But now all of that is in jeopardy. Russia has rattled its neighbor in recent years, launching military exercises with little or no warning, carrying out a simulated bombing run on a radar station in northeastern Norway, and raising concerns about its submarines’ ability to threaten undersea data cables. Intelligence officials in Oslo have also said that Russian spy operations in Norway have increased. Russia’s growing military presence in the Arctic has also been a source of anxiety for Norway. The Kola peninsula, located just across the border from Norway, is home to nuclear submarines, and the Kremlin has set up a string of bases along its northern coast and reopened older Soviet-era military facilities in the Arctic.
“We don’t see Russia as a military threat to Norway, but some of its activities give us real concern,” Frank Bakke Jensen, Norway’s defense minister, told me. He said that Russia’s assertiveness isn’t simply directed towards Oslo, but against NATO as a whole, making Norway a frontline target as the bloc’s northernmost member. (The presence of some 300 U.S. Marines for cold-weather training has also made Moscow nervous.) In response, the current government has increased defense spending after years of cuts, while projecting a larger military footprint near its arctic border with Russia. “[Russia] knows we are NATO in the north,” Jensen said, “so we are trying to be predictable and reliable, and in a way add some stability to the situation.”
As Oslo continues to toe the line with Moscow, the Berg case is likely to increase distrust. Lars Georg Fordal, the head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes, which funds cooperation projects with Russia on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, told me that Berg’s case has generated anxious inquiries from local residents. But he said that despite the tough climate, people-to-people ties are still intact. “This might be the coldest point since the Cold War,” Fordal said. “But cooperation continues and it will go on.”
In Kirkenes, daily life in many ways remains unchanged, despite the shadow cast by Berg’s case. Russians cross into Norway to stock up on sanctioned European food items like Norwegian salmon, French cheese, and Finnish dairy products, while Norwegians go to Russia to fuel their cars with cheaper gas. But the scars left from Berg’s arrest and the growing geopolitical pressure can now be seen.
“People get scared, and scared people on both sides of the border will be more circumspect in regards to traveling and making contacts,” Thomas Nilsen, the editor of the Kirkenes-based Independent Barents Observer, told me. Nilsen helped promote cross-border ties, mostly by organizing media exchanges with Russian journalists. But in March 2017 he was banned from entering Russia. He believes it was in retaliation to critical articles he wrote about Russian military activities in the north.
Like many Norwegians near the border with Russia, Nilsen believes in Norway’s ongoing experiment in building cross-border ties. But in the wake of Berg’s arrest, ongoing military saber-rattling, and deepening distrust, he remains increasingly skeptical if those ties can fully survive. “Maybe this isn’t another Cold War,” he said. “But the growing distrust and military posturing feels similar.”