15 May 2020

Amateurism or a new cold war at the northern border of NATO?

Liviu Ioniţă

A few days ago, the most popular newspaper in Norway (Aftenposten) was claiming that it discovered that three members of Russia’s embassy to Oslo are agents of GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. The reveal takes places half a year after a Norway citizen, accused for espionage by Moscow, returned home and after a few months since the Norwegian intelligence services’ estimation was pointing out to the Russians as being the main threat against their national security.For both cases – the Norwegian espionage in Russia and the Russian spies to Oslo – the story (with the current data in the media) may raise some questions on the Northern intelligence’s abilities. The statements from the official documents of the secrete services, however, cannot be doubted. This is also the reason why we must ask ourselves: is this a proof of amateurism or is it a new cold war on the Northern flank of Europe?

Image source: ProfiMedia

“GRU got bigger”

 This is the conclusion of a media investigation made by Aftenposten, which belongs to the Norwegian media trust Schibsted. It recently published a material which was claiming that three diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Oslo were connected to GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency.

“One of three diplomats from Russia’s embassy to Oslo works in intelligence. GRU got bigger”.

Newspaper’s investigation leads to an address: Horoshevskoe Shosse 76 B. GRU’s headquarter.

“Meanwhile they were leaving Moscow for Oslo, three Russian diplomats left some tracks which were leading to one of the highest tracked offices of Russia”. Officially, they say, they got to Oslo as “peaceful diplomats”. In “fact”, they are “associated” with the Russian intelligence.

The information is from newsinenglish.no, which comes along with the statement of the chief of counterespionage from the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), Hanne Blomberg, according to who “we can state that the Russia’s intelligence service and also those from other countries are using their embassy as coverage for their intelligence officers”. Also, she says that “Aftenposten found three”, but “the number of intelligence officers working in Norway is way bigger”.

“Worried” that some Norwegians are not aware that “diplomats are, also, spies”, Hanne Blomberg states also that: what they want is “contact with individuals”, who eventually become “sources, to get information that they could not get on their own”, attempting to “influence the decisional processes”. Having diplomatic immunity, “they can work quite freely in Norway as intelligence officers”, risking one thing only “to be discovered and sent home”.

The website quotes, also, “the intelligence experts” Mark Galeotti, professor at the University College London/ it is a “high possibility” for the three diplomats to be GRU agents, the professor Thomas Wegener Friis, from Syddansk University in Denmark / Aftenposten used “credible sources” as well as the Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, specialist in secrete services, the creator of agentura.ru website / “I cannot imagine that an experienced diplomat is enlisted with an address to GRU’s headquarter”.

In the Russian Embassy’s response to Afternposten, they talk about the three diplomats the newspaper refers to as to the “best in the embassy”, as they “are working actively for good neighbourly relations between our countries”. According to the embassy, the “databases” the Afternposten refers to in their investigation “are often unreliable or obtained by hackers”, and the agency “was contributing to the spread of unreliable, false or illegally obtained information”.

The newsinenglish.no material, which took the Aftenposten reveal, belongs to the American journalist Nina Berglund. Editor of the Norwegian news website in English, Nina Beglund graduated the journalism school at the University Northwestern Chicago and, before establishing to Oslo, she worked for various publications in the US, among them the USA Today. In an interview from 2012, Nina Berglund was making a distinction between the US journalism and the Norway one: “I came from a real bulldog-type, aggressive journalistic culture and found the newsrooms so much quieter here. There's more consensus and less confrontation”.

It seems that’s consensus also now, when the Aftenposten newspaper, in Norwegian, the newsinenglish.no, in English, and, possibly, the Norwegian intelligence services in their own language – such as, the media statements ... almost truisms, made by the counterespionage leader –decided to reveal that three Russian diplomats are GRU officers.

Given these things, it is most likely a Norwegian services’ operation we are talking about, rather than an information leak to the media. Its purpose is almost impossible to be discovered.

A late and awkward response to the “Berg case”?

Frode Berg, a former worker at the Kirkenes border, a village near Norway’s border with Russia, was arrested in Moscow, in 2017, after a FSB operation, accused for espionage and convicted to 14 years in prison. He was freed, however, last year, and he returned to Norway, in November.

The attorneys stated that Berg was caught while having documents provided by a Russian police officer, Aleksei Jitniuk, who was also convicted. Berg was accused for collecting classified information about the Russian nuclear submarines in behalf of the Norwegian intelligence services and he was imprisoned to Kefortovo prison in Moscow.

Frode Berg denied the espionage accusations, but he admitted that he was delivering information to the Norwegian intelligence agencies, without knowing that he was getting classified documents. His wife stated for BBC that she blames her country’s intelligence service for putting her husband – a civilian –in danger.

At the 75 years celebration since the liberation by the Soviet troops, in 1944, of Kirkenes (Berg’s district) and the rest of the Eastern area of Finnmark, lead, in November 2019, to the first spies exchange between Moscow, Vilnius and Oslo: the Russians Nickolay Filipchenko and Sergey Moisejenko, Lithuanians Evgeni Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis, and the Norwegian Frode Berg.

When he returned to his country, Frode Berg stated, in a media conference: “I was convicted for espionage, but I am not a spy; I feel like I was bilked by E-tjenesten, the Norwegian secrete service”.

In February, this year, Frode Berg received from the Norwegian state 4,3 million krones  (around 400.000 euro) as a compensation, a gesture he thought of as a recognition of the authorities  that they were wrong.

Also then, Frode presented himself as a witness in the process the Norwegian company Olen Betong Gruppen AS started against the government. The company said the Norwegian secrete services tried for years to recruit its Murmansk employees, which lead, to espionage allegations from Russia against the company. The CEO Atle Berge was imprisoned, in 2016, by FSB and he was prohibited to enter Russia until 2026 and another employee, Kurt Sto, was expelled from Russia and, also, he cannot enter the country.

Thinking that the secrete services and their “amateur” attempts are responsible for significant financial loses and that there would be a connection between the Berg and Olen Betong cases, the company asked for a compensation of around 14,5 million euro.

An Oslo court has acquitted, however, the Norwegian state and, although they have recognized the contact between the intelligence services and company’s employees, the court concluded that there was "no basis for liability for E-tjenesten or PST, neither objectively nor on the basis of negligence”.

The Telegraph called the situation “the unprecedented legal case had led to speculation that some of the top spies in Norway's Intelligence agency, NIS, may have more in common with Johnny English - the bumbling fictional spy played by Rowan Atkinson - than James Bond”.

The same Mark Galeotti, who was commenting for Aftenposten about the spy diplomats, was saying for The Telegraph “it is at least embarrassing for the Norwegians... to reveal details about procedures and methods the Russian would be glad to hear about”.

Or maybe there is something going on at the Northern border of NATO

Norway – a North-Atlantic Alliance member – shares an arctic border with Russia and, for ten years, their bilateral relations were friendly, even during the Cold War, however, they have worsen in 2014, when Russia captured Crimea.

In the last couple of years, Russia concerned its neighbour, launching military exercises and provoking concerns on its submarines capacity to threats the underwater data wires. The increasing presence of Russia in the Arctica was, also, another anxiety source for Norway. The Kola Peninsula hosts the Russian nuclear submarines, and Kremlin founded more military bases along the Northern coast and reopened Artica’s military installations from the Soviet Era.

The Norwegian Intelligence Service's "Focus 2020" report, one of the four assessments published annually (the others are issued by the Police Security Service, the National Security Authority and the Social Security Directorate), presents an analysis of Norway's security challenges, indicating Russia and China as the biggest threats to Norwegian interests.

"Russian and Chinese intelligence services are moving in a more authoritarian direction, Russia and China are in constant conflict with the United States and parts of the West."

The assessment shows that the general message conveyed by the Russian media is that "Norway is increasingly taking on the role of host and starting point for NATO's militarization in the Arctic".

The report states that, in order to meet this alleged challenge, Russia is building "active defense", a concept launched by Valeri Gerasimov, head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. An active defense involves “an emphasis on high availability, mobility, strong coordination and the ability to launch massive firepower. Russian services are conducting operations in Norway in order to gain knowledge about northern Norway - defense policies, military infrastructure and allied activity”.

Colonel Geir Hågen Karlsen, a professor of strategic communication at the Norwegian Defense College, also thinks like the Norwegian intelligence services: Russian secret services use the Frode Berg case to create a dispute in Norway, undermining the intelligence service and the SGP, generating mistrust between Norwegian citizens and the secret services.

But Julie Wilhelmsen, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy, has a different view: "Look at how the arms race took place - how both sides' claims about the other, a threat and subsequent armor, have spiraled into that everyone's security was diminished".

According to her, the analysis of the security service regarding Russia's aggressive defense is "a little one-sided", although "there are reasons to trust" in the Norwegian service and "much of what is presented is, of course, correct". Obviously, Norway needs to strengthen its defenses, but “it is unfortunate to do so by attracting something that Russia fears the most, namely the US military installations closer to their border. They are not US troops, but they are American bases on Norwegian soil, for the first time. The Norwegian intelligence service "should not contribute to strengthening Russia's conservative agenda", namely that part of the Russian political establishment that is not interested in advocating for a normal security relationship with the West.

In Kirkenes, Berg’s city, not far from Norway’s border with Russia, the daily life is the same. The Russians are going to Norway to get food like the Norwegian salmon, French cheese and Finish dairy products, meanwhile the Norwegian go to Russia for cheaper fuel.

But, are the relations between these two states the same?

English version by Andreea Soare