The new cold front in Russia’s information war
Early in the day on December 5, 2017, Frode Berg — a 62-year-old pensioner and former border guard from Norway — posted a photo of a snow-covered Red Square on his Facebook page with the caption “Christmas Time in Moscow!”
Berg had left his home in Kirkenes, a Norwegian town of about 3,500 people near the country’s 121-mile Arctic border with Russia, a day earlier for a weekend trip to the Russian capital to visit friends and do some Christmas shopping. But he never returned.
Berg was arrested by agents from Russia’s F.S.B., the successor agency to the K.G.B., who said they found an envelope on him holding 3,000 euros in cash. They accused him of involvement in an elaborate spying operation, dating back to 2015, to obtain information about Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet in the far north.
Ten months later, Berg remains incarcerated in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison, still not officially charged, but facing the possibility of 20 years in jail. Relations between Russia and Norway — a NATO member — have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War. But many suspect there’s another level to this Arctic spy drama, and that Russia may have been just as interested in sowing distrust and divisions in its Nordic neighbor —prompted partly by the deployment of U.S. troops there — as closing down any spying on its undersea activities.
Moreover, there are new signs that the Cold War-style conflict is escalating. Recently Britain announced that it was sending 800 marine commandos to Norway (its equivalent to the U.S. Marines) and setting up a small Arctic base there as part of a wider strategy aimed at curbing Russian military maneuvers in the far north. The Russian embassy in London called the plans “unjustified” and that they would contribute to unnecessary tensions between the two countries.
Whatever the case, the fallout from Berg’s arrest has been a wake up call, making clear that the blurred battle lines of the information war between Russia and the West have now spread to the Arctic Circle — and even to a place where the emphasis has long been on working together.
The blurred battle lines of the information war between Russia and the West have now spread to the Arctic Circle
A large banner with Berg’s face and the words “Help Frode home!” hangs in the center of Kirkenes, serving as a daily reminder. But travel around the town, and the signs of cooperation are everywhere — literally, with place names in both Norwegian and Russian. Many local residents speak Russian as well as Norwegian.
In the harbor, fishing boats with Russian and Norwegian flags unload the day’s catch. Every day, buses bring Russian shoppers across the border to stock up on Western goods, thanks to a visa-free travel deal for local residents. Norwegians go the other way to fill up on cheap gasoline.
It’s the product of years of effort by both sides, since the end of the Cold War, to forge deeper relations at this local level, independent of geopolitics. And it’s been a useful boost to the economy in Kirkenes and the surrounding Finnmark county region. Berg — a retired border guard — had long been active in building these ties, volunteering in rural Russia and organizing a series of cross-border festivals.
So his arrest left many in Kirkenes wondering how a pensioner who had devoted his retirement to building closer ties with Russia could have become entangled in a cross-border espionage plot.
The F.S.B. has said little about the case, and Berg’s lawyers have had limited access to their client. But, according to the few details that have trickled out, he was allegedly mailing envelopes with cash and spying instructions to a woman called Natalia in Moscow, in return for information about Russia’s nuclear submarines in the Kola Peninsula. During an appearance in a Moscow court in February, reporters were granted the rare opportunity to ask him questions afterwards, and a tearful Berg complained that he felt “really misused” by his handlers.
The unusual access led to speculation that the display was part of a deliberate plan to amplify Berg’s impactful comments back in Norway and spark anger towards Norwegian intelligence at home for mistreating a citizen.
This spring, Berg himself added a new layer of intrigue when he admitted, through his lawyer, that he had actually been working with Norwegian military intelligence. But he said that he had only worked as a courier, and had been misled about the operation’s scope and purpose.
When his comments reached northern Norway, it sparked a backlash towards the government down south in Oslo and the intelligence agency — particularly among his fellow Kirkenes residents. The mood was further inflamed when it emerged that other people in Finnmark county had been approached and asked to serve as couriers to and from Russia.
“Everyone thought this must be some kind of mistake at first, but as people have learned more, that has changed to frustration with the intelligence service,” said Luba Kuzovnikova, the director of “Pikene på Broen,” a Kirkenes-based art organization focused on cross-border exchanges where Berg was a board member.
The case has turned into “a trial for the Norwegian people,” she said, “on how much trust they will have for their government.”
The Mayor of Kirkenes, Rune Rafaelsen, has known the retiree for decades, and is increasingly concerned about his health. He describes Berg as “a small fish” caught up in a larger game. But he has been trying to navigate a middle course, calling for his release and chastising the intelligence services for its efforts to sign up local people. Yet Rafaelsen has no illusions about Russia, and defends the intelligence agency’s work.
“They shouldn’t have recruited Frode and there is real frustration up here with Oslo and its bad line with Russia,” Rafaelsen said. “But that doesn’t mean we are clueless, we’ve all felt the change next door.”
With as many questions swirling around the case as answers, some veteran observers of border relations have concluded that Berg is being used as part of a wider Russian strategy to stir discord and doubt. “There is something missing and there is definitely more to this than we’re being told,” said Thomas Nilsen, the editor of the Kirkenes-based “Independent Barents Observer,” which publishes in English and Russian.
Why, he asked, would a spy operation rely on mailing envelopes of cash through the notoriously unreliable Russian postal system? And if the Russians really had unravelled an operation dating back three years, why had there been no news of any other arrests, or anyone being punished?
So far, the Norwegian government has done little to fill this information vacuum, largely staying quiet about Berg’s case. The Defense Ministry, which oversees the military intelligence agency, declined to comment, and the Foreign Ministry said only that the country will continue to “provide assistance” to Berg during his imprisonment.
Lt. Col. Tormod Heier, a former military intelligence officer, doubts theories that the Russians have set up Berg as part of some wider attempt to spread discord in the region, fearing instead that it’s the result of sloppy tradecraft.
“Norway’s intelligence service is a world leader when it comes to technical intelligence, but we are relatively inexperienced in human intelligence,” said Heier. “[Berg’s] case looks very amateurish to me. It looks like we were caught while trying something outside our core competence.”
Another theory about Berg’s arrest has come from a Russian singer who used to tour Norway and other Scandinavian countries. But Vladimir Martynenko’s career was cut short after he refused to comply with F.S.B. requests to provide information about his contacts while on the road, leading to a two-year jail sentence in Russia.
Now released and living abroad, Martynenko has said that he believes Berg was likely targeted by Russian security officials looking to garner the prestige of capturing a foreign spy, regardless of his true operational value.
Whatever the case, Norwegian security experts say it gives the Russian intelligence services the upper hand. “The FSB is certainly using this to undermine Norwegian intelligence and police,” said Lt. Col. Geir Hagen Karlsen, director of Strategic Communication and Psychological Operations at the Norwegian Defense University College
“It looks like the Russians are testing us,” agreed John Faerseth, author of a book on disinformation and conspiracy theories in Norway. “I wouldn’t say they’ve been overly successful so far, but it seems like they’re probing to see what kind of reaction they can get.”
Nilsen, the Barents Observer editor, knows from first-hand experience that for all the close border ties, Russia is far from a close friend. Despite the visa-free travel deal, he was barred from entering Russia last year — he believes for running articles critical of Russian foreign policy, which were also published in Russian.
And in the absence of a fuller picture, Nilsen believes that Berg’s case is having a corrosive impact. “It certainly creates some anger towards Oslo by painting the government as jeopardizing cross-border ties.”
The effects have rippled further, helping to aggravate divisions within Norway over wider policy towards Russia. Though it is not a member of the European Union, Oslo has backed sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to its annexation of Crimea in 2014. But there is growing support for a softer line, especially in the northern border regions. And even before the Berg case erupted, there were signs that Russia was trying to stoke such sentiment.
As Moscow sees it, the government in Oslo is taking an increasingly confrontational stance —belying its support for closer ties in the north. It’s not just unhappy at its continued support for sanctions and its role in conducting surveillance for NATO, but also its decision last year to allow U.S. Marines to be stationed on its soil.
Officially, they are there for training purposes, but it’s the first foreign force to be based in Norway since World World II — and a response to Russia’s more aggressive posture both in the region and further afield. The Norwegian Defense Ministry recently announced that the deployment would be more than doubled, to 700 U.S. troops, and moved further north, closer to the border with Russia.
The Russian embassy in Oslo responded with a sharp rebuke when the decision was first announced, warning that it would contribute to “rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.” Plans for Norway to host a major NATO military exercise later this year involving 40,000 personnel have added further strain, with the Russian Foreign Ministry saying it reserves the right to take “due countermeasures.”
Their presence could “trigger an arms race, destabilizing northern Europe.” Russian embassy statement on U.S. Marine deployment to Norway
Simultaneously, Kremlin-controlled media outlets have been targeting Norway, and the divide between north and south in particular. A story carried by the RT network (formerly known as Russia Today) earlier this year pointedly declared that “Norway fails to find new buyers for its fish after losing Russian market,” making a direct link with the country’s support for sanctions.
Long before Berg’s arrest, the Sputnik news agency was also running multiple stories highlighting opposition to sanctions in northern Norway, painting the government as out of step with its citizens and a pawn in a U.S.-led confrontation with Moscow.
Rafaelsen, the mayor of Kirkenes, has also become a favorite subject in Sputnik’s information operation, with the agency cherry-picking his quotes to suit its agenda.
His continued support for dialogue with Russia, and rolling back E.U. sanctions, is just what they want to hear. Rafaelsen has also asked Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to invite Vladimir Putin to Kirkenes next year to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation by the Soviet Union.
What Sputnik’s writers ignore is that Rafaelsen also praises NATO, and welcomed LGBTQ activists from across the border to march in the annual pride parade — a clear snub to the homophobic atmosphere in Russia in recent years.
“They are definitely misusing me to fit their context,” Rafaelsen said. “But I also need to keep acting according to my own principles. I can’t start choosing my words based off what I think they will do with what I say.”
In an echo of the confrontational tactics of other Russian missions around the world, its vocal embassy in Oslo has also taken to calling out Norwegian media outlets and journalists that it deems too critical of Moscow, while at the same recommending fringe voices on the far-left and right.
Last year, the country’s Labor Party — currently in opposition but a staunch supporter of Norway’s NATO membership — was targeted by hackers, and the Norwegian authorities in an attack believed to have been orchestrated from Russia.
Moscow’s goal is “to deepen the cracks — and the crack between north and south in Norway is real.”
“Look at how these attempts have worked elsewhere,” pointed out Oystein Bogen, a Norwegian television journalist and author of a book entitled “Russia’s Secret War on the West.” Moscow’s goal, he said, is not to convince others “that it is doing good,” but “to deepen the cracks — and the crack between north and south in Norway is real.”
On a hill not far from the center of Kirkenes stands a monument commemorating the soldiers who liberated the region from the Nazis in 1944. The town was an important German naval base during World War II. It’s not American or British forces who are remembered here, though, but Soviet troops from the Red Army. Local “partisans” also worked closely with Soviet units to drive the Nazis out.
Celebrations of this shared history in the Finnmark region have grown more common in recent years. This summer, representatives of both countries inaugurated a memorial honoring the role of Norwegian partisans during World War II in Vardo, a town about 50 miles north of Kirkenes.
But once the Cold War took root, Moscow exploited these past ties, recruiting Norwegians to spy on its behalf. That in turn triggered mass surveillance by the Norwegian intelligence services, focusing on anyone suspected of Communist or left-leaning tendencies. Northern communities like Kirkenes faced particular scrutiny and harassment, increasing tensions with Oslo and creating deep distrust of the country’s intelligence services — a legacy that still exists today and has been inflamed by Berg’s case.
“The trauma of the Cold War is a wound that still hasn’t fully healed in Norwegian society,” said Hilde Korsaeth, a local filmmaker and director of “For All Our Fathers Fought,” a documentary about Norwegian partisans fighting with Soviet troops in World War II.
“The trauma of the Cold War is a wound that still hasn’t fully healed in Norwegian society,” said Hilde Korsaeth, Norwegian filmmaker
In 1996, a parliamentary commission declared the surveillance had been illegal and that some of those targeted were entitled to compensation.
“No one wants those days to come back,” said Kirkenes pastor Torbjorn Brox Webber, who is also a member of a support group for Berg. “In a situation where people are talking about a new Cold War rising up, we shouldn’t let the big politics in Oslo put up more fences here.”
This view reflects wider public opinion in the north. A poll conducted last year by Norway’s “Klassekampen” newspaper found that 76 percent of northern residents — and 81 percent in Finnmark county — wanted the government to do more to improve relations with Moscow.
In late August, Ragnhild Vassvik, the leader of Finnmark county council, called on Oslo to stop enforcing E.U. sanctions on Russia. She has also resisted plans for regional boundary changes for fear it would hamper closer ties with Russia.
In the meantime, Berg remains a pawn in this complex game of information chess, where the moves are never entirely clear. This July, a Moscow judge prolonged his pre-trial detention, and earlier this week it was extended yet again, until December.
Brynjulf Risnes, Berg’s Norwegian lawyer, said he believes his client’s best hope of being released is through a prisoner exchange. That was wishful thinking until recently, because Norway had no one in custody that the Russians would be interested in.
But earlier this month, the Norwegian police arrested a Russian citizen on suspicion of spying at a parliamentary event, giving Oslo a potential new card to play. Risnes said that the arrest increases the chances for progress in securing Berg’s release, but cautioned that “we still know far too little about this new case to assess the real possibilities for an exchange.”
Kirkenes Mayor Rafaelsen is well aware of the stakes. Preserving close ties with their Russian neighbors is a priority for the people in northern Norway, but the region is also becoming a battleground in the wider fight for hearts and minds. As Berg’s trial looms, that fight looks set to continue.
“I’m not naive. For Russia and the F.S.B., this is fantastic. They have broken Frode and will use it for propaganda,” said Rafaelsen. “They are just warming up. Wait until the trial starts.”
This article was co-published in collaboration with our editorial partner Foreign Policy
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