11th Dec 2023


Northern Europe — the new Nato/Russia frontline

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At the department of reindeer husbandry in Oslo, which is part of the ministry of agriculture, a peppered bill from Russia plopped on the mat at the end of June this year. It came from the Pasvik nature reserve in the Murmansk region, which borders a reserve of the same name in the high north of Norway.

The Russians demanded 47 million Norwegian kroner [€4.2m]. Why?

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  • It is sometimes said that even the largest avalanche is caused by something small. Watch Northern Europe

It turns out that 40 Norwegian reindeer had crossed the border on the frozen Pasvik river and had grazed on the Russian side for two months. "The ground vegetation cover in the form of lichens and shrubs was eaten away," the director of the Russian reserve, Natalya Polykarpova, told the Barents Observer.

"There was also trampling by hooves, which leads to the degradation of the vegetation cover in the reserve. This further affects the increase in soil erosion. That is, we are losing a component of the ecosystem which will take years to restore."

One can take this complaint lightly and regard it as one of those typical, trivial border disputes between countries. There are hundreds of them, probably even thousands, all over Europe. Nothing to worry about, although they need to be handled with care.

Not this one, alas. The world has changed, not least in northern Europe, which is rapidly becoming one of the new frontlines between Nato and Russia. There are more and more of such incidents. All of them suddenly have the potential to seriously escalate.

No more tact and vodka

Since 1993, there had always been a Norwegian consul in Murmansk, whose job it was to massage away this kind of neighbourly irritation in the militarised polar region with a lot of tact and a lot of vodka.

For this job, the Norwegians always appointed diplomats with sangfroid, a strong stomach and, most importantly, a sense of dry humour. Many of them loved their work, their Russian counterparts and the area, desolate or not. Years later, some could still recount with relish some bizarre things they had experienced. This, alas, is now over.

A few months after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the Norwegian consulate in Murmansk was closed. There had been a new consul, who had been in the job for just a few months.

After her departure, the Russians posted an embarrassing video of her on social media. While staying in a hotel during her last weeks in Murmansk, she had been secretly filmed at the reception desk downstairs, angrily complaining to the receptionist that people had been through her belongings in her room. She shouted: "I hate Russians!"

If diplomatic incidents get publicly weaponised like this, it is an indication that relations between neighbours have come to a dangerous low. In this context, a couple of reindeer crossing the border over a frozen river might just be the last straw.

During the Cold War, the border between West and East Germany was seen as the major Nato military frontline. If there would be a clash with the Warsaw Pact, it was thought, it would be there. Nato partly based its military planning on this assumption.

At the time, northern Europe was just one of the flanks of the transatlantic alliance. Only Norway and Denmark were in Nato. Sweden and Finland were neutral, while Poland and the Baltic countries were behind the Iron Curtain in the Warsaw Pact.

But now, the situation is completely different. Northern Europe, once a flank, is becoming a frontline. The Baltic states, Poland and Finland are in Nato. Sweden, while militarily completely integrated in Nato, is still waiting for the Turkish and Hungarian political green light to join the Alliance.

"Northern Europe is the new front," a Swedish lieutenant colonel told Le Monde over the summer.

Nowadays, it is through this prism that we must look at what is happening in Europe's north. At big things happening, and at small things.

In August, Russia degraded Norway from an "unfriendly" country to a "very unfriendly" one. At the end of July, the day Russian president Vladimir Putin inspected 45 Russian naval vessels in St Petersburg, a Russian diplomat affiliated with the GRU security service held the first 'naval parade' ever on the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, where Russia (legally) exploits a mining settlement.

This parade involved just a handful of tiny motor boats, most of them probably decades old.

Nevertheless, Russian flags were waved and this did certainly not go unnoticed in Oslo. Nor did the fact that a Russian orthodox bishop flew all the way to Svalbard to bless a newly erected, huge orthodox cross. When Russia asked Norway's permission to start tourist flights to Svalbard, Oslo refused. Recently the Norwegian authorities also banned Russian cars from entering the country.

Baltic buddies?

A bit more to the south, in the Baltic sea, neighbourly relations with Russia are also deteriorating.

In August, Russia suddenly began a major naval exercise there, involving 30 warships, 20 support vessels, 30 aircraft and 6,000 soldiers. During the Cold War, the Baltic Sea was practically a Soviet sea. Now, it has become mostly a Nato sea. Russia has two Baltic Sea ports, St Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The situation in the region is becoming tense.

And last week, 50,000 Finns had signed a petition demanding to close Russia's consulate on the Åland islands. While the Finnish government has so far been able to sit on the matter, which flared up after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, parliament will now have to discuss it.

The islands, a demilitarised province of Finland, lie strategically in the middle of the busy waterways of the Baltic Gulf. Here, too, a minor incident or misunderstanding could trigger an escalation.

It is sometimes said that even the largest avalanche is caused by something small. Watch Northern Europe.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is an EU correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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