Russian soldiers tested equipment used by Norwegian border guards and participated in a friendly athletic contest at the day-long exchange, which took place at an army garrison near Kirkenes.
Military officials from both countries said the event is part of a larger effort to strengthen cross-border relations along the 196-kilometer border that separates Norway and Russia.
“During the Cold War there was no cooperation at all,” said Norwegian Border Guard Battalion Commander Jan Erik Haug, who organized the exchange. “Now we’ve opened up.”
Border relations have improved steadily since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The flow of goods between Murmansk and Kirkenes has increased, and illegal immigration between the two countries is almost nonexistent; through August, there were just 10 attempted illegal border crossings from Russian into Norway, according to Haug.
And Russian and Norwegian residents who live within 30 kilometers of the border can now travel freely between the two countries, under a 2011 agreement that went into effect last May.
But this year’s exchange comes at a time when border tensions between the two countries seem to be on the rise.
Last month, Russia began the construction of a second barbed wire fence that will run parallel to an existing fence along a northern section of the border near the checkpoint at Borisoglebsk.
The militarized zone-style fence is rarely seen along borders outside of a conflict zone, and is especially unusual given the region’s history. Norway is the only one of Russia’s 14 neighboring countries that has not gone to war with Russia or the Soviet Union.
On Friday, Russian FSB officials said the project and other new security measures — including the deployment of a drone that will patrol the border — are intended to stop illegal immigrants and Norwegian bears, among other animals, from crossing the border.
Still, the new fence represents a marked shift from 2006, when then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a visit to Oslo that relations between the two countries had improved enough for Russia to begin removing guards from the border.
Norway, for its part, is also taking steps to modernize its presence along the border, with the construction of two high-tech border stations that will replace six smaller posts that were built in the 1950s. The new stations are set to open by 2016.
Haug said the new stations are long overdue, and were not planned as a response to Russia’s recent border activity. “It’s not getting more and more tense,” Haug said.
His Russian counterpart at the exchange, Colonel Vitaliy Vasiljevich Mikhailov, also downplayed the changes taking place on the border.
“We understand Norway better now,” Vasiljevich said. “We’ve been more open with each other and more trusting.”