KANDALAKSHA (Russia) • The flow of refugees and migrants along the Arctic route through Russia - first into Norway and later into Finland - is tiny. But the stop-go traffic has added a hefty dose of geopolitical anxiety, not to mention intrigue, to a crisis that is tearing the European Union (EU) apart. It has sent alarm bells ringing in Helsinki, Finland's capital far to the south, and in Brussels, where EU leaders, at recent crisis meetings on migration, discussed the strange and ever-shifting Arctic route through Russia.
The intrigue flows from a growing suspicion in the West that Russia is stoking and exploiting Europe's migrant crisis to extract concessions, or perhaps crack EU unity over economic sanctions imposed against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Only one of the EU's 28 member states needs to break ranks for a regime of credit and other restrictions to collapse.
"Unfortunately, this looks like a political demonstration by Russia," said Mr Ilkka Kanerva, Finland's former foreign minister and now the chairman of its parliamentary defence committee. "They are very skilful at sending signals. They want to show that Finland should be very careful when it makes its own decisions on things like military exercises, our partnership with Nato and European Union sanctions (against Russia)," he said.
Unlike the flow of refugees and migrants into Greece by boat, in which the tempo is largely set by the weather in the Aegean Sea, the flow through Russia is almost entirely dependent on whether Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, opens or closes roads in a heavily militarised border region crammed with bases.
In the first two months of this year, nearly 800 asylum seekers crossed from Russia into Finland near Salla - a crossing point west of Kandalaksha - in the Finnish region of Lapland, compared with none in same period last year.
Mr Jorma Vuorio, the director- general of Finland's Migration Department, said he was surprised by the "completely new phenomenon" of asylum seekers arriving from Russia. But he said there "was no proof, just speculation", of involvement by the Russian state.
The traffic through the Arctic, which has involved few Syrians, began late last summer, when more than 5,000 migrants on bicycles suddenly poured across Russia's previously tightly controlled northern border into Norway.
But that cycle-borne flow ended abruptly on Nov 30, after the Russian authorities reintroduced tight controls just as Norwegian officials arrived in Moscow for talks on how to stem the flow.
The migrants' route then shifted southward to Russia's border with Finland, as Russian guards on roads to two Finnish border crossings stopped blocking travellers without visas.
Finland swiftly banned cycle traffic across its 1,335km border with Russia, allowing only people in cars to cross. This killed a booming market for old bicycles in Russia's far north, but created a new market for cheap and decrepit Russian cars with just enough life left in them to limp across the border to Finland.
Mr Vuorio said his Russian counterpart had informed him that Russia had more than 11 million foreigners living in its territory, a vast pool of potential migrants to Europe, but added that he doubted Moscow would allow a chaotic flood through sensitive border regions.
Criminal gangs, not officials, he added, seem to be largely responsible for managing the scale and direction of the migration through Russia. He said the last halt in the traffic was not the result of any deal struck by Finnish and Russian officials, who have been engaged in weeks of intensive discussions.
"Our only deal is that we have good relations," he said, bewildered by the stop-go flow. But that, said Mr Kanerva, is precisely Russia's aim - to keep Finland off balance and thus wary of making any move towards Nato or making other decisions that would anger Moscow.
Noting that Russia had shown itself adept in Ukraine at so-called hybrid warfare, the use of non- military tools to pursue its goals, he said migrants "are part of a broader strategy".
"They want to make us nervous and pay attention to their interests," he added.
NEW YORK TIMES