CONFLICTS IN THE BARENTS REGION
By Lars Gyllenhaal
In the early 21st century the Barents Euro-Arctic Region may be viewed as one of the most peaceful on the planet. However, the region has not been excluded from violent struggle, and has even seen full-scale modern warfare. There are still plenty of traces from the Second World War in the frontier areas. The following summary will give you an idea of the major conflicts that have plagued the Barents Region during the second millennium. See also the Conflict Histography in the Barents region.
COLONISATION AND ETHNICAL STRUGGLE
Until the 13th century the presence of nation states within the region was negligible. This was uncharted territory totally without borders, taxation, conscription and other traits of nation states. Besides the indigenous, mostly nomadic, peoples of the region only small groups of hunters and fishermen from the Nordic countries and Novgorod lived within the region.
The indigenous peoples, such as the Sami and the Nenets, were only very gradually subjugated and thus there have been few "Indian Wars" within the region. However, eruptions of violence against ethnical groups and resistance has occurred, as recent research shows.
The struggle of the indigenous peoples of the region – for territory and rights - goes on, but now by non-violent means and with the support of multinational bodies such as the United Nations.
THE "EXPEDITION WARS"
During the 14th and 16th centuries military expeditions were sent from Karelia to Norway and vice-versa in attempts to dominate the region. It had become common knowledge that it was rich with fur, silver and fish. Both these military operations and the following ones, until 1918, were really small projects - as the military units of the time lacked the numbers, tools and provisions for prolonged warfare. Large-scale ground warfare in the Arctic was not yet technologically feasible.
In the late 16th century several Swedish raids were launched against northern Karelia and the Kola Peninsula. These territories were not fully integrated into the Russian sphere of control and their defences were weak. Sweden attempted to occupy them to fully control the trade between Russia and Western Europe. This aggressive policy was thwarted not least by the establishment in 1584 of the Russian port and town of Archangel, i.e. today’s city of Arkhangelsk, by the estuary of the river Dvina.
In 1854-55 the British Royal Navy attacked the northern coast of the Kola Peninsula and destroyed the undefended town of Kola. These actions were a consequence of the distant Crimean War.
WWI AND THE INTERVENTION IN NORTHERN RUSSIA
In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a wide-spread fear of Russia in Sweden. Large sections of the public and authorities, not least the military, were convinced that Tsarist Russia wanted to invade North Scandinavia to secure several ice-free ports to the Atlantic. A huge armament programme was set in motion and a lasting result is the fortress of Boden, "The Gibraltar of the North".
When World War One broke out in 1914 Russia did not, however, even attempt to invade Scandinavia. Instead Britain was allowed by Norway to supply Russia with vital goods via Arctic Norwegian ports. German sabotage in the Tornio valley in 1916-17 against these supply lines was largely unsuccessful.
Alas, no support from Britain could save the Russian Empire from its ultimate fate. In 1917 the inefficient, corrupt and war-weakened empire fell to pieces almost by itself. In 1918 British, US and French troops (with small contingents of other nationalities, even some Swedish volunteers) half-heartedly intervened in the Russian Civil War by occupying Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. After the collapse of Tsarist Russia, the Western Powers decided that they had to stop the millions of tons of war materiel stored in North Russia from falling into German hands. Some leaders of the Western Powers had a hidden agenda and also wished to overthrow the Russian communists, or Bolsheviks, as they were known at the time.
Initially the western expeditionary forces in North Russia received support from the local "red", then "white" (!) forces. But the latter, in the end, lost their public support and thus the western troops were forced to leave the region in late 1919 after having seen a lot of waiting but also some intense battles with all the latest tools of war including tanks and aircraft. As from 1920 the Russian parts of the Barents Region were fully in the control of the Russian Bolsheviks under Lenin.
In the Soviet Union, and also in today’s Russia, the occupation of North Russia in 1918-19 by western forces is a well-known fact and has naturally affected the way western policies – and westerners - are viewed.
The following website re. the strange and little-known (in the west) intervention of 1918-19 can be recommended: http://bentley.umich.edu/ .
As a consequence of the WWI fighting in Central Europe tens of thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war were brought to Karelia and ordered to construct the railway to Murmansk, which they accomplish in record time. Murmansk, due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream, was accessible for ships all year round.
WORLD WAR TWO
Both Hitler and Stalin suffered their first severe military set-backs in the Barents Region but also accomplished amazing feats in the history of warfare in this region.
The reasons for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland on the 30th of November 1939 are still being debated but what is clear is that at least from this date Stalin wished to install a puppet government in Helsinki. As a result of this war, the "Winter War", the Arctic Finnish border town of Salla was lost to the Red Army. The liberation of Salla thus became one of the aims of the Finnish government in 1941. The Winter War also greatly affected Nordic public opinion and almost 8 000 Swedes and 700 Norwegian volunteers arrived in North Finland in the winter of 1939-40. More information on them and the Winter War can be found here (in Swedish and English):
The next major event was the German invasion of Norway on the 9th of April 1940. One major goal was to seize the Arctic port of Narvik from which Germany received a major part of its vital Swedish iron ore. Although Norwegian and Allied troops successfully drove the German mountain rangers (mostly from the former state of Austria) up against the Swedish frontier they were stopped from defeating the German contingent by the Allied pull-out from Norway, caused by the fall of France. The following website on these events can be recommended (in English and Norwegian):
One of the major goals of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was to seize Murmansk and thus North Russia. But Hitler’s "victors of Narvik" were only able to advance a few kilometres beyond Finnish Petsamo before hitting a wall of stiff resistance. Here the Red Army held the line and the troop dispositions by the Barents Sea did not change much in three long years. This was the first major German set-back on the battlefields of WWII.
The successful Soviet defenders of Murmansk enabled the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk to operate at their full capacities during all the war. The following website describes the convoys of Allied weapons and goods that sailed to these ports:
Hitler decided that a railway should be built along the Norwegian coastline all the way to Kirkenes by the Finnish border (now Russian border). It would rival the railway from Central Russia to Murmansk. As the case had been with this line Hitler’s Arctic railway project would be realised by prisoners-of-war (POWs). Almost 90 000 Soviets POWs were brought to Norway, largely for the sake of this idea. Thousands of them perished in the attempt to construct the line, part of which was also completed and is today in use – the line from Mo to Bodø. The "Blood Road Museum" in Rognan has the following relevant website (in Norwegian, English and German):
After Finland had been forced to change sides in the war in September 1944 it was possible for the Red Army in the Arctic to break out and launch a massive offensive with over 130 000 men that steam-rolled from Finnish Petsamo to Norwegian Kirkenes. This gigantic military operation was launched on the 7th of October 1944 and was successfully completed two weeks later. The German troops in Finland and Arctic Norway were thus forced to attempt one of the most difficult retreats in the history of mankind. Against all logistical and climatic odds they accomplished this, and largely transferred the 200 000 German troops in the Arctic to South Norway and Central Europe. More information about the Arctic fighting of 1944-45 and what remains of it today, in the open, can be found here:
As a result of the military operations in 1944 Kirkenes was liberated by the Red Army. A bronze statue of a Soviet liberator still stands in central Kirkenes and the bright memories of the Soviets in Arctic Norway will burn brightly still for many years to come. Petsamo and Salla were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Petsamo is since 1944 again called Pechenga (a name from the times of the Russian Empire) and Salla is since that year only a ghost town. The Salla you find on modern maps is yesterday’s Märkäjärvi.
On their retreat from Finnish Lapland and north-eastern Norway the Germans burnt down most settlements and destroyed a large number of fishing vessels and other means of survival. This made Arctic Finland and Norway among the least hospitable places in Europe. The story of the harsh years of destruction and reconstruction is told by the Norwegian museum of Reconstruction in Hammerfest, which has the following website:
- Trails of war along the Barents Road - slide show and a guidebook the second world war in the Barents region, by Barents Road and Lars Gyllenhaal.
THE COLD WAR
Having twice seen North Russia invaded by western troops in the 20th century the Soviet government decided to make the Kola Peninsula into an impregnable fortress during the last 20th century conflict in the Arctic: the Cold War. The routes of aircraft, submarines and ballistic missiles also made Kola and Arctic Norway into a meeting-point of global significance. The amount of conventional and nuclear weapons based/stored here was truly staggering – the nuclear piles were second to none - and the environmental consequences of the Cold War will be with us for decades if not centuries yet to come.