Curtains

A new Iron Curtain erodes hard-won ties between Norway and Russia on Arctic issues

Captain Pal Bratbak has patrolled the Barents Sea for decades. Her Norwegian Coastguard search and rescue cutter mainly pursues fishermen’s distress calls. Fishermen hunt cod — and cod sometimes lead them astray.

“The cod, it does not see the border, so we help all the boats in our area”, he says, and that means as many Russian boats as Norwegians. A treaty allows both nations to catch a quota, and the management of the Arctic cod fleet in the Barents Sea is considered a success around the world, both economically and environmentally.

“It’s important for Norway, the European Union, NATO and the whole world. And it’s important for the Russians,” he says.

/ Nora Lorek for NPR

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Nora Lorek for NPR

Captain Pal Bratbak has been patrolling the Barents Sea for decades in a Norwegian Coast Guard search and rescue cutter.

Such cooperation has been evident on the Russian-Norwegian border for decades, if not centuries. Norwegians call it “far north, low voltage”.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, this tension is not so low, and Bratbak is worried. The Coast Guard also enforces fishing laws in the Barents Sea.

Years ago, in a rare case, a The Russian trawler fled of a coast guard vessel, in Russian waters – with Norwegian inspectors on board. At the time, Russian authorities quickly arrested the captain and fired the inspectors. Bratbak hopes the same cooperation would happen today, but his confidence is a bit shaken by recent events.

“Nowadays, Russia can use other methods to negotiate. As in the Ukrainian conflict, it is ready to use power (more) than talk,” he says.

Critical climate work is on hold

As a founding member of NATO, the Norwegian government joined the rest of Europe in isolating Russia. But as a country bordering Russia, it feels the effects more immediately than others – in everything from Arctic climate action and nuclear waste control to cross-border trade and regional sports leagues. .

Tromso, Norway

/ Nora Lorek for NPR

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Nora Lorek for NPR

Tromso, Norway

Protection of the crystal clear waters of the Arctic, as well as the cod fleet mentioned by Captain Bratbak, is the responsibility of an international group called the Arctic Council. The rotating chair of this group is currently Russia, and as such the council has suspended all activities, including crucial climate change research.

“It’s not something you can report that failed today, but it’s happening,” says Kim Holmen of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, where the Arctic Council normally coordinates the research. .

Russia has about half of the world’s Arctic landmass, including permafrost which, if melted, could release megatons of trapped carbon and greenhouse gases.

Scientists like Holmen rely on collaboration with their Russian colleagues.

“We have joint publications. We collected data together. We did each other’s cruises. I went to people in St. Petersburg, good friends,” he says.

Scientists like Kim Holmen, from the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, count on the collaboration of their Russian colleagues.

/ Nora Lorek for NPR

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Nora Lorek for NPR

Scientists like Kim Holmen, from the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, count on the collaboration of their Russian colleagues.

Holmen is not in contact with these friends at this time. He’s worked on the Arctic for more than 30 years, and he says the lesson from Soviet times is that communication will only get them in trouble, delaying their return to work.

“Polar scientists are used to the cold,” says Holmen. “We hope and wish to resume when it thaws.”

“We see the iron curtain return”

For the residents of the border town of Kirkenes, their world has changed overnight.

Guro Brandshaug is CEO of the Kirkenes Conference, an annual business summit between Russia and Norway. It was the 14th year that the event had taken place and, on a weeknight in February, everything started relatively normally.

“On Wednesday the 23rd, I welcomed our foreign minister and the Russian ambassador,” says Brandshaug.

With Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, she said, it was tense. But Kirkenes is a city built on friendly relations with Russia, and Brandshaug says no one he knew thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would actually invade.

“And then we woke up in the morning of the 24th,” she says. “The Russians had started bombing Ukraine. It was a huge shock. People were actually crying.”

A nuclear waste dump poses a constant threat

“Everything that has been built in the last 30 years has been swept away in days. We see the Iron Curtain coming back,” says Thomas Nilsen with the Barents Observer Kirkenes newspaper.

The new Iron Curtain severed personal ties, economic ties and even scuttled issues of mutual survival, says Nilsen. For years, Norway has helped Russia safely dispose of spent fuel rods from its aging nuclear submarines, which were stationed in the Arctic.

At a station in Svanvik Park, scientist Bredo Moller takes air samples for the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.

“We are a kind of nuclear watchdog on the border with Russia,” he says. “That’s more or less what we’re here for, to monitor what’s happening on the other side of the border, a few miles away.”

It refers to one of largest nuclear waste dumpsacross the border, where tons of trash from Russian power plants and aging submarines pose a constant threat, either as a contaminant to arctic marine life or as material in a dirty bomb terrorist.

Moller says that last November Norway celebrated 25 years of cooperation on nuclear cleanup, and he traveled to Murmansk in Russia for a celebration with his colleagues.

“I have a lot of friends in Murmansk, shaking their heads like me, waiting for this to end,” he says.

The Norwegian Coast Guard is part of the Royal Norwegian Navy and has some policing power.

/ Nora Lorek for NPR

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Nora Lorek for NPR

The Norwegian Coast Guard is part of the Royal Norwegian Navy and has some policing power.

Moller relies on these colleagues to continue the work of rescuing the Arctic from nuclear contamination. And he’s sure his friends oppose the war in Ukraine just like him – they just can’t talk right now. But it is chilling that many local officials across the border, as well as 700 university rectors and presidents in Russia, have issued strong statements in support of Putin. And that has Moller worried that even that vital work may not resume soon.

“It will take many, many years, I’m afraid, to regain that confidence that we have gained over these 25 years of cooperation. So, yes, it’s a scary time,” he says.

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