several times during the weekend, as news continued to break over how the brutal Russian mercenary group Wagner had pulled out of Ukraine in the east and was targeting Russia’s own military instead. She thinks it’s still “too early” to comment in detail, as she and the Norwegian government tried to follow developments within Norway’s challenging neighbour in the far north.
“It would be wrong of me to speculate on what can happen,” Huitfeldt said, also noting that it was “too early” to know what all the uproar within Russia means for Ukraine. Asked whether the unrest was a coup attempt, she said only that “we’re now seeing that the war in Ukraine is having internal repercussions in Russia.”
Prigozhin, the highly controversial leader of the Wagner group, has complained for months over Russian military leaders, accusing them of incompetence during Russia’s war on Ukraine. He claimed on Saturday that his roughly 25,000 troops were moving into Russia and “prepared to die” in efforts to take over leadership of Russia’s armed forces. Prigozhin also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine was unnecessary, as his own Wagner troops allegedly took over several Russian cities as they headed towards Moscow.
Putin responded by equating the Wagner group’s actions and words to treason and a mutiny. As he kept backing his own generals, Putin declared a state of emergency and claimed he would not allow Russia to descend into civil war.
“The drama we’re now witnessing in Russia can hardly be exaggerated,” said Sigurd Falkenberg Mikkelsen, foreign editor and commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The fate of Russia’s nuclear arsenal posed the biggest threat of all, as Putin, Prigozhin and the notorious leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, jockeyed for position. Kadyrov, also known for his brutality, reportedly offered his own forces to fight against Wagner’s.
As Latvia closed its border to Russians and sharpened security on Saturday, Norway’s border remained open. Ellen Katrine Hætta, police chief for Norway’s most northern region of Finnmark, said she and her colleagues were also following the situation in Russia as closely as possible with special attention to any changes along the grensen at Storskog just east of Kirkenes.
Hætta reported no abnormal activity on Saturday. “We have good preparedness plans and can quickly take steps if the situation along the border changes,” she told NRK. Huitfeldt noted that border issues would be decided by the justice ministry, “but for now, there is no change” and the border was open. “We have very good plans for something like this,” Huitfeldt told NRK after the press briefing. Støre followed up on Sunday, adding that he also didn’t see any need to further boost security in Northern Norway.
Huitfeldt wouldn’t say whether the nuclear threat has risen because of the internal unrest in Russia. The most important of all, Huitfeldt concluded, “is that it’s still very important we stand up for Ukraine.” Even though Saturday’s armed insurgency came quickly, she said that it was not a complete surprise: “Since the war is going so poorly for Russia in Ukraine, there’s an instability in our neighbouring country. Therefore we’re not surprised over what’s happening, but we hadn’t expected it right now.”
The Norwegian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee reported that it “was in dialogue” with the government and also following events as they unfolded. Former defense- and foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party leads the committee and echoed Huitfeldt in saying it was too early predict any of the consequences for Russia’s internal conflict on either the Russian regime or the war on Ukraine.
Former Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was also on edge over the sudden drama in Russia that was challenging Putin. “The fact that this is happening in our neighbouring country, which is waging war on another of its neighbours, and has nuclear weapons, of course makes the situation deeply worrisome and serious,” Solberg told NRK. She said she had “clear expectations that both NATO and Norwegian authorities were following developments closely.” All confirmed they were.
Russian officials warned western countries including Norway, meanwhile, against exploiting an armed uprising carried out by Wagner soldiers of hire in Russia to achieve what Moscow calls “anti-Russian goals.”